Why Are EMV Transactions So Slow?

Why Are EMV Transactions So Slow?

November 24, 2015         Written By Jason Steele

Stare at a clock for 15 seconds, and it can seem like an eternity. But sadly, Americans are now learning that it can take that long for their transactions to be completed using credit cards equipped with the new EMV smart chips. Since this technology is new to most of us, and is purported to be more advanced than the old magnetic stripes, many are wondering why we are being forced into the slow lane when we insert, rather than swipe, our cards. 15 seconds might not sound that bad, but if you multiply that by the number of customers standing in front of you in an otherwise fast moving line, the wasted time can really add up.

Why EMV transactions are taking so long

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There are two reasons why EMV transactions are now taking far longer than those using a card’s magnetic stripe. The first reason is purely human. Americans have been using cards with magnetic stripes their entire lives, and the muscle memory of swiping a card won’t go away very quickly. Furthermore, the EMV rollout is nowhere near complete, and so long as we have both a stripe and a chip on our cards, and credit card readers are equipped to read either, it will be confusing to shoppers to figure out if they should be swiping or inserting their card.

To make matters worse, there are many credit card readers that are built to accept EMV cards, but do not have that functionality enabled. So in many cases, shoppers with chip cards will first attempt to insert their cards into the reader, only to be told later that it must still be swiped.  In addition, each type of credit card reader can have a different process for reading the EMV chips. Some will ask cardholders not to insert their cards until prompted, while others will fail to prompt cardholders altogether. In either case, cards must remain in the reader until the transaction is complete, unlike terminals that read a card’s magnetic stripe. When a customer removes his or her card too soon, the transaction fails, the cashier needs to reset the system, and the process must begin all over again.

The other reason that EMV transactions are taking so long has to do with the technology being used, and how it has been initially implemented. Even when shoppers do everything right the first time, the transaction can still take as long as 15 seconds to complete, as opposed to merely a second or two when using the card’s magnetic stripe. Part of the reason for this is that the chips are sending encrypted information, which takes much longer than the unencrypted data from the magnetic stripes. In addition, EMV transaction can take longer than necessary, depending on how the card issuer has personalized the card as well as how the retailer how configures the terminal. At this early stage in EMV deployment in the United States, some terminals have not been configured in an efficient manner, which can increase transaction times.

What you can do to speed things along

Once you have been issued an EMV equipped card, you no longer have the option to use the magnetic stripe at terminals that can read the chip. Instead, you should watch the customers in front of you to see how they are doing it, so that you can learn from their experience with that store’s particular terminal. And when it’s your turn in line, you are going to have to pay extra attention to the message on the terminal, and any instructions offered by the cashier. Look for lights, arrows, or other indications of when and how you are supposed to have your credit card read. And remember, don’t ever remove a card with an EMV smart chip until the machine tells you to, which may be in the form of a message on the display, a beep, or instructions from the cashier.

Another piece of advice is to be patient. Keep in mind that it could be take even longer if you and other customers decided to use cash or checks, as these forms of payments can still take more time to process. For instance, people spend far more time sorting through their spare change when paying with cash, and cashiers can take time to return exact change as well. And when it comes to checks, it will always take longer to write a check than the slowest credit card terminal will take to read an EMV smart chip.

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But you should also be patient when it comes to the technology. There are many complicated ways that these new terminals have to interact with a retailer’s existing systems, and the IT department might not get it right the first time. As time goes on, hopefully retailers will optimize their systems to reduce transaction times. And eventually, customers will get used to the new system as well.

By understanding how EMV chip readers work, you can speed up the process and learn to be more patient as we journey toward a new, more secure method of credit card payments.

The information contained within this article was accurate as of November 24, 2015. For up-to-date
information on any of the terms, cards or offers mentioned above, visit the issuer's website.


About Jason Steele

Jason Steele is a journalist that covers credit cards, travel and consumer credit. As one of the nation's leading experts in credit cards, Jason has contributed to dozens of travel and personal finance outlets including NerdWallet, Credit Karma and the Points Guy, where he serves as the Senior Points and Miles Contributor. Jason has also been widely quoted in mainstream media in outlets such as the Washington Post, the USA Today and Bloomberg Business Week. Jason is also the founder and producer of CardCon, which is the annual Conference for Credit and Credit Card Media.
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