There was a time, back around the latter half of the Twentieth Century where it was felt, primarily by Americans, that all the good stuff was invented and built in America. Like superhighways, though the Germans had built the autobahns first, in the Thirties, and unlike on superhighways, you can zoom along at a zillion miles an hour, or 1.6 zillion kilometers per hour, if you’re European and have accepted a rational scheme of measurement, like the metric system. Not that’s there’s anything wrong with clinging to the English system of measurement, especially if you’re going to be tithing the King a few hundredweight of barley, in lieu of this year’s taxes. Oh, wait.
Short history lesson. Americans invented the credit card. They started out as paper cards, which were easily duplicated, so eventually the banks moved to plastic with embossed numbers. Since these only took slightly more effort to counterfeit, the banks eventually added magnetic strips. And that’s where things are today in America. Europeans have decided to go a little further. They added a microchip to credit and debit cards. Instead of swiping the magnetic strip and then signing a receipt, you just insert the card, enter a PIN on the keyboard of the scanner, and you’re done. Thus, the name for these cards is Chip and PIN.
The advantages of the Chip and PIN system are, primarily that it’s much more secure than the old mag-strip. And it’s quicker and easier to use on a day-to-day basis, so easy, indeed, that it’s replacing the old system of swiping cards wholesale.
The photograph to the left (no, the other left) is example of what’s happening right now, here in London. Not the uncollected items policy. That’s another whole kettle of fish. And has anyone ever figured out why there should be another kettle of fish? Isn’t one kettle of fish enough? And for that matter, why would one want a kettle of fish in the first place? Personally, I’m pretty partial to a barrel of fish, it being easier to shoot the fish contained within, or so I’ve heard, not having had the opportunity to try this for myself. Plus, you never hear about anyone getting excited about shooting fish in a kettle.
As the photo above illustrates, retail and service establishments here are in the process of moving away from the old swipe-a-card deal. Granted, this particular establishment is in the heart of the City and probably doesn’t see many tourists. On the other hand, we’ve been repeatedly frustrated trying to use our regular credit cards even in tourist areas. The young people who normally staff stores and restaurants are sometimes unfamiliar with the old swipe and signing thing. Damn kids, and their not knowing what things were like before they were born and all. We had even taken to carrying our own pens with us so we could spare the clerks the effort of searching all over for a pen so we can sign the receipt.
This wouldn’t be any problem whatsoever, except for the fact that American banks, even multi-nationals that have branches here in London, do not offer a Chip and PIN card for US residents. There are a few minor, obscure banks offering a compromise called a Chip and Sign card, but like all compromises, it satisfies no one. You still have to print out a slip and sign it, and thus it’s no more secure than a mag-strip card. And it’s even less familiar to retail establishments.
So advice to the folks from the States coming to play here in London. Make sure you have lots and lots of cash in your checking account so you can withdraw plenty from the ATM’s. You’re going to need it. As time goes on, I expect we’ll see more and more signs like the one above.