Making withdrawals off of debit cards through ATMs abroad can sometimes be wrought with problems, annoyances, confusion, or, in rare cases, all out disaster. Additional foreign transaction bank fees and ATM fees add up, sometimes your card will not work in certain countries (such as I’ve experienced in Iraq and Colombia), occasionally the machine will eat your card, there is always a risk of being mugged during or after making an ATM transaction, there is a chance that your card number and/ or password can be scraped by thieves using a variety of methods, and, sometimes, the machine simply does not give you all (or any) of the money you attempt to withdraw. There are so many potential hazards and annoyances to using ATMs abroad why would anyone bother using this method?
In point, even with these drawbacks the majority of travelers today find making international withdrawals with a debit card through ATMs to be the most convenient, cheapest, and, yes, most secure way of accessing your money abroad. I am of this camp, as the only other options that I know of are carrying all my cash, putting it in local banks, or using traveler checks — all of which carry hassles and risks which I feel to be greater than those inherent to relying on ATMs.
Tips for using ATMs when traveling
Only use ATMs immediately connected to reputable and major banks. There are plenty of instances that have been recorded of crooks purchasing ATMs and setting them up in the street or in front of businesses as well as tons of examples of ATM security being compromised. Give yourself the best odds of this not happening to you by trying to only use ATMs at major banks.
Only use the ATM of a bank during business hours. It is a great convenience for users that many banks have ATMs available 24 hours, the problem is that if something goes wrong with your transaction there will be nobody around to assist you if the bank is closed.
Always scope out the location of an ATM prior to using it. Before using an ATM for the first time be sure to check out its surroundings as a security precaution. Stand across the street from it and observe the people in your general proximity. Are there people milling about listlessly? Are there shady looking characters hanging out on nearby street corners? Do other banking customers appear to be getting harassed or followed as the exit the bank? Scope out the scene around a few different ATMs in a city (if possible) and select the securest seeming option.
Avoid ATMs in the street if you can. If it is possible, only use ATMs that are inside of the bank itself or are in a room right next to it — avoid ATMs that are in the street.
Prefer ATMs with designated guards. Guards are good when using ATMs. Just don’t let them help you make a transaction — security guards can be thieves too.
Prefer ATMs that have a lot of other users. There is often safety in numbers, or at least the zebra effect where chances of you being predated upon are less when in the vicinity of other choices of prey. Avoid ATMs in more or less deserted locations.
Always use the same ATM. If you’ve used an ATM successfully once, chances are that you could do so again. Find a good ATM in a city, and use this machine every time you make a withdrawal.
As should be obvious, never let ANYONE (even a cop or security guard) help you use an ATM. Even if you don’t understand the language the teller machine is using, making guesses is often better than taking assistance from someone who may rob you. If worse comes to worse, try to find a fellow traveler or a local you feel you can trust to assist you.
Never make more than two errors per ATM visit. This means if you type in your code wrong or do anything that could lead to the transaction being canceled more than twice your card stands a chance of being eaten by the machine. If you screw up the transaction twice, take back your card and go to another ATM a couple of hours later.
Always take a receipt. If you have a problem with an ATM (i.e. if it doesn’t give you your money, eats your card etc . . .) you have a much better chance of having things set right if you have the transaction slip. When I recently had a problem with an ATM in Mexico, the first thing the bank director asked for was my transaction slip.
Be aware of how much your bank charges you per ATM transaction. If you are being charged over a 1% international transaction fee by your bank, you are being hosed and should move your money. I’ve heard of some pretty large international ATM transaction fees being charged, so be sure to check this before going abroad.
(For more, go to Bank and ATM Fees on International Transactions.)
Check bank statements regularly. As you travel the world it is almost impossible not to throw your debit card number around. I NEVER use my debit card for anything other than ATM transactions or for secure online purchases made with my own computer, but I still know that my card number could still get away from me. I check my bank statements at least twice a month for any potential fraudulent purchases.
Additional tips for keeping debit cards secure
Keep debit card secure. Always, always, always keep your debit card in a secure location. When changing locations, keep your debit card in a hidden money belt or a hidden pocket. When in a hotel room, hostel, or apartment keep your debit card, passport, money, and everything else that is important or valuable in a bag that is securely locked shut. This bag should also be locked to a bed frame or other immovable object in the room. Your debit card numbers can be stolen and used when you’re still in possession of the card — all someone needs to do is copy the relevant numbers, so keep your cards securely concealed at all time.
Be careful making online purchases from public computers. Many public computers (yes, hostel computers are public) are FULL of viruses, malware, and, occasionally, programs that can record your debit and credit card numbers as well as usernames and passwords. I recommend traveling with your own internet accessing device for this reason alone. Just because you are making a secure online purchase, does not mean that your important details are not being logged on the computer you are using — even a client of an internet cafe or hostel can install and use these key and screen logger programs easily. Try to avoid using public computers whenever possible.
Problems I’ve had with ATMs while traveling
Generally speaking, if you follow the above tips to a practical degree you will more than likely have few problems when using ATMs abroad. In over 12 years of travel through 50 countries, it has been rare that I’ve had ATM problems. I’ve only experienced two instances where the ATM did not give either myself or my travel companion all the money it should have. I traveled in Iraq during a time when the country was blacklisted by VISA, so my debit card would not work. In Colombia, my wife discovered to her surprise that her VISA endorsed debit card could not be used, as her bank had blacklisted the country. In point, I’ve made hundreds upon hundreds of successful ATM transactions throughout my travels, and, if following the basic guidelines above, the automatic teller machine is, in my opinion, the best and most secure way to access money while traveling abroad.
On situations and circumstances
I use the guidelines and tips set forth above as a criteria for using ATMs in an ideal circumstance. Sometimes, the ebbs and flows of travel lead to situations where a traveler may need to make an ATM withdrawal in circumstances that are anything but preferential. So be it — use the tips above where practical, and use common sense and your own experience to guide you the rest of the way.