“He who loses money loses much; He who loses a friend loses much more; He who loses faith loses all.“
6 International ATM Tips for Long Term Travelers
This blog was written before the COVID Pandemic. The COVID epidemics played havoc on the travel business. In 2022, Fifty Plus Nomad decided to focus on traveling and living in Mexico and language learning posts. We will only update these long-term travel-related posts on a time-permitting basis. We would appreciate your comments and updates on these posts.
- Most International Automatic Teller Machines will dispense the local country’s currency only.
- Make sure you can use your ATM card outside the US and Canada. Most ATMs worldwide are part of the Cirrus or the Plus Network. The majority of ATM cards can work on either network. Older cards and those issued by local banks may not work with these network machines. Generally, your ATM pin must have four numbers to work in most ATMs.
- For safety’s sake and the best exchange rates, only use international ATMs at a bank. Most banks have safe cabins. (Sometimes, you will need to swipe your card before entering). Some cabins even have bodyguards. Also, if you use ATMs in a bank, you will be assured that the exchange rate is the modified interbank rate.
- In some countries, like Costa Rica, most ATMs offer an option to dispense US dollars. Often, prices for many things are quoted in US dollars in these countries, and merchants will happily take US dollars for many purchases. Fortunately, in this case, there are usually no problems with withdrawing US dollars from these machines and paying for services in US dollars. (Note: Many hotels in Mexican resort towns allow you to pay in US currency. Generally, paying for services in these cities in pesos is better because these hotels use dynamic conversion rates (You’ll get 8% less than the interbank rate charged on most credit card and ATM transactions).
- You can get your cash immediately as soon as you receive a deposit. For years, I received my automatically deposited paycheck at 4:45 p.m. Pacific Standard Time every other Thursday and found that I could always access my money anywhere at the time. (Considering the time difference between the ATMs location and my hometown).
- More frequently, however, international ATMs will give you an option like ¨Do you want to accept or decline the option that the bank makes a currency conversion (from the local currency back to your home currency) for you?¨. Decline this offer. International ATMs will show you the withdrawal from your account in your home country’s currency. Unfortunately, if you do the math, you will usually find that the bank is charging you the dynamic exchange rate. (Eight percent less than the interbank rate). This option seems like an excellent way to avoid a foreign exchange fee (more on this later). However, it is often just a way for the bank to take some of your hard-earned money away from you.
- Do not use ATMs on the streets in Mexican resort cities or near European tourist sites with signs saying you can withdraw US dollars (see picture below). Typically, you will be charged 12-15% additional fees on these withdrawals. (Generally, for safety reasons, it is best to use ATMs in a bank anyway). In Europe, these international ATMs are associated with Euronet. Read here for more details.
Tip #7: Avoid Problems Making Large International ATM Withdrawals
Many long-term travelers and expats will have to significantly withdraw from International Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) at some point in their adventures. Credit card use is not as every day in some countries as in your home country, and some vendors will only accept local currency, even for large transactions. I have needed to withdraw large sums of local money to pay for: 1) private tour guides, 2) tuition and renting a room from language schools, and 3) home repairs.
Making large international ATM withdrawals can be a pain because most machines will only allow you to withdraw a maximum amount, usually around the equivalent of US $200-500, at one time. (Note: You can generally make more than one withdrawal at an ATM if you need more than that amount. However, there is usually a maximum amount of withdrawal allowed per day; in my case, this is often around $750).
Unfortunately, you cannot quickly learn the maximum withdrawal amount in advance because it varies between local banks. Sometimes your home bank will also impose a transaction amount limit.
If you need a lot of money, the easiest way is to make the maximum daily withdrawal until you have amassed enough cash to pay the bill. It is usually a matter of trial and error. Still, I have occasionally found helpful information by Googling something like: “What is the best bank in Italy to withdraw a large sum of money from a Bank of America ATM card?”
Travel Tip #8: Avoid International ATM Currency Exchange Fees
Sometimes you can even avoid ATM foreign exchange fees altogether by using an ATM at a bank associated with your home bank’s network. (For example, there are no withdrawal fees at Barclays Bank in the United Kingdom if you have a Bank of America ATM). You can find out which overseas banks are associated with your bank by checking your home bank’s website.
In addition to the foreign exchange fee, you will often pay a fee for withdrawing money from the ATM in the country you visit. Usually, this fee is equivalent to around $2-4 per transaction in the local currency. Some ATMs will charge more, and the ATM will indicate the cost when you make the transaction.
It is difficult to find bank accounts that do not charge a foreign exchange fee for ATM withdrawals. Schwab, and a few other financial institutions in the USA and Canada, offer accounts that rebate international ATM fees. Usually, to be eligible for these accounts, you must maintain a high account balance (usually around $25,000). When I tried to sign up for a Schwab account in 2013, they required spending more than half the year in the US.
These bank accounts can be a godsend if you plan to travel a lot. Check out this post from the Points Guy for details. (Keep in mind, however, that you may still pay an ATM fee to the overseas bank).
While I am unsure if the option still exists, I have a Citibank account that waives ATM fees if I maintain a $25,000 balance or pay a monthly $30 fee. I signed up for this account after receiving a notice from my Citibank/American Airlines credit card. I spend the monthly fee and estimate that it saves me between $50-150 in foreign exchange fees each month when I travel a lot. And besides, I got 30,000 frequent flier miles for signing up for the report.
Tip #9: How to Find International Automatic Teller Machines
Nowadays, almost every large city, or tourist site, has ATMs. So, Fifty Plus Nomads only need to carry a lot of cash if you will be traveling in rural communities or off-the-beaten-path countries.
That said, it is not unusual to have to visit several machines before you find one that will dispense cash. There were only a couple of bank ATMs in some countries that I could use with my card. For example, in Bolivia in 2014, I found that my card only worked on ATMs associated with the Banco de Santa Cruz through trial and error.
Also, it is relatively common to see that many machines are out of order. I advise you to double-check your account online whenever you find that an Automated Teller Machine does not dispense your cash. Once in a rare while, you will see a withdrawal from your account. I had money withdrawn from my account twice for a failed transaction in Bosnia; however, after I called the bank and reported the withdrawal, I received a refund a couple of days later.
Want More International ATM Travel Tips?
Check out this post from The Points Guy.