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.