NEWS ANALYSIS: A trial of EMV chip cards reveals an unacceptably high rate of failures that could compromise their adoption at U.S. retail outlets.
One of the store managers at a Walmart store in Fairfax, Va., stood next to me as we watched a sales transaction fail—again.
This was the third time I'd tried to pay for a phone charger using a debit card equipped with an EMV chip, and for the third time it failed. Each time the message on the screen of the point of sale (POS) terminal said the same thing, "Cancelled."
Next I slide my American Express card into the EMV slot on the terminal, and the sale went as it should have to complete the purchase of the charger I needed to replace the one that I'd left on a United Airlines 777 a few days before as I returned from Germany.
My EMV troubles actually started while on my Germany visit. A few days before my Walmart visit, I had to visit a T-Mobile store in Hannover, Germany, to replace a cell phone that had, in technical terms, "died." My EMV-equipped MasterCard had not been able to complete the purchase, although the error message was different from the one I experienced in my local Walmart (perhaps because it was in German instead of English).
Again, I was able to use an alternate card. This turned out to be a harbinger of future behavior as the chip and PIN card the bank had told me so confidently would work in Europe didn't actually work.
A second test in Germany came at the Frankfurt airport when my newly acquired EMV-equipped card failed in its critical mission of helping me obtain a particularly interesting single malt Scotch whiskey at the duty-free story. This time instead of saying it was canceled, the POS terminal just said the chip was invalid.
Fortunately, I'd taken several chip cards along on the trip to Hannover, so I had a backup that did work. But by the time I'd reached the Walmart to purchase the phone charger, I'd had occasion to try to use six different EMV-equipped cards, of which two failed to function as they should have. Both of the failed cards were of the chip and PIN variety.
Once I'd returned to the U.S., I called the banks about the problems with their respective cards, and in both cases the customer service representatives seemed unsurprised. One said that he'd experienced this problem before.
"This is what happens when the chip is defective," he'd explained while ordering a replacement card for me. At the other bank, the response was similar when the agent said he'd send the replacement even before I'd finished describing the failure.
While I don't have any numbers to prove it since the banks aren't sharing information about failure rates or related problems, it was clear from the response of the support staff that my experience wasn't rare or unusual.
During this time I heard from others via social media of similar problems at other stores. A friend of my daughter was having trouble using her chip card anywhere that accepted the card.