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Paris Transit: Buying RER and Metro tickets with an American credit card

Posted in: Paris Planning

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Entering the SNCF train station at Charles de Gaulle. Photo by Tom Meyers.
Entering the SNCF train station at Charles de Gaulle. Photo by Tom Meyers.

Arriving in Paris can be a wonderful experience. Certain aspects, however, can be quite frustrating—especially for travelers who arrive armed only with an American credit card.

Why? Because the RER (regional train) and Paris Metro ticket machines only accept “EC” credit cards that are security-chip enabled. American credit cards are not equipped with this technology and, for the most part, don’t work.

Getting into Paris from Charles de Gaulle Airport… with an American credit card

I think that the easiest (and most economical) way into Paris from Charles de Gaulle is the city’s regional train, the RER. The train departs several times an hour from train stations in Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 at CDG. The trip takes between 25-35 minutes to central Paris, depending on whether it’s running express or making local stops along the way.

RER tickets cost €8.20 per person, each way. Dozens of ticket machines are located in the airport terminals, making it (hypothetically) easy to grab a ticket and hop onto a train. However, the machines only accept EC credit cards. When we’ve tried to purchase a ticket with an American-issued card, the screen simply states “Card not valid.”

Machines also take euro notes and coins, but if you’ve just arrived in Europe, you may not be arriving with any euro currency. Of course, you could first swing by an airport ATM, although lines can be long and ATMs often dispense bills in high denominations, not exactly handy for an 8 euro ticket.

The solution?

One solution is to buy your ticket from the ticket counter. I have resorted to this in the past—which is never fun, as it usually involves waiting in a long line. However, the ticket agents do accept American credit cards. Many American tourists, faced with this solution, get in line.

I finally got my ticket.

I finally got my ticket.

During my trip to Paris this month, I went through all the motions: I tried my MasterCard on two machines and was rejected by both. I then turned and gazed at the line snaking out from the ticket office. I was certain to spend the first 45 minutes of my time in Paris waiting to pay for a regional train ticket. Sad.

But then I noticed several peppy, smiling customer service personnel drifting about the floor, between the machines, asking bemused tourists if they needed help.

Just for kicks, I approached a young woman and explained my dilemma. “The machine won’t take my credit card.”

“You’re trying to use an American card, right?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“This might not work, but there’s one machine over here that sometimes takes American cards,” she said, and led me past several clusters of ticket machines to one particular, inconspicuous machine, which appeared to me to be just like the others.

And sure enough, it worked. For some reason, that one machine accepted my MasterCard and saved me from the RER ticket line of tears.

Good luck with those Metro tickets!

Good luck with those Metro tickets!

Metro tickets… Rejection, part deux

Over the past several years, Paris has closed down Metro ticket booths in many stations and replaced them with automated vending machines. (In many cases, the ticket booths have been replaced with information booths. But they won’t sell you tickets.)

The ticket machines are pretty easy to use, unless—you guessed it!—you’re trying to use an American credit card. In short: They’re not accepted.

The solution: Pay in cash (some machines only accept coins, while others accept bills) or go to one of the Metro stations that still actually has a ticket counter (these can be found in the most-popular stations in central Paris).

What do you think?

Have you had any issues with using an American (or any other) credit card in Paris or other French cities like Marseille or Lyon? Have you been able to use your card? Do you have another creative solution? Tell us about it!

About the author

Tom Meyers

About the author: Tom Meyers created and launched EuroCheapo from his Berlin apartment in 2001. He returned to New York in 2002, set up office, and has led the EuroCheapo team from the Big Apple ever since. He travels to Europe several times a year to update EuroCheapo's hotel reviews. Tom is also a co-host of the New York City history podcast, The Bowery Boys. Email Tom. [Find Tom on Google Plus]

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16 thoughts on “Paris Transit: Buying RER and Metro tickets with an American credit card”

  1. 3 years after this thread started I’m going to add to the frustration.
    I’m an American on business in Brussels, Belgium and I wanted to use the Vello bike sharing system to ride around the city on a Saturday.

    They have 1 and 7 day passes which use the “Bankcard” as security to return the bike.

    I tried using 3 different US cards – a corporate one and a debit card.

    No go with no chip.

    Looks like I’ll be walking!!!!

    Reply
    1. Thankfully, there are options now.

      If you don’t want yet another credit card and live close to Canada, head up north and get a chipped Visa debit card from TD or a Maestro debit card from BMO. For those living on the East Coast, note that TD does NOT issue chipped debit or credit cards on this side of the border just yet. Same for those who live in a Midwestern state with BMO. A savings account gives you one free debit transaction per month at no cost ($2 per transaction after), good for occasional use, but if you plan on actually using it a bit then you’ll have to go get a checking account, and that runs $4/month for 10 transactions.

      Otherwise, go get a credit card from one of the banks here in the US that issue them now. They’re not hard to find, but most banks down here are doing Chip+Sign. If you want a PIN, you’ll have to do a bit of searching- some banks offer Chip+Sign cards with a PIN fallback that’s *supposed* to work when the terminal insists on a PIN. It doesn’t always work. If you want to be absolutely sure it’ll work, go get a Canadian debit card.

      Reply
  2. We were in France from Nice to Paris in August 2009. Mostly used a car, plus a TGV and of course the Metro and Roissybus. While I prefer the driving experience on most vacations – paying is too much of a headache now in France. The Europeans are much faster than the USA at utilizing new tech. The “blink’cards, and GSM cell phones have replaced tellers and public phones in just a couple of years. This makes calling a Taxi impossible without assistance. Have a car? Gas is relatively cheap due to the better gas mileage of the cars – “only” about a $100 a tank. Parking is much more expensive – budget $50 a night. Tolls are 4X more expensive – on toll roads budget $.50 a mile. What a joy it was at night stopped at a dark unattended toll booth trying to find 18.6 euro to pay the toll! Of course all this has to be in Euros – which you probably cannot get with your credit card – but your debit card will wotk in most ATM , sorry not all. You need to have about 40 euros in COIN available at all times if you expect to easily get through the day. You need strong pockets since this is about 2 pounds of coins!!! The difficulty in paying for stuff really sucks. Remember a Pepsi is about $9.00 so drink Beer or Wine for less. Lots of it.

    Reply
  3. I agree with Tom that it’s not expecting overmuch to think one should be able to arrive at one of the world’s major airports without already having cash in Euros in hand. Although if you visit regularly, it’s probably worth it to keep a few Euros from the last trip for next time, instead of cashing them in every time you go back home.

    In response to Knut’s near-misadventure (August 13 above) about not having a ticket when boarding a train, it has always been my experience that if, before putting a ticketless foot on the train, one openly confesses to a nearby conductor on the platform that you will need to buy your ticket on board, they’ll nearly always nod and tell you they’ll come find you and sort it out once things are underway. You’ll get in trouble only if you *don’t* confess upfront. I don’t recommend this as a standard ticketing procedure–once in a great while they may shrug and say “tant pis” (too bad) and not let you on–but at least you won’t have to pay a penalty fine for trying to cheat the system. If the doors are shutting and no conductor is in sight, go ahead and jump on, but find a conductor and confess right away before you sit down. If you wait till they find you instead, it’s too late. It is, however, usually a little cheaper to buy your ticket at the window before boarding.

    But I’m a little tired of the kind of “cultural sensitivity” that folks like Nicky like to dish out a little too readily (August 16). His point that 95 percent of all German ticket purchases are in cash is beside the point–since most Germans take public transportation for very short trips on a daily basis, that automatically skews the statistics. Meanwhile, the vast majority of North Americans do not have access to public transportation at all. This isn’t due to criminal negligence or pure evil on the part of North Americans, but due to a fact of history or reality (take your pick). The population density of Germany (230 people per square km) is presently ten times that of North America (22.9 people per square km). But back when the vast majority of rail systems were being built in the first place (prior to World War One), the population density was even far more unbalanced–there were already 182 Germans per square km, while there was only 1 lone North American for every 4 square kms. In other words, the population of Germany was 728 times denser than it was in North America when 90 per cent of today’s rail routes were being established.

    Since the cost of buying a new bus or installing a kilometer of rail is roughly the same on both continents, that means that a century ago each North American would have had to pay roughly 728 times more than the average German to have an equal share in the cost of building a system that would provide equally convenient access to train stations and bus routes (while even now the difference would still be ten times as much). Hence, most North Americans relied on horses and scarcely traveled at all during the first 150 years of settlement, but eventually ended up being forced to drive cars–which they now fill up using their credit cards once every week or two. In North America, trains were by and large only for getting from one distant city to another. I’ll be the first to admit that trains are nice, and I love riding them here all the time, but they aren’t really a viable option for most of our friends on the other side of the ocean.

    As for Nicky’s other point, it is true that cash may be slightly more readily accepted than credit cards throughout Europe, but it is also completely unrecoverable in the event of a theft. It’s not like there is no crime here, and it is especially aimed at tourists. Sure, one may be physically safer due to the lack of firearms, but I have lived in Germany and elsewhere in Europe for almost 40 years and have had my car broken into three times, been successfully pickpocketed once, had wallets pilfered or riffled in hotels and hostels (once while I was in the room taking a shower), and have thwarted numerous attempted pickpocketings–not only for myself but for others nearby. With a credit card, at least one has the option of phoning in and canceling all payments. And these days, when you often have to send your wallet through airport security, a fat wad of cash is just asking for trouble.

    Finally, a word about Ashli’s advice (August 15). It may be true that some machines will slowly read a foreign credit card and patience may eventually yield results (the ATM must contact your overseas system, which takes a few moments), but beware of a serious scam that occurs from time to time, particularly in the more touristic parts of major European cities. Criminals have learned how to place a thin plastic sleeve in the slot which snags the next card to be inserted. Then they wait at a distance and watch to see if the next customer pockets his money but throws up his hands in frustration at not getting the card back.

    As soon as the customer walks off, the crook hurries to the machine, retrieves the sleeve with the card and takes it to a hacker who can use the card to violate the security info and vacuum out the cardholder’s entire bank account overnight. Of course there are other reasons ATMs may keep your card–like if it is expired or if you have insufficient funds, but in that case a message will normally appear on the screen and you won’t get any money. It’s when everything seems normal–you get the money, the machine thanks you, etc.–but you don’t get the card, that you should be on your guard. Repeat: If you put in your card and get your money but you don’t get your card back, do NOT leave the machine.

    What to do? If you have a pair of tweezers, you can try to retrieve the sleeve with your card–just try not to give anyone the impression that you are trying to break into the machine yourself or you will be in even greater difficulties! If that doesn’t work, signal a police officer (from within sight of the machine) and don’t let anyone else use the ATM. Even if they are innocent, they’d only jam your card further or else lose theirs, too. If all else fails, while *still standing at the machine* phone your credit card company and tell them what happened so they can block your account. Many ATMs also provide a number on their panels with an emergency number. If you don’t have a cell phone with you, flag down some innocent-looking passersby to help you make a call or call for you. Asking couples for help is usually easier than asking single people.

    In ANY case, do not assume that you should wait until the following morning to visit the bank or post office that owns the ATM before phoning in your report to the credit card company. By then it will be too late. Sure, it’s a hassle to block your credit while you’re off on a trip, but it’s an even bigger hassle to find the next day that your account is empty or the balance-owed has skyrocketed.

    Even if that happens, the good news is that you aren’t legally liable for money lost via a stolen card. You’ll need to go to a police station as soon as possible and fill out a stolen card report, then send it to your bank or credit card company, which is a pain, but it means that usually within 2-3 weeks they will restore the balance to the level it was before the card was taken. Meanwhile, how to deal with not having access to credit or your bank account while on a trip? The best thing is to have a backup card from a different bank or company. Keep it with your passport, not your wallet.

    Tom’s comment that credit cards are better for keeping track of expenses is “on the money” too. It’s much easier to tally up the cost of a trip that way afterwards than rummaging through dozens of scribbled receipts. Airline-sponsored credit cards also earn miles for every purchase, too. That’s a Eurocheapo tip, too.

    Anyway, thanks again for this great website. I’m always learning new things even after all these years. Keep it up!

    Reply
  4. Hi everyone —

    Marite, thanks for the comprehensive explanation of how “chip and pin” works in France, and how credit cards work, in general, in other European countries. The situation makes much more sense to me now. In the US we’re used to paying for small purchases using debit cards that rely on pin codes, as well–although they still use the magnetic stripe. It’s also interesting that US (and Canadian?) cards work for autoroute payments in France (even for very small amounts).

    Ashli — That is indeed interesting, and the first time I’ve heard about that. I speak and read French (and conversed in French with the customer service person who understood the American card situation and took me to one machine that worked). I didn’t see those signs, although perhaps I was jet-lagged and my eyes weren’t fully open! Have you been able to use a US card just by leaving it in the machine a little longer? And does that work on Metro tickets, as well?

    Nicky — Your points, as always, add a healthy dose of cultural sensitivity to the discussion. Of course it’s a good idea to behave like the locals and respect local customs, and that often means paying in cash. However, as you mention, we’re discussing France, where credit cards are commonly accepted, but not created equal… and I think it’s worth a post to point out to US and Canadian travelers who may not know this.

    To arrive without local currency could be seen as crazy (or worse), and is generally not advised, but I don’t think its terribly risky to arrive in CDG without Euros. ATMs are abundant in the terminals, and dispense cash at better exchange rates than can be obtained in, say, Kansas City. Thus, it’s not crazy to arrive and take out cash at the airport. When I did, I was given 50 euro notes, which I didn’t want to use for an 8 euro payment (as the machines only dispense coins in return). A quick glance about me would have shown a room-full of locals paying with their EC cards. I don’t think wishing to pay with my own card was really committing a cultural taboo!

    Furthermore, for those of us “on business,” it’s much easier to pay with a business credit card, for accounting purposes. (Of course, you can pay with cash and deal with receipts, but let’s face it, credit cards can make things much easier. Insensitive?)

    Your related point about Germany, however, is extremely interesting. 95% are cash payment? Perhaps that deserves its own post!

    Thanks,
    Tom

    Reply
  5. Marite Ferrero and others all make excellent points. We would just chip in one thought. The starting point for this discussion might not be the worry about how might one pay for train tickets with a US (or Canadian) credit card, but rather how do most Europeans buy train tickets (esp. for short hops like the run into Paris from the airport). Here is Germany, over 30 million train tickets are sold at stations every single working day, and credit cards are used for less than half of one per cent of those transactions. Debit cards account for about four per cent of transactions. That leaves over 95 per cent of tickets being paid for by cash.

    There are vast tracts of Europe where no credit cards could ever be used for purchasing a train ticket – even in biggish cities. Last month and this, we have travelled quite a bit through Europe by train: from Luxembourg to Belarus, from the Czech Republic to France, often using local rail routes. To show up on such local trains with just a credit card and no cash is absurd, and really shows a bit of a lack of understanding of local ways of doing things. Of course you can ‘out’ yourself as a tourist, and stress yourself (and others) by playing on some assumed human right to pay by credit card. But why not just use cash as most locals would?

    Interestingly, France is a country where credit cards are plentiful, but patterns of use vary across Europe. Hotels geared to American tourists will always accept credit cards, even in remote parts of Europe. But many are the small privately owned hotels, even in Germany, that accept only cash or a small number of debit cards (eg. Postbank cards). Weaning yourself off your credit card can vastly enlarge your travel horizons.

    Folk here might be intersted to hear that even when we buy plane tickets online here in Germany, we rarely use a credit card, but rather opt for bank transfer as means of payment. The German version of the booking mask for many major airline websites automatically offers that option. Good commercial sense, of course, in a market where far fewer folk have credit cards than in North America.

    At the core of this are the decisions we all make as travellers about what we want to support. Every payment made by Visa or Mastercard, every coffee drunk at Starbucks, is support for global ventures that care little about local communities. Travel is about choices. Cash is not only easier, but often means better support for local businesses (or even that little bit more money for SNCF to provide even finer train services). Hope these few thoughts help.

    Nicky

    Reply

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