Desperately seeking contactless credit cards

Lately I have become obsessed with contactless credit cards. This started about a year ago, when I was in London and tried to pay for a sandwich with my American credit card. I thought I was in the clear since it was a card with an embedded chip. This is a technology that is still so new in the States that many card terminals still can’t read these cards, despite regulations that have required merchants use them for several years. At what I would call the deli in London, my card didn’t work: the only way to pay was either pounds – the money version — or using a contactless card.

Contactless is big in the UK, as I found out – and probably in many places all over the world too. We are often the last to adopt new banking tech in America, despite our prowess in other areas. You can pay for your train ticket with contactless, and in many other vending machines, as an example. It made me feel like I was coming from a third-world country with my shiny new chip-enabled credit card.

But all wasn’t lost: I quickly figured out that I could use my phone and Apple Pay, and I could eat my sandwich. All you need to do is load your normal credit card into your Apple Wallet and you are good to go. Are the two the same? Not completely, but generally at a credit card terminal in the States you’ll see these two icons side by side, indicating that both Apple Pay and contactless cards are accepted:

Why the need for contactless? It is all about security: since your card never leaves your grubby hands, no one can surreptitiously steal its information. Yes, a hacker could monitor the radio frequencies around the card reading equipment, but that is a lot harder and more expensive problem to solve than a waiter carrying a portable card reader in their pocket to collect data from a bunch of cards.

Back in London, just in case, I made a trip to the local ATM, and got some pounds. But it bugged me that I didn’t have an actual contactless card. That got me started into looking for a bank that offered them. I quickly found myself down the rabbit hole of poorly designed banking websites and quickly got frustrated, so I dropped the project.

Then three things happened last week that renewed my interest in contactless cards. First, I began reading more about the latest card skimming exploits and particularly from criminals targeting gas stations. These skimmers are small devices that are placed literally over the card reader at the pump and collect your account information from the magnetic strip on the back of your card. The criminal then collects this data and sells it to others. Brian Krebs writes frequently about skimmers, if you want to read more.

I thought it might be useful to find local gas stations that use Apple Pay to better protect myself. Unfortunately, this became Another Project at searching poorly designed banking websites. For example, here are two that can help you locate contactless merchants: Square has this page for Apple Pay-enabled merchants and Mastercard has this page for merchants who accept contactless cards.

If you start looking around when you get gas, you will see few pumps that support contactless, with one estimate that there are less than one percent of them in the US that are currently accepting contactless payments.

I was once again motivated to go contactless especially when I heard that Apple Card was now available. This is a contactless credit card offered through Apple and Goldman Sachs. It doesn’t even have its card number printed on it. Instead, it is designed to operate with your iPhone’s Apple Wallet. Apple has done its usual great job when it comes to the experience of applying for and getting a credit line. This took me about three minutes. Maybe less, I wasn’t really timing it. What makes it so fast is that Apple already has most of the information it needs for your application, which is for another story. And while the Apple Card has its issues (you can’t do joint cards with your spouse, for example) it is an interesting concept.

While I was getting my Apple Card I saw that a new type of bank branch opened in my neighborhood from Commerce Bank. The branch is the first one that has a fancy new type of ATM that also includes a video conferencing link with a banker. I made an appointment to go visit the branch and talk to a banker about what they offered. One of the reasons I also wanted to talk to them is because Commerce offers contactless cards on all of its credit and debit cards. Needless to say, it took longer than three minutes to apply for one in person.

So now I have lots of contactless options. I am certainly ahead of the curve here at home: it is easy to find stores that don’t accept them more than those that do. But at least the next time I am in London, I will be able to pay for my sandwich.

12 thoughts on “Desperately seeking contactless credit cards

    • You can’t get Apple Pay if you run Android. End of story. But Google Pay is available for anyone, for Android and for Chrome browsers too.
      Other Apple Pay downsides: no paper statements, or any way to access your purchases other than thru the Wallet iPhone app.

  1. I still do not understand how the government can “require” merchants to comply with PCI regulations and then not enforce it. Even the U.S. Post Office doesn’t take chip cards, at least in my area. Are merchants being fined for non-compliance? I was responsible for converting a merchant over to the new technology. We did it as soon as it was available. The PCI rules indicate you cannot store card numbers. Then how did the hacks at many box store garner millions of card numbers and why weren’t they fined for violating PCI regulations?

  2. I have been using google pay for years. They have improved it over the years, and since this story included London, you can use Google Pay on the tube. I have done it my last 2 trips this year, and other subways in the USA are now taking it. It is much nicer then getting a ticket IMO, and they won’t charge you more than the max for an all day pass, no matter how much you ride.

    Although most clerks don’t know it, if their terminal takes NFC and has the symbol, it will take any NFC payment they process. No one just takes “Apple”, Google” or “Samsung”, they take NFC or they don’t.

    That being said 2 (?) years ago my new Costco visa came with NFC.

  3. Why would you need yet another line of credit with apple if Apple Pay is already linked to your existing credit cards in your apple wallet? Unless of course you just want more credit or didn’t have any of your existing cards in your apple wallet? Benefits of adding?

  4. Terry Chapman writes: had similar issues years ago trying to travel in Europe with a credit card before US cards supported chip. Nothing like trying to fill up the rental car with gas at an automated station that only accepts chip cards…

    One thing that I think you missed a bit, is that in the UK contactless is more about speed of transaction than security. They have had chip cards with mandatory PINS and portable terminals that wait staff bring to the table for credit cards for years. Contactless was slow to take off in the UK because people were worried about security, since you did not have to enter a PIN for the transaction. Initially contactless transactions were limited to £20 (for any single transaction). That limit is now £30, but this just an artificial limit to ease people’s minds about the security of contactless cards. People now love the convenience of contactless, especially at high speed areas such as the underground and lunch counters but they have not embraced it wholesale yet.

  5. We need to discuss fees, especially if currency transactions are involved. The financial institutions are happy if we just think of the convenience and ignore the charges. Ideally, the charges would be lower than if you were traveling after having changed physical dollars to pounds at the bank. But I suspect that you might be paying more for the convenience.

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