For years countries outside the United States have used a system called EMV for their credit cards. The short version is that there is a chip inside the card that authenticates the transaction, plus the users has to enter a PIN instead of signing the receipt*. This has some major benefits. The biggest is security, and after the Target credit card leak I think that's becoming more important to everyone. If someone steals your credit card number, they'll still need your PIN to make charges.
It is far less of an issue with ubiquitous broadband like we have in the States, but this new technology also works offline. This should cut back on the days of shops "not taking credit cards today because the system is down."
Visa and MasterCard are making the switch in October 2015; I plan to get my hands on this as soon as my bank and credit card company offer it.
*There are limitations to the PIN usage. The way the PIN is processed depends on the card reader, and there will be a period of time where the infrastructure hasn't caught up with the new system.