A number of readers recently told us how their foreign bank cards have been rejected when they tried to use them to pay for petrol in France and, in particular, at self-service fuel stations.
The problem has been reported across a number of banks and card providers.
There are a number of potential problems that can cause payments to be declined, either on the side of the merchant (in this case the petrol station) or your bank, although there is no single root cause for cards to be declined.
Self-service stations cause problems in particular, however, because you must insert your card before pumping any fuel, as a ‘pre-payment’ screening of your account.
What is pre-payment screening?
Certain French petrol stations - especially 24-hour and self-service stations - use a method where you must verify your card has the necessary funds to make a transaction before purchasing any fuel.
It is to avoid a situation where drivers fill up and then cannot pay.
These stations often charge a large lump sum as a pre-payment (usually around €100 to €150) to check that the buyer has enough money in their account to cover the maximum potential costs they could incur for fuel.
The excess amount charged is then credited back to the account - either in full or with the fuel charge deducted (for example, you are charged €150 but only buy €35 of petrol so €115 is returned to your account) after the fuel is purchased.
This model is popular for service stations, as it makes it much harder to steal fuel by filling up your car and driving off without paying and allows them to stay open 24 hours without an employee working at the pumps.
However, there can be problems.
What problems does it cause?
If your card does not have an overdraft limit, or the pre-payment pushes you past an overdraft limit, your card can be automatically declined if you do not have sufficient funds in the account.
You may have €80 in your account and only want to buy €40 worth of fuel but because you cannot cover the pre-payment amount, your card is declined.
The payment is sometimes charged to an account but only reimbursed after a few days whereas sometimes reimbursement is instant after paying for the fuel.
If your account is charged; there is no set time limit for the reimbursement - it varies between a matter of hours or days.
This delay can be longer if petrol is purchased at the weekend or involves a foreign card.
Machines lack updates
Sometimes pre-payments may be taken out and not automatically returned due to a lack of software machine updates, claims the citizen advice website Démarches Administratives.
The recommendation is to let your bank know as soon as possible if the charge is not credited after a couple of days (especially for foreign bank accounts, which might flag the payment as unusual for other reasons).
One reader told us that two separate payments had been charged on their account of £130 each despite their card being declined and no fuel being purchased. After eight working days, they had still not been reimbursed.
This issue may affect 24-hour and self-service stations more frequently as they are in rural areas and therefore less likely to have their software updated.
Other common reasons UK cards may be declined
It is not just at petrol stations where UK cards may be declined in France - there are also instances of cards being declined in supermarkets, shops and at ATMs.
Reasons for this may include:
Not having enough money in your account. It sounds simple but sometimes we lose track, especially if on holiday. If you do not have an overdraft option on your account or if you have reached it, your card may be declined. This is the same reason that pre-payments might cause a card to be declined, but in most instances, you only pay for something after receiving the service (for example at a restaurant).
Reaching a daily spending limit. Some bank cards (especially debit cards) may have a daily spending limit. If you try to use the card too often in one day and go over this amount, it can cause a purchase to be declined. This is more common around the beginning or end of the month, when large bills, rent, or mortgage repayments might be debited to the card, limiting usage for a day or so.
Putting in the wrong information. Occasionally, we all make the mistake of typing the wrong number on our pin code. If your card is not automatically declined, this may be the next most common cause.
The card was not entered correctly. An issue that can happen is the terminal is unable to read the card’s chip. The terminal may read ‘carte muette’ (‘damaged/unreadable card) and ask you to take the card out. Usually if you rub the chip of your card against your clothes it should fix this problem. If the message keeps showing, it means the chip of your card is damaged and you will need to replace your card.
Being blocked by anti-fraud services. If your card shows unusual activity, your bank may block it while it investigates. ‘Unusual activity’ may be a sudden increase of payments (either lots of small payments or a few large ones) that do not match the user’s usual spending habits, or payments from a different or new location. A call to your bank may unblock your card if you can confirm you are the person spending this amount.
A temporary hold on your card. Rental companies, hotels, and other services may put a temporary ‘hold’ of a sum on your account (similar to a pre-payment but these can last for days).
To avoid being caught short when in France, it is always good to have a back-up payment method (such as another debit or credit card or even cash), and the contact details of your bank handy if you need to contact them quickly.
Most banks now have 24-hour customer support so you should be able to reach someone on the phone.
If you have a French bank account, you should try using this card as well to check if the issue is on the merchant’s side.