Using ATMs Abroad: 12 Things You Need to Know

Using ATMs (cash machines) while you’re abroad is not as simple as it is at home. I know travellers with horror stories about being strapped and unable to get cash due to various ATM blunders. That’s why it’s best to be informed about overseas banking before you depart!

Here are 12 tips for using ATMs abroad and effectively managing your travel cash.


1. Get Online
First and foremost, register for online banking before travelling. This allows you to manage your accounts and bills easily, and if there’s a problem with your ATM card or one of your accounts, you can fix it from wherever you are.


2. Foreign ATMs Offer Limited Services
At home, you can use ATMs to change your PIN, see account information, transfer money between accounts, and more. Abroad, you generally can only view your balance and withdraw cash. For the rest, you’ll need to register for online banking.


3. Same Bank? So What?
It’s common among frequent travellers to bank with an internationally recognized institution, such as HSBC. With HSBC ATMs being located around the world, you can usually save money on withdrawal fees. Great! But don’t expect even bank-affiliated foreign ATMs to offer the same functionality as you’d get at home.


4. Know Your Chequing, Savings, and Other Accounts
Before travelling, make sure the accounts you need to access are linked to your ATM card properly. You can link accounts to “chequing,” “savings,” and “other”. For example, my main bank account is listed as “chequing,” and my line of credit is my “other” account.

Related article: Heading overseas for an extended period? Read our tips on how to save money while living abroad.


5. Set and Remember Withdrawal Limits
Setting a low ATM withdrawal limit (at your home branch, online, or over the phone) will prevent somebody from clearing out your account if your card is stolen. But don’t forget your limit—otherwise you’ll have some unsuccessful withdrawal attempts that could result in your account being frozen. (This happened to me a few times, and necessitated calls to my bank to rectify the situation before I could get any cash).


6. Keep Your Bank’s Phone Number Handy
In the situation above, I had to call my bank, because I couldn’t fix the problem online. Make sure to bring along your bank’s phone number (and register for telephone banking before you leave) so you can quickly tackle any issue that arises.


7. Eliminate Withdrawal Fees
Using a foreign ATM usually results in a $5 fee charged by your home bank. You can eliminate these fees in a few ways, including using internationally recognized banks, and/or structuring your home account to include free foreign ATM withdrawals. This usually entails a monthly account fee, which can be avoided by maintaining a certain balance.


8. Avoid Private ATMs
In addition to the withdrawal fees mentioned above, using private (non-bank-affiliated) ATMs can result in additional charges and commissions. Private ATMs can also be a security risk, so they’re to be avoided whenever possible.

Related article: Many travellers rely on their credit card for insurance coverage—but is that enough to keep you protected? Find out here.


9. Know Your ATM Networks
On the back of your bank card should be a series of logos, such as Plus, Interac, Maestro, or Cirrus. You can only use ATMs abroad that display one of the logos on your card.


10. Ensure Your PIN is Four Digits
If your bank card has a five-digit PIN, switch over to a four-digit PIN, since some ATMs (and debit machines) abroad don’t accept five-digit PINs.


11. Back It Up!
Keep your bank card number and bank phone number separate and accessible in case your card is lost or stolen. This has served me invaluably. I back up this and other sensitive information using my trusty “USB Stick Trick.”


12. Know Your Credit Card PIN
Most credit cards have electronic chips so you can make purchases by entering a PIN. This PIN also allows you to make ATM withdrawals with your credit card. Warning: credit card ATM withdrawals are a last resort, since (in addition to withdrawal fees) interest compounds daily on your entire credit card balance from the date of withdrawal, with no grace period (normal credit card purchases have a grace period of 30 days). When I was in Grenada, my bank card wouldn’t work so I could only get money with my credit card. I paid off my balance in full before making any withdrawals (and paid off the withdrawal/advance amount immediately) to save myself the exorbitant interest charges, but I couldn’t avoid the withdrawal fees.


Want to learn more about financially smart travels? Read more financial travel tips for economically savvy travellers.

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