Why Is It So Hard To Take Out Money From ATMs?

Stadium at San Jose

It is nice to go into a big city like San Jose with lots of different banks and ATMs to choose from.

When I travelled for 9 months through Australia, South-East Asia and India, I never had any issues taking out money from ATMs.

They always spit out the cash needed, without any hiccups. However, coming to Mexico and Central America, and taking out cash is tantamount to selling your soul to the devil, signing a 100 page contract, and still not getting your wish fulfilled. We both have cash in our accounts back home. We have the necessary balance in our accounts. We just need to be able to take that money out.
Every single time, we have moved to a new country and sometimes even new cities within that country, it is time to play Roulette with the ATMs to figure out which one works, which one doesn’t, and which card will they accept.

We have a paypal account, Visa, Mastercard, Cards with chips and without chips, and debit cards from three different banks.

We have a bunch of cards that we present to each bank that we go to, and hope and pray that one of them will give us the cash that we desperately need. Seriously, ATMs have become the new bane of our existence. We just don’t know when they will start acting up and refuse to play fair.
The first time this was a real problem was when we entered Guatemala. We crossed the border from Belize with enough cash on us for food for 2 days. On our first night we found a hotel that let us pay with a credit card and the next morning we went out to look for an ATM. The first one we found was in a mall, we tried all of our cards and the bank machine refused them all. We went upstairs since there seemed to be an actual bank, but when we tried to actually walk inside the nice security guard sporting a loaded shotgun told us there is no ATM at this bank; the only ATM in the mall is the one we had already tried. We walked down the road to the next bank, same problem.
A couple of hours and 3 banks later, we still had not managed to take out cash. At this point we only had enough money for food for the day and Thenix was already making plans to call someone back home to send us money via Western Union as we spotted one of their offices. The last bank in town did have an ATM and it was a different brand than the one we tried. Unfortunately it was out of service. The security guard told us that it won’t be fixed until tomorrow morning in the best case scenario. Thankfully he also told us that we can talk to someone within the bank to take out cash. After standing in 3 different lineups (30min each), filling out a couple of forms and a clerk filling out paperwork for about 45min on 2 computers and a typewriter, we finally managed to take out some cash from my VISA credit card as they didn’t accept any of our bank cards or Thenix’s MasterCard.
Sometime we run into problems even after we find an ATM that we know works. In Nicaragua and Costa Rica power outages are quite frequent and they can last a long time.

There was at least one instance where we encountered a day long power outage that prevented us from taking out cash.

All we could do is wait and hope that the next day the power would come back on long enough for us to take out cash. Thankfully it did, otherwise we would have had to drive until we found a town with power and a working ATM.
It really seems that the countries that we are visiting do not have a proper infrastructure yet.

Maybe in a few years, they will have ATMs that work with all cards, Maestro or Plus, or whatever, with no issues at all.

Until then, if you plan on visiting these countries, I recommend that you allocate at least one day upon entering one of these countries to figure out which ATMs work for you and then take out enough cash to last you two weeks. As well if you are heading to a smaller beach or mountain town, beware that your cards will probably not work and ensure that you go into these towns with enough cash to pay for the tours, food and hotels.

– This post has been published in Panama City, Panama.

If you haven’t heard of the Big Trip yet, you are in for a treat. Boom & Thenix are driving a 1998 Honda Civic down to the southern most tip of South America, through the West Coast of the US, Mexico, Central and South America. We left on July 17th for this amazing adventure with the help of our sponsor Wise24. For a map of our trip so far, please click here. If you have questions about costs, visas, or anything else trip-related, please see our post on The Big Trip or check out our Archives. Add us to Google+.

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