If you’re standing at a checkout and the chip won’t work on your credit card, don’t give up right away. Here’s what to do when you swipe but can’t complete your purchase because of a debit or credit card chip not working.
Your options include swiping, then inserting the chip and repeating three times. Some merchants allow this. Another option is cleaning the chip on the spot, which you can do by rubbing the chip with a dollar bill. If the chip is just dirty, which is the most common problem, this will usually clean it enough that it will work, even if it gets you funny looks.
Chips are a new security feature to reduce fraud, but it’s hard to appreciate them when a broken chip keeps you from completing your purchase. It happened to a longtime friend, and another friend of his provided a solution. I had to share it, because I know it will happen to others.
The workaround for a credit card chip not working
To work around a credit card chip not working, do this: Go ahead and swipe like you normally would. Then when the machine prompts you, insert the chip. Wait and let it fail. Pull the card and reinsert the chip. Wait and let it fail. Reinsert a third time. Let it fail again. Usually after three failures with the chip, the machine lets you swipe.
This workaround isn’t ideal, but it can get you out of a bind. Remember this trick for the next time you get stuck. It can save the embarrassment becoming a deadbeat and having to leave without your purchase.
And if you happen to be in line behind someone and the chip won’t work on their card, make the world a better place. Mention this trick to the person in line and to the cashier. You’ll save both of them a lot of needless embarrassment and hassle, and you’ll save everyone in line some time. Everyone wins.
This is a temporary workaround, of course.
Not all chip cards have near field communication, or NFC, available. NFC is a contactless technology that transmits your card information without having to make contact. If your card isn’t letting you make your purchase with the chip, but your card and the payment terminal support NFC, that can be a suitable workaround.
But if NFC isn’t an option, you may very well be able to fix the chip.
A quick fix with a dollar bill for a credit card chip not working
Here’s a quick fix for a dirty microchip that you can try in the store. A U.S. dollar bill is abrasive enough to remove dirt and oxidation from copper contacts, but won’t harm the copper. If the chip doesn’t work, try rubbing down the chip with a dollar bill for a few seconds.
After you’re done, expect to still see some visible wear on the chip contacts, but the metal should look clean. The pads develop a groove from coming into contact with the reader repeated times. Get the contamination out of that groove and the chip starts working again.
I routinely use this trick to clean copper contacts on computer parts and electric train parts. People will look at you like you’re crazy, and expect to hear some jokes about how that won’t load more money into your account, or does it go faster if you use a higher-denomination bill. Trust me, I’ve heard them all. But you won’t believe how many computer parts this trick has brought back to life over the years.
If you don’t have a dollar bill available, a scrap of paper from a paper grocery bag will work in a pinch. It’s abrasive enough to scratch the copper so it’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. An antibacterial wipe is also likely to work, and stores often keep those on hand.
How do I clean my chipped credit card and keep it clean?
EMV chips are pretty resilient, but they really don’t like dirt or physical damage. You can extend your chip’s life by keeping it in a wallet as much as possible. Protect it from getting scraped, or coming into prolonged contact with liquids. Keeping it in your wallet’s plastic photo holder will keep it cleaner than keeping it in a wallet pocket, even if it makes it a bit harder to remove the card for use. Keeping it in a wallet, or at least in a purse pocket, is much better than keeping it in your purse’s pouch, where it can get knocked around and scraped by things like your keys.
If the contacts appear dirty, you can fix it. Here’s how to clean the chip on a credit card: Just gently wipe the contacts with a bit of alcohol and a cotton swab or cotton ball, if that’s all you have. Use 99% or 91% alcohol if possible. 70% rubbing alcohol may work in a pinch but purer is better. Wear marks on the contacts are unavoidable because of the way the card reader devices read the chip, but you don’t want to see any dirt when you’re finished.
This doesn’t guarantee chip immortality, but it can help. Magnetic stripes on the back of the card, the technology that chip card technology replaced to stop counterfeiters and other fraudsters, weren’t problem-free either. But we got used to the demagnetization problems and it will take some time for us to get used to the microchips.
What if you clean the chip on your credit card and it still doesn’t work?
If you have a credit card chip not working, and cleaning the chip doesn’t help, contact your credit card issuer just as soon as you can. They’ll send you a new, properly working replacement card. After all, they lose if you can’t use your card too.
Sometimes physical damage keeps the chip from being repairable. Dropping something heavy on it, running over it with your vehicle (stranger things have happened) or otherwise physically stressing the chip can damage it, and cleaning it won’t help much if the chip has sustained that kind of damage.
What does chip error mean?
A chip error simply means the credit card machine wasn’t able to read the chip on your card. This can mean your chip is dirty, or it can mean the chip is damaged. It’s more likely the chip is dirty. Try cleaning the chip and try again.
Can the chip in debit cards become demagnetized?
The chip in a debit card or credit card doesn’t use magnetization at all, so that’s a bit of an advantage. The old trick of putting a piece of clear plastic between the card and the machine is a thing of the past with chips. But a chip’s contacts can get dirty.
I expect rubbing a dollar bill against a chip’s contacts to become the successor to the old plastic bag trick for magnetic strips.
Do magnets ruin credit card chips?
Some people believe strong magnets can damage computer chips. I think this is a holdover from the days of floppy disks, when strong magnets did indeed demagnetize and erase floppies. Magnets can damage the magnetic stripe on a credit or debit card for the same reason they can damage old-school floppy disks. A generation of people grew up being told that magnets damage computers, so that’s hard to unlearn.
But the chips themselves don’t use magnetics. They’re made of silicon and nonferrous metals, so there’s no reason for magnets to have any effect on them. In 30 years of upgrading and repairing computers and other electronic equipment, I’ve never had a problem with magnets damaging any computer chip. I frequently use magnetic screwdrivers so I don’t lose screws.
I’ve heard stories about magnets destroying chips, but it’s never been firsthand, and never from another computer professional. Unless it was a weapons-grade magnetic field, it’s far more likely that it was static electricity, not magnetization, that damaged the chip. Chips are very sensitive to static electricity, even small static shocks that don’t produce a spark you can see or feel.
Keeping magnets away from your chipped credit or debit card is a good idea to protect the magnetic strip. Not touching the chip directly is a good idea to protect the chip from static shocks. But I wouldn’t be paranoid about magnets coming near the chip.