If your debit or credit card says "electronic use only," in most cases, it doesn't mean anything. Whether you're using it online, or a store swipes it through a scanner, it should transfer money just like any other card. If your merchant uses what's called a paper imprinter to handle transactions, then you might have a problem.
When you run a card through a scanner at such businesses as a grocery store, antique store or movie theater, the scanner registers pertinent data, such as who you are, account number and how much money you have in the account to spend. If there's a problem, such as a power outage, and the scanner doesn't work, the store may have to bring out the imprinter.
Before scanners became common, most stores relied on imprinters. An imprinter presses your card against a paper slip, imprinting the slip with your account number. That works fine with a regular card because the numbers are embossed, or raised above the plastic surface. An unembossed, electronic-only card is flat and has no embossing, so there's nothing to imprint. Credit-card companies say that as imprinting is so rarely needed anymore, it just makes sense to print data on flat cards.
Imprinting is rarely needed, but rare doesn't equal never. If the scanner is down, or you're dealing with someone who doesn't have a scanner -- this happens at flea markets, for instance -- then imprinting is the only option. That's not a problem with an embossed card, but with electronic only, you're stuck. Either you find another card to pay with or you scrounge through your pockets until you have enough change to close the sale.
Visa has promoted unembossed cards as a safer deal in certain situations. With an imprinted charge slip, a merchant won't find out until she submits the form whether your account can cover the bill. If a card can only be used in electronic transactions, the merchant spots problems immediately. It's advantageous for whatever bank makes the cards because it's cheaper and faster. The faster that cards go into use, the more money the bank can make off the fees merchants pay to scan them.
- Jupiterimages/Creatas/Getty Images