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Save me from the chip & PIN nightmare, please!

I’ve had it with chip & PIN payments. I simply can’t stand it any more.

First, though, let me explain.

A few years ago, the United Kingdom financial institutions, tired of the ridiculous amount of credit card fraud that they — ultimately — had to pay for, decided to implement chip & PIN credit and debit cards. The concept being that during a transaction, you place your card complete with ‘on board chip’ into a card reader. You then have to type in your PIN number to identify yourself. All well and good, right? With millions of people used to just signing their name, a bit of a change in mindset was needed. I worried about my parents remembering their PIN numbers but within a month or so, all the user-issues had sorted themselves out.

It’s fine at big retailers

Paying in this manner is perfectly straight forward at high street chains, leading retailers and so on. The sales person will total up the amount you owe, you hand your card over — or place it in the reader in front of you. One moment later, they will ask you type in your PIN. Another brief moment and boom, that’s it. And the transaction is completed. You can go about your business. It’s perhaps a 3-5 second overhead which is entirely acceptable.

Silly pub credit card machines

It all goes pear-shaped when you go to other establishments without their own directly-connected always-on authorisation system — pubs, bars and almost any independent shop or establishment. So, for example, when I’ve had a nice dinner in a restaurant, the waiter has to come and stare at me for at least 30-seconds, often longer. It is one of the most frustrating things I have to endure on a daily basis.

Delay after delay

Here’s what happens in a restaurant:

1. I ask for the bill
2. The waiter brings the bill
3. I look at it and make sure I am content
4. The waiter and I then jointly enter the brief abyss that is GPRS authorisation hell….
5. He takes my card and sticks it in the outsided ‘mobile’ credit card machine
6. He types in the amount due
7. He then hands me the card machine and theatrically turns away so as to avoid seeing me enter my PIN number
8. At this point, I’d like to be clear perhaps 5-10 seconds of arsing around has taken place already. For instance, the waiter has had to lean over and find out how much the bill is and then type it into the machine then hand it to me.
9. I check the amount and then type in my PIN. In some rather rude establishments, I’m asked if I’d like to add a tip for the management. No. I invariably try and give cash.
10. Now I hand back the machine.
11. And my guest and I just stare at each other. This is because the waiter is standing at my table staring into space.
12. We wait.
13. And we wait.
14. The machine uses its GPRS connection to negotiate a session with whatever clearing house is providing the back-end transaction processing
15. The machine will proudly announce a CONNECTION MADE statement on screen shortly
16. There are people around us trying to get the attention of the waiter as he simply stands over us — the hustle and bustle of the restaurant continues around us
17. The machine limps through its procedure sending details of the transaction and then briefly waiting for the result
18. The machine then displays APPROVED and displays an authorisation code (for some inane reason — why do we need a sodding authorisation code in this day and age?)
19. Finally, the transaction nominally complete, the waiter comes to life, poised and waiting for the first receipt to print
20. The machine slowly pukes out the first transaction receipt
21. Sometimes this receipt is handed to me with my card, other times I have to wait for the second receipt to come out — this seems to depend on the waiting staff
22. The waiter says thank you and the transaction is finally complete

This whole production is then repeated for almost every other table in the restaurant.

It’s worse in bars

It’s a total nightmare in any establishment where there’s a big queue of people waiting to be served… and where EVERYONE is paying by card.

If the waiter is particularly efficient and there are no technical delays, we can get this whole debacle complete in a reasonably brief 10-15 seconds. But mostly, it takes 20-30 seconds of faffing around on both parts.

You might be reading this wondering what I’m concerned about, but it seriously winds me up. I don’t like the fact that I have to mentally insert a pause into my day. And I don’t like the total waste of time for both parties. Assume 5 credit card transactions per day, right? Each 30-seconds in length. Factor that across 7 days, 4 weeks and that’s 70 minutes of blank staring every month. Or, if you’d like to put it another way, I spend approximately 14 hours a year — just over half a day — waiting for the credit card payments industry to get it’s act together.

I’ve had enough

It’s simply ridiculous. Why can’t I just swipe my mobile on some payments reader? It’s the device I have with me *all* the time. It’s got oodles of personal identifying elements associated with it. My mobile operator is already heavily regulated. They’re already a transaction processing system as far as I’m concerned.

Why — after the technical equivalent of at least a century — have mobile companies not sorted out mobile payments? Why can’t I just swipe my mobile at the waiter’s machine on the way out? Why can’t I do the equivalent of swiping my NFC-enabled oyster card at a payment terminal?

I’m looking at you, industry!

Do we seriously have to wait for Apple to anoint their official mobile transaction system before the rest of the industry is galvanised into action? I’m aware of the myriad of excuses that have previously been voiced by many in the industry whenever I bring this subject up. “legislation” is an oft voiced excuse. We can’t get the Governments to agree to it. Or we can’t agree any standards. Or we can’t be bothered. Or, we’ll do that next year because our revenues are a little bit unstable at the moment. The basic answer, of course, is wait-and-see.

Visa has been dancing around the issue now and again. It looks like they might finally do something worth looking at in the context of their apparent arrangement with DeviceFidelity. They’re both working on something for one of the world’s largest mobile platforms. What’s that, you say? Nokia? No. Samsung? No. iPhone. Obviously. In fairness, the technical concept appears to be compatible with almost any device with a memory card slot.

First Data, one of the leading card settlement protagonists, almost got there with it’s gotag iniitative (where every credit card user would be issued with an NFC-style rubber sticker that you would swipe across the reader at, for example, McDonalds.

Of course, hardly anything happens in the mobile industry until somebody-else-does-it.

So we’ll probably need to wait for Apple.



  1. Some new credit cards have a contactless mode, which MasterCard call PayPass. Although it won’t speed up the whole GPRS negotiation step (actually I’d assumed the portable terminal connected to a base station via DECT or something similar, then used an old-fashioned modem to connect to the clearing house), it should speed up the rest of it.

    If they’re using GPRS couldn’t they just keep an open data connection the whole time anyway? I thought that was the point of using a packet based system…

    Of course, up here in Edinburgh the only place that supports PayPass (that I’ve come across) is Cafe Nero. The staff don’t seem to have been told about it however. It also appears a receipt isn’t automatically generated – this can result in confusion as to whether money has been deducted, and if so, how much. Result – hassle….so it’s simpler just to pay with cash.


  2. NFC payments will take away some of the pain – but not all – some of it will just be shifted. As with card-based contactless, debit/credit card transactions will be off line (so not long wait for the merchant terminal GPRS connection) but only until you've reached a preset limit on the card (combination of total value and number of transactions) – then you have to do an online transaction, which resets the counters on the card. With NFC – it is your phone that will go on line to reset the counters – rather than the merchant terminal. So every now and then – you will have the inconvenience of waiting for authorisation – maybe it'll be eaiser to stomach if you're the one nominally “in control”. At least – this is what one of the major payment schemes is proposing. By the time NFC is mainstream it's perfectly possible that some of the newer entrants will have changed the payment porcessing rules too.

  3. Seems ridiculous to me that the machine doesn't start negotiating the connection as soon as the card is shoved up it's jaxy. That way, by the time it comes to entering the pin, the connection is already there and ready to go when you hit 'enter'.

    However, I do agree with the payments system needing a good pull-through. I never carry cash anymore, and am always caught out when I need to pay for parking in town. Or when I need to buy something for £4.99, and there is a minimum charge of £5, imposed by the checkout Nazi…… I could go on….

  4. As I read the article, the issue is not the card (chip, RFID, mag stripe), but rather the terminal. Why a GPRS terminal versus an always-on secure wifi or bluetooth terminal to hardline base station? Fix the terminal and the issue should go away.

  5. Absolutely. In Sainsbury's today I counted a total of 7 seconds between when I put in my card and the till receipt came out.

  6. Very interesting, Victoria. I'm particularly interested to see what some of the newer entrants do in the context of changing the payment processing rules…!

  7. Ewan, what is holding this up is our buddies the carriers. They want a cut of each transaction that is conducted with one of “their” phones on their network. Naturally, the payment networks (like Visa and Mastercard) have told them to go stuff it, so right now it’s a “no go” on nifty NFC payments with your mobile. Nokia put NFC in a couple of their phones a few years ago, but no carrier would pick them up.

    I know all this because I have been trying to sell NFC technologies around the mobile space for a couple of years now. I have worked with Visa and know all the issues they face dealing with the carriers. The technology is not a problem; as you say, you see it working with transit systems everyday (like the Oyster card in London). It’s purely the carriers not willing to accept handsets on their networks that have NFC payment technologies in them.

    So how will all this get resolved? You nailed it: Apple. Apple will put this in the next iPhone and tell the carriers to go eff themselves, and all their “I should get my cut” crap with their mafia-like business practices, just because they own the pipes. Only Apple has the heft and the will to do this.

    At that point, when Apple starts taking over, oh, you know, the whole commerce transaction market as we know it, all the other idiots will start moving quickly and the carriers will fall into line. And the ramifications for commerce will be huge. If you think Apple's tsunami-like effect on the mobile software market was breathtaking, you ain't seen nothing yet.

  8. If only every restaurant had Microsoft surfaces, i am sure i saw some nice applications that would recognise credit cards and allow users to put specific items on to their own card and process the payments, we can but dream 🙂


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