Financial Travel Tip #116: 11 Tricks to Using ATMs Abroad

by Nora on June 26, 2014

There are a few tricks to using ATMs abroad; if you don’t employ them, you might not be able to access your money while you travel.

This came to my attention when a reader hadn’t anticipated the limited access to accounts that foreign ATMs provide, and found herself without money when she needed it. It was a perfect storm of simple complications.

Here are the lessons she learned (and a few more) about using ATMs abroad, which if you heed this advice, you won’t have to learn the hard way.

Account Information and Transactions Aren’t Available

At home, you can use the ATM to see your account information, transfer money from one account to another (such as from savings to chequing), and perform other account administration tasks. When using ATMs broad, this isn’t usually possible. At best you can view your balance (but not always), and make withdrawals.

 

Know Which Accounts Are Which

Before you go away, know which of your accounts are linked to “chequing”, “savings”, and “other” on your ATM card. You can normally set this at your bank before you leave. (For example, I have my main account as “chequing”, and a line of credit as my “other” account).

 

Get Online Banking

This reader hadn’t set up online banking before travelling, and thus had no way of accessing the money in her savings account, which wasn’t connected to her ATM card. She had to ask somebody at home to transfer the money from her savings to her chequing account so she could make a withdrawal.

 

Switch to a 4-Digit PIN

If your bank card has a 5-digit PIN, switch it to a 4-digit PIN, since many ATMs abroad only accept 4-digit PINs.

 

If all else fails, know your Credit Card Pin

I highly discourage readers from making cash advances with their credit cards, since interest is charged on the total balance from the date of withdrawal (whereas normal credit card charges have a grace period of about a month). But sometimes, bank cards just won’t work (as happened to me in Grenada), and you’ll have to use your credit card to get cash. Thus, it pays to remember the 4-digit PIN for your credit card, which is also used to charge expenses to credit cards with electronic chips (popular in Europe).

 

Know your Bank’s Phone Number

If you run into problems with your bank card abroad, have your bank’s phone number handy, and register for telephone banking before you leave. It’s an alternate way to sort out account issues if you don’t have online access for whatever reason.

 

Check the ATM Network Logos on Your Card

On the back of your bank card is likely a series of logos, including (hopefully) at least one of Plus, Interac, Maestro, or Cirrus. You will only be able to use ATMs abroad that display one of these logos that matches your card.

 

Back Up Your Information

On my trusty USB stick, I have encrypted pictures of my bank card, records of the account number on the front of my card, and my bank’s phone number in case I lose the card or need assistance.

 

Know Your Withdrawal Limits

Before you leave, know the daily and weekly withdrawal limits for your account (and set your preference accordingly). When I was in Panama, I couldn’t understand why my ATM withdrawal requests were being declined; until I remembered that I had set a low withdrawal limit before I left to prevent undue thefts if my card got into the wrong hands.

 

Choose an Account With Low/No Withdrawal Fees

In Peru I was getting charged $5 for every cash withdrawal at a foreign ATM, and since credit cards aren’t widely accepted in Peru and cash is king, I was losing my shirt. Then I went online and switched from a “value” (ie: no frills) account to a higher-echelon account that allowed unlimited free foreign ATM withdrawals. I need to maintain a certain balance to avoid the monthly charge, but it’s worthwhile.

 

Use Bank-Affiliated ATMs

Not only do private ATMs tend to charge extra service fees, but sometimes security can be an issue.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michelle June 26, 2014 at 1:08 pm

This is all really good to know. I have been afraid to use ATMs out of the US before, just because I don’t want to fall for a common scam or do something stupid. So that means I usually just carry a large wad of cash which is not safe either!

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2 Nora Dunn June 26, 2014 at 9:11 pm

Hi Michelle,
Yes, I feel much less safe with wads of cash than I do with credit and debit cards. In fact, I tend to make a point of having as little cash on me as possible, but in some countries where cash is king, there’s no real way around it.

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3 MikeOWave June 26, 2014 at 9:10 pm

There are some checking accounts (for example Charles Schwab) that not only do not charge fees for foreign withdrawals, but will also refund any fees the particular ATM’s bank charges so that it is always totally free to take out money. Also, a very good tip I read on HoboAndy’s site is to try to only use your ATM card at a bank during banking hours. If the machine eats your card you will be able to get it back right away.

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4 Nora Dunn June 26, 2014 at 9:13 pm

Hi Mike,
GREAT point about using the ATM card during banking hours. In fact, a friend of mine accidentally left her card in the (bank-affiliated) ATM and got home before she realized what she had done. Luckily the next customer, thankfully a lovely honest person, brought her card into the bank, and when she returned in a panic, it was there waiting for her.

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5 MikeOWave June 26, 2014 at 9:24 pm

Ha! I’m just now remembering how easy it is to leave the card in the machine in Peru. I left mine in the machine at the Lima airport! (Luckily, the next person in line grabbed me and returned it before I got into my taxi!)

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6 Nora Dunn June 28, 2014 at 12:15 am

Mike – Whew! Lucky you!

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7 Craig Seitz June 28, 2014 at 7:34 pm

Last year in Italy my debit card would not work and I found myself unable to make cash withdrawals. Luckily I was able to call my bank and discovered a way to make cash withdrawals using my credit card without incurring any interest. If you over pay your credit card you can take that extra money out without having to pay any interest on it. You do still have to pay that $5 fee for the withdrawal but it sure did save me.

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8 Nora Dunn June 30, 2014 at 6:24 pm

Great tip, Craig! Whenever I’ve had to make withdrawals/cash advances from my credit card I’ve immediately paid it off to avoid the interest charge, but it’s much smarter to prepay like you do. Cheers!

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9 Empty Rucksack June 29, 2014 at 2:31 am

Great tips, wish I had known these earlier

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10 Nora Dunn June 30, 2014 at 6:26 pm

Hopefully these tips are coming TOO late… 😉

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11 Elizabeth June 29, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Hi Nora; Recently I needed a TGV/Thallys train ticket and was unable to purchase one with a credit card because none of my cards have a chip. Cash was indeed king. Will be talking to Chase when back in USA to get a card with a chip before my next European adventure. Thanks for the great tips.

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12 Nora Dunn June 30, 2014 at 6:29 pm

Elizabeth – Interesting. I knew chips were becoming more common, but I didn’t realize that some places would decline cards without chips. Good to know!

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13 Bharat June 30, 2014 at 1:32 am

A very useful list jotted by you. I got struck up with once with my card, as I did not inform them prior about foreign visit. I had a hard time convincing my bank for allowing the transaction through customer care phone calls. It added to the telephone bills, but, they still did not allows the transactions. Luckily, I had other bank cards and online bank transfer facility.
In my view, informing the bank prior to departure is a must.

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14 Nora Dunn June 30, 2014 at 6:31 pm

Hi Bharat,
Was it a credit card that was declined, or your debit card? I’ve heard of it with credit cards, but not debit cards.
Either way, yes it’s a good idea to advise your bank, although it’s not foolproof. Sometimes, cards are declined and you have to call in to get them reinstated. I don’t entirely mind this safety mechanism though….it prevents fraudulent transactions from getting out of hand in case somebody else does get a hold of your card.

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15 Robert Bruce July 3, 2014 at 3:50 pm

I would also suggest informing your bank before heading overseas, or on any trip that will show up in a fraud check. I have had my bank’s fraud unit block my card several times while traveling because they do not recognize the city I am buying gas, for example.

I also suggest a couple of different methods to ensure you are prepared for any eventuality. A little USD, buy an equivalent of $100 to $150 in local funds, bring your Credit Card, (that you checked for low/no foreign transaction fees), your ATM card, and a prepaid international debit card – the alternative to the outdated traveler’s checks.

For example, Travelex offers such a card that also has a chip in it to ensure you are not turned away in many countries without this fraud protection. Great post.

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16 Nora Dunn July 3, 2014 at 10:52 pm

Hi Robert,
I do just about everything you suggest here, except for using the prepaid travel card. Not that I’m against them, but with the other safeguards (multiple credit cards, a debit card, and some cash), I haven’t found it necessary and I’m none too thrilled with the fees to get/use prepaid travel cards. But like you say, they’re an alternative to travelers cheques, which are indeed a thing of the past:
http://www.theprofessionalhobo.com/2014/05/financial-travel-tip-114-dont-use-travelers-cheques/

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17 Dave April 13, 2015 at 6:22 pm

Hey Nora,

Which Cdn bank offers free international atm withdrawals? I thought they all charged?

Thanks for the tips! You are very inspiring 🙂

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18 Nora Dunn April 14, 2015 at 9:24 am

Hi Dave,
I’m with TD, but I believe many (if not most) Canadian banks have an account option that includes free international atm withdrawals. This type of account usually comes with a monthly fee (for example at TD it’s $30/month), but they waive the fee if you maintain a certain balance in your bank account.

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