Thursday, 16 June 2016

Using Mondo Card in the US

I have just returned from a week in the US and I tried to use my Mondo card as much as possible whilst there. We spent a few days in Hollywood, LA, and then went on to Las Vegas.

Cards in the US

Firstly it is worth understanding how cards work in the US. In the UK we are used to chip and PIN everywhere, with contactless for small transactions like Starbucks. The US is still somewhat different, though one retailer did say that it is all changing and they have a deadline of the end of the year for chip and PIN (no idea if that is all US or just that state).

At the moment the mag stripe is king in the US - you pretty much always swipe your card, or hand the card over and the retailer swipes it. Chip and PIN is rare, but they do appear to have chips on a lot of US cards, and readers that handle chips and even contactless are common even if only the swipe is used currently.

For small transactions like Starbucks you will often simply swipe the card and get a receipt. This is very quick and efficient and much like we would use contactless. For larger transactions you are asked to sign, either on a paper slip or using a stylus on a screen. The terminals that have a screen like this, and swipe and chip reader all in one, seem very common.

Why use the Mondo

There are two main reasons to use the Mondo card.
  1. Budgeting is very easy. This can be important on holiday, loading a budget on the card, and then having real time tracking in pounds and pence as you go. This is one of the nice features of the Mondo card. Even though I have on-line banking with my other cards the Mondo makes this just way simpler. 
  2. The other reason is saving money. Compared to my Barclays VISA card, Mondo has the exact same exchange rate but the Barclays card charges and extra “Non sterling trans fee” around 3% which is not funny! 
Cash machines

Cash machines work. I tried both Bank of America, and Wells Fargo. Both charged a fee ($3 and $5). I also tested a $20 withdrawal on Mondo and on my Barclays card. The exchange rate on mondo stated $1.45 and on Barclays $1.449899, so the same apart from the aforementioned non-sterling trans fee on Barclays. What was odd is that there was no machine fee for the Barclays card though. I must ask Mondo why that is - maybe Barclays have some deal with Bank of America. I did not test the Barclays on Wells Fargo. Obviously the more you take out, assuming a fixed fee, the better the deal. I am leaving the US with a lot more cash than I took out thanks to the roulette wheel.

Chip or swipe

It seems that many of the machines work best if you swipe the card, especially in smaller retailers. It is worth trying anyway as it will say if it wants chip instead, but I had no problem with the swipe.

That said, there were a few cases where using the chip was the option, and that asks for a PIN as normal and worked. The Apple store were on the ball, and chip and PIN worked perfectly as expected.

Checking ID

As the US does not normally use chip and PIN, they will normally want ID to check against the name on the card. This is not the case for small amounts where they do not even ask you to sign, but for larger amounts they will ask for ID. The reaction to the Mondo not having a name was a constant source of amusement. The Apple store looked and said “I guess it will ask for a PIN” which it did. We had a few “I’ll need your I… Oh, no I don’t”. One place insisted on ID anyway even though they had nothing to check it against, which was slightly amusing. Obviously in the US, checking ID like this is pretty essential when they don’t have PIN. You might say “surely they check signature” but the answer is NO! We did not see any signature check ever.

When using in a restaurant the process is you get the bill, enter the tip and total and offer card, they come back with receipt and slip to sign and your card. You take card, sign and leave. No checking the card or signature. The transaction is complete (as per the Mondo ka-ching on the iPhone) before they come back to the table and ask for a signature! You can see why ID checks matter normally though.

Silly questions

When using a card in the US, they have more than one account on the card, typically ”Checking” and ”Saving” (if I remember correctly). On a cash machine just select “checking account” (AKA “cheque account” or “current account”).

One oddity is that we were also asked on retail consoles for “Debit” or “Credit”, which makes no sense to me. Surely the card is debit or credit and no need to ask, but maybe like “checking” and “saving” there are type types of account on a card in the US? You pretty much need to say “Credit” contrary to what you would expect as otherwise it seems not to work.

On one occasions we had a real oddity where the card was declined (Mondo logged as being an invalid CVV even though it was a swiped card not on-line). The retailer was not surprised, tapped something and said try again, and it worked. Maybe the credit/debit question or something. Not clear.

Mondo app

As in the UK you see the transaction instantly (before you sign). Conversion is to UK pounds. It is slightly confusing that this is not final amount and can change a few days later so it seems when the transaction completes but not a big issue whilst exchange rates are not being silly.

Where it does not work

Chemists, I mean Pharmacies… They seem to be a problem. One was very strange - swiping said to use chip. Using chip said to swipe. It did the same on my Barclays VISA too. I had to find some cash! Another one just point blank refused, but the Barclays worked. The retailer said “does not work with foreign cards” but there was no explanation, and we even had that in the case where the UK Barclays VISA did work.

Another oddity which Mondo are looking in to, surrounds the hotel making a reservation on the card. When I checked in to the hotel in Hollywood they reserved $500 which was £344, but when I checked out the charge was actually $209. What was odd is it showed the $500 refund but as £199 claiming to be a $2.51 exchange rate, but looks like the right amount for the balance of the reserve. Naturally I was concerned that the $500 had been refunded at a silly exchange rate and that I may later get the $209 charge but that did not happen. I think I now have a Mondo statement that does not actually add up, but one to check when not on a plane. So was confusing to say the least. [update: My Mondo statement does not add up to the balance, and they are investigating]

Fun and games

We did think it would have been amusing if the card had different track 1 data. Track 1 on the mag stripe holds the card number and cardholder name. The name on a Mondo card is “/NON-PERSONALISED”. This often got printed on the receipt on a line on its own. We did think a name of “SERVICE INCLUDED” would have been entertaining, especially in the US tipping culture :-)


It works, at least as well as other UK cards, saves money by not charging a “Non sterling trans fee” and makes a really easy way to budget and understand what you spend.


  1. Do Mondo let you customise the Track 1 information? I'm in the waiting list for their Android beta app so that I can try this card out.

    1. I doubt it - but then I do have a mag card writer :-)

  2. A useful review - thanks, good to know it works as expected while abroad. Will be trying my Mondo card while in Europe next month and in the US later in the year. Be interesting to see if anything has changed (and to confuse people with a "no name" card!)

  3. "The US is still somewhat different, though one retailer did say that it is all changing and they have a deadline of the end of the year for chip and PIN (no idea if that is all US or just that state)."
    That "deadline" was October 1, 2015. Now the liability shifts to the entity (merchant or card issuer) that has the lowest security.

  4. "One oddity is that we were also asked on retail consoles for “Debit” or “Credit”, which makes no sense to me."
    I get that question all the time. I think it's something to do with how the POS system processes the verification.

  5. Barclays is a member of Global Alliance:

  6. I'm an expat living in the US, so have to deal with this stuff all the time now.

    Chip + Signature is becoming the norm since last October, at least in my part of the country, and at least for larger retailers. Right now, many have chip compatible readers with the chip slot taped over (I guess their POS systems haven't caught up yet). For those that are reading the chip, the implementation often seems poor -- the read is VERY slow (more than double the time to process a mag stripe transaction) and the software appears a bit of an afterthought bolted on to the terminal. One difference here vs the UK, the chip readers don't seem to be a closed platform, and larger retailers have them integrated into their POS software -- so for example, as the cashier scans your goods you'll see the running total and list of items on the terminal screen, and perhaps loyalty card stuff also.

    I have never yet seen a US chip terminal successfully handle any of my remaining UK-issued credit cards and ask for a PIN, although to be fair I very rarely use UK cards here now for obvious reasons. The Canadian ones do work routinely.

    I hardly ever get asked for ID with a card transaction, unless it is into four figures. The informal convention here is that if you've signed your card, that is usually sufficient, but they NEVER compare the signatures. Some "sign" their cards with "CHECK ID", which will prompt the cashier to do so if it's over $50 or so.

    The Credit/Debit and Checking/Savings thing actually makes some sense. Generally, your bank will open for you both a current (checking) account and a credit card account concurrently, and run both from a single plastic card. "Credit" does an Amex/MC/Visa charge in the usual way, putting a charge against your credit limit and you pay the bill come end of the month. "Debit" is more akin to Maestro, and will debit your checking acct balance directly.

    It's also normal for your checking account to come along with an instant access savings account. The interest rate on the latter is usually hopeless, but again the savings account is operated on the same plastic card, so you need to tell an ATM from which one you wish to withdraw or credit funds.

    Combining card functions does make for a slightly slimmer wallet, at least in theory, although mine is still full of other cards anyway :(.

    1. Thanks - useful. FYI the ID checks seemed mostly in Vegas and even for small amounts.

  7. As another UK expat (in California) I can note the following:

    Barclays do have a deal where there's no fee using their cards in BoA ATMs. I have taken advantage of this in the past.

    Chip and signature is slowly making an appearance. Chip-reading terminals are slowly appearing, although most still have the chip slot taped up and you have to swipe the mag strip. Still no need for a PIN though.

    For small card transactions you just get a receipt, then over some (unknown and probably variable) threshold you get asked for a signature, and over some even higher threshold you get asked to produce ID. Even that is low key, no logging it with a central database, just show it and that's all, purely a visual check with no other verification.

    As Peter says above, they rarely check the signature, although some places you have to show the cashier the card so they can enter the last four digits as a check to say they've seen the card.

    I haven't tried any of my UK chip cards in a US reader since they started introducing the system so I don't know if it will ask for a PIN or not.

  8. Lots of visitors/tourists and itinerant workers in Vegas, many of whom are probably, err, "variable financial stability" after their first visit to a casino. Probably part of why they do more ID checks.
    Around here (metro Detroit) we don't really do tourists, other than as occasional sport. Informal city motto: "where the weak are killed and eaten" ;)

  9. I used a UK issued corporate Amex card at JFK airport yesterday morning and the Chip & PIN worked. It came as a real surprise to the server in the restaurant!

  10. FWIW, Nationwide Select Credit cards (and a few others) have no foreign transaction fee (no 2.99%) and just use the VISA rates.

  11. Just was in the US and used a Mondo card in a Chase ATM, which didn't charge me fees at all.