Thanks to “contactless” payment systems, there’s a revolutionary change going on in how credit cards are used. While mildly convenient for purchases in the United States, the technology is a huge improvement for overseas travelers.

What is contactless technology and why is it good for travel? Read on.

Instead of swiping your credit card, or inserting its chip to complete the payment process, contactless technology lets you make a purchase by placing or hovering your card or phone near a payment terminal, a.k.a. the credit card machine.

While some recently issued credit cards have this ability built in, the real improvement, particularly while traveling, is using contactless payments on your mobile phone. A digital wallet like Apple Pay, Google Pay or Samsung Pay securely stores your credit card details, and to purchase something, you merely unlock your phone and tap it to the pay terminal. Often getting your phone close is enough: In most cases you don’t even need to open an app.

Most Apple and Android phones from the last few years have the ability to make contactless payments. Smartwatches and many new fitness trackers can also be used. Your credit cards will function exactly as they would normally; the digital wallet is merely card storage and a facilitator of payments. (And using a digital wallet is free.)

Ask the seller if they take contactless, or look on the terminal for the contactless symbol, which appears like a sideways Wi-Fi logo, sometimes with a hand holding a card next to it. Once you start looking for this logo, you’ll see it just about everywhere.

Visa estimates that 50 percent of its in-person credit card sales outside the U.S. are now contactless, while Mastercard says 25 percent worldwide. Both companies say those numbers are increasing each year.

The technology is not reliant on a specific brand of phone or type of mobile wallet app. For example, if it has the contactless logo and the Apple Pay logo, your Android phone with Google Pay should work fine.

Conveniently, many airline and other tickets can be stored in the digital wallet too. Some metro systems, like London’s Underground, also accept payment this way.

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Not only is contactless easier, it’s actually safer. Your credit cards are encrypted and hidden behind your phone’s lock screen. This makes it nearly impossible for a nefarious shopkeeper to copy your credit card number. Your name and 3-digit security code are not transmitted, nor even seen, so even in the unlikely event they get your number, they can’t make online purchases.

If you get a new credit card with the contactless ability built in, this is still more secure than the magnetic swipe. Visa says more than 100 million of these cards have already been issued in the United States, and estimates there will be 300 million by the end of 2020.

If you don’t have cellular data when you travel, contactless should still work — the technology only requires the connection between your phone and the payment terminal. You just won’t get purchase notifications in the app until you log into Wi-Fi. If your phone gets stolen, logging into your account from a secure place will let you deactivate any cards in your digital wallet.

Visa, Mastercard and most big compatible banks like Chase, Bank of America and Citibank offer more details about contactless payments. Check your bank or card issuer to be sure, then give it a try at a local store before your next trip. You might end up using contactless when you’re not traveling, too.

You should be able to use your phone or card anywhere you see the contactless payment logo. Annoyingly, even if you’re in a country with widespread contactless adoption and are standing over a payment terminal with the logo … it still might not work. During four months of travel last year across Asia and Europe this happened to me a few times, but thankfully getting out and inserting or swiping the card, then signing the receipt, did the trick. This felt surprisingly archaic after months of the seeming magic of contactless. Depending on the country and the amount of your purchase, you might still need to do this, but not usually.

Geoffrey Morrison is a freelance writer and photographer covering technology and travel. He’s the editor-at-large for Wirecutter and you can also find his work at CNET. You can follow him on Instagram or Twitter.

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