Banking in Latin America

If you use ATMs in Latin America to get your money from your accounts in other countries, expect to have periodic problems. It has happens to me twice and on Friday it happened to Lilliam.

Here is the scenario.

Lilliam made an ATM request to get money from her account in Costa Rica. The ATM went through the motions to give the money – noise giving the impression it was getting ready to dispense money, but alas, no money.

In my past cases, the ATM made sounds like it counting the money too, but then stopped because of a problem. Maybe it had less money that it thought it had. Maybe it had a hardware failure. For what ever reason it didn’t give money.

The latest problem happened to Lilliam at Banco Universal in El Rey. When it didn’t give the money, it put up a strange warning message saying not to reenter the pin number. The other ATM in El Rey afterwards said the daily limit had been exceeded, indicating that the first ATM had indeed posted the transaction.

When one of the ATMs erroneously posts a withdrawal, the only way to resolve it is through your bank. Even though the bank with the failing machine has a record of the transaction not going through and the daily balance being off, you have to resolve it by calling the bank having the account.

When I have had it happen to me, I have been able to call my bank in the US and talk to a real person and handle the problem over the phone. If memory serves me, the transaction was always corrected by the end of the phone call.

Lilliam’s bank was in Costa Rica. Multiple phone calls to the bank failed to get to a real person. The only thing left to do was to drive to the Frontera and go to the bank there.

The wait in the bank was about 2 1/2 hours. Then Lilliam was told the claim would be submitted to San Jose and it would take 22 days to process and at that time the money should be place back in the account.

The bank charged her $10 for this fantastic service. When you add to that $10 for gasoline to drive to the Frontera, it was a pretty expensive hardware failure. It will be interesting to see, when the transaction is reversed, if they also reverse the ATM and Clave charges. What do you think are the odds of that happening?

If you choose to live in Panama or any Latin American country, it is the bureaucracy that is the most difficult to get used to. I thought it was an annoyance when I had to call the US when I had ATM problems here. It was nothing compared to the problems Lilliam had to go through to fix the problem today and we won’t know if it is solved for 22 days.

11 thoughts on “Banking in Latin America

  1. Hi Don,

    Just to let you know, you and Lilliam had it easy. lol This has happened to me in the past, the last time a few years ago. I was using an ATM twice in Panama City at El Rey also. Same scenario, sounds like counting money then no money. The account was from the US. Not only would HSBC bank here, not do anything about it, it was a HSBC ATM machine that I used, I had to call my bank in the US, let them know what happened, they had to contact HSBC here, and I had to get a notified, stamped letter stating what happened. Bring it back to HSBC for them to reverse not only the amount I was taking out, but the “foreign exchange” charges also. After it happened the second time at El Rey, I stopped using El Rey machines and it hasn’t happened since. (Knocking on wood).

    It took 2 months for my account to be credited and a whole lot of running around to get a certified letter, couldnt find a notary public who spoke/read english, and the cost, I cant remember what that was. lol

    So if you are living in Panama, I have found the easiest thing to do is, take a certain amount of cash out of your account every month, and try to use your card for purchases instead of using the cash. The less you use your card for ATM withdrawals, the less chance of a problem.

    Good luck and life is good in Panama, you just have to learn the easier ways. lol

  2. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment Marianne. It is these little things that make you really appreciate when everything is going along smoothly.

  3. Sheesh, what a mess. I’ve had an ATM tell me I exceeded my limit when I didn’t, or say it couldn’t process a transaction at all, but nothing worse than that. Who do you bank with in the US? We use Wells Fargo and have been very pleased, though thankfully we’ve never put them to the test on this problem.

  4. Glad I didn’t have as much trouble as Lilliam the last time this happened to us. While we have a good working relationship with our US bank it still required me to accept a claim form via email, print it, sign it detailing exactly what happened and when, and then scanning it and re emailing it back to the bank. Money was returned to our account within 7-10 days. At least now they know the procedure to follow. The first time this happened (4 years ago), they had never heard of such a thing happening. It seems that the intermediary between the ATM in Panama and our US bank hiccups once in awhile and “swallows the money”. For us it usually happens when the ATM is at a “non bank” location but I have had it happen once at HSBC branch by the Do it Center.

  5. Before I left the USA in 2010 and moved to Panama, I became more acquainted with the ecommerce security officer at the credit union I use there. I visited with the officer face-to-face on many occasions asking lots of questions about what I should do if this or that happened. I even introduced my wife to the security officer in the event something happened and my wife needed assistance. I wanted the security officer to hear my wife’s voice. I’m even Facebook buddies with the security officer.

    I’ve had an ATM problem only once in Boquete where the machine did not dispense the $$. I called the security officer at my credit union and the withdrawal limit problem was immediately resolved. I didn’t have to do anything else.

    When I need a temporary increase to my ATM withdrawal limit, I send a request to the security officer through the credit union’s secure messaging system. The withdrawal limit is increased usually within 30 to 60 minutes. I can also call the security office on the phone and get immediate assistance as long as I also follow-up with a written electronic request.

    Generally speaking and if possible, I highly recommend anyone moving to Panama to give serious thought about using a USA credit union. If possible, get on a first name basis and become friends with the person who can fix your problem. Ask questions and understand withdrawal limits and how to raise them.

    I have been a member of this credit union since 1988. Over the years, I have also used 4 or 5 banks. For me, the credit union always provided good service and lower service fees…lower than the banks. I’ve had accounts at 2 banks in Panama. Both experiences have been great. However, I’ve decided that, for now, my credit union is the best financial service provider for my particular situation of living in Panama…even with the international transaction fees.

  6. A note about getting something notarized here that’s in English. It ISN’T necessary for the notary to be able to read English. All they are doing is attesting that your SIGNATURE is valid, NOT the contents of the letter. So don’t sign anything until you are in the presence of the notary.

  7. I haven’t run into this problem (yet) but I did get a scare yesterday. I went to do some shopping at the Romero in San Mateo and used the ATM there. I usually take out $500 at a whack and thought that is what I’d punched into the machine there. It whirred and whizzed and handed me $200! Yikes!! I’ve read, elsewhere, of the hassles of something like that happening. The very first thing I did when I got online this morning was to log in to my U.S. account and thankfully it showed that I must have punched the $200 button because that’s what my account had been debited.

  8. Your welcome Don and I so appreciate your blogs, I read them daily. I have learned Old Salt since being here for a few years now, that you dont have to have a notary that reads english but when I had already had the letters signed and did not understand what they were telling me, I didnt speak a lick of spanish at the time, I needed to find a notary who could explain that to me. lol

    Also, I ALWAYS before traveling out of the country, even if it is to the states, I always notify the bank letting them know I will be traveling to the country I am going so that my card is not red flagged and cancelled. That was a word of advice from my bank. With so much credit card fraud happening, it is just a precaution to take. Noone wants to go on vacation and have their card cancelled.

    Have a great day all and thanks for the stories, there is always great advice from someone. Marianne

  9. In five years I have had one ATM problem, no cash but my account was debited. I contacted my Royal Bank of Canada through online secure serviced. Stated the date, location, time, etc.. They indicated that they had to initiate the enquiry the Panama bank (HSBC ATM) and that it would take 3-6 weeks. In about 4 weeks I had the $500 re-credited to my Canada account. I think the problem is more with the one company and their systems that handles ALL the interbank transactions for ATM’s. But all in all there is probably an infinitismally small failure rate. So take out $500 at a shoot and keep it in your safe.

  10. For those living in Panama the easiest method of using an ATM machine is to open an account in a local bank, deposit a check from your U.S. bank into the local bank and use the local bank’s ATM card to withdraw money. If there is a problem, just visit your local bank to straighten it out.
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