As you can see from the table in this article showing ATM withdrawal limits and fees, the cost of using ATMs in South America can really rack up, especially if you are travelling long-term. To avoid ATM fees, educate yourself on how to manage your banking, use more than one bank or prepaid debit card product so that you have the widest range of options possible and use the information in this article to learn how to use these cards to your advantage and save money.
This article is based on my visit to 9 countries across South America over a period of nearly 2 years. All of the photography and videography in this article is my own – no stock photos, no posing, no filters!
Firstly, let’s look at why overseas ATM withdrawal fees are something that you should know about. Below is a list of average ATM withdrawal fees for each country in South America. These are ordered from the most expensive to the least expensive based on a cash spending of €30 per day (€210 per week). For example, in the case of Argentina, spending of €210 per week with a withdrawal limit of €63 means that you would have to make 4 withdrawals per week. This would result in 4 ATM withdrawal fees of €6 equating to a cost of €24 per week, or €96 per month, just to withdraw cash. I have rounded these figures and exchange rates are constantly changing so this is only a snapshot of one point in time but it should be useful as a general guide and provide a good basis for you to do your own research.
|Country / Currency||ATM Cash Withdrawal Fee||ATM Cash Withdrawal Limit||Fee as a % of the Maximum Withdrawal||Weekly ATM Fees Based on Spending of €30 per Day (€210)||Monthly ATM Fees Based on Spending of €30 per Day (€210)|
€6 / $7
€63 / $70
€24 / $28
€96 / $112
€4 / $5
€98 / $107
€12 / $15
€48 / $60
€5 / $6
€189 / $207
€10 / $12
€40 / $48
€4.50 / $5.50
€122 / $134
€9 / $11
€36 / $44
€6 / $7
€250 / $280
€6 / $7
€24 / $28
€4.50 / $5
€327 / $360
€4.50 / $5
€18 / $20
(Real – BRL)
€3.5 / $4
€225 / $246
€3.5 / $4
€14 / $16
€3.5 / $4
€319 / $350
€3.5 / $4
€14 / $16
€3.50 / $4
€214 / $235
€3.50 / $4
€14 / $16
|Bolivia (Boliviano: BOB)||12 BOB|
€1.50 / $1.75
€263 / $289
€1.50 / $1.75
€6 / $7
|French Guiana (Euro: EUR)||Part of France / EU / Eurozone||Part of France / EU / Eurozone||Part of France / EU / Eurozone||Part of France / EU / Eurozone||Part of France / EU / Eurozone|
How the Banks Take Advantage of You
The combination of extremely low cash withdrawal limits and very high withdrawal fees means that you have to make more withdrawals and this results in a higher number of already expensive transaction fees. For example, in Argentina, with a very low transaction limit of €63, if you spent €30 per day in cash, you would need to pay €24 per week to sustain this. Some other countries like Chile also have similar ATM withdrawal fees but with a higher withdrawal limit that lets you take out a larger amount of cash in one transaction and with a lower number of withdrawals, this brings down the cost significantly. You can pay by card to avoid using cash as much as possible and minimise the costs but with a lot of vendors accepting only VISA or mastercard, or not accepting any payments by card, you may be left with no option but to pay in cash. The system in Argentina is the most frustrating of all of the countries in the world that I have visited and for budget travellers, it isn’t something that encourages tourists to spend more time in the country.
How to Avoid Fees
So, by now it should be clear that ATM cash withdrawal fees can cost you a lot of money if you are not careful. Thankfully, there are several ways to significantly reduce the cost of withdrawing cash from overseas ATMs and this article will help you to become more informed and chose the best banking options for your own situation. First, keep reading to understand the fees involved when using ATMs overseas. The last section will give you some guidance on choosing a bank or currency card product.
Understanding Overseas ATM Cash Withdrawal Fees
Avoid Double Fees
Most people might not realise it, but every time you use an ATM overseas both the ATM’s bank and your home bank will charge you a fee. Let’s look at each of these separately.
Fees Charged by the Overseas Bank
The overseas bank (the ATM that you are using) will probably charge you a set fee or charge you a fee based on the percentage value of the transaction, with set fees being more common. I found that set fees for ATM withdrawals in South America usually amounted to around €4-5 per cash withdrawal, no matter what amount you withdraw. This can really add up over time if you make 1 or 2 withdrawals per week. This is especially expensive in countries like Argentina that limit each transaction to about €63, so in this case there’s no avoiding ATM fees by taking out less frequent but larger withdrawal amounts. The overseas bank will always tell you that it is charging a fee and ask you if you want to continue to proceed with the transaction, so if you want to cancel and try another bank, you have the option to shop around.
Fees Charged by Your Home Bank
Your home bank will most likely charge you a fee based on the percentage value of the transaction. The simplest way to avoid this is to use a bank account or currency card service which allows you to make unlimited overseas ATM withdrawals without any fees. You will most likely have to pay for this privilege but considering the ATM fees that you would avoid, it might well be worth paying for this premium feature.
Understanding Overseas ATM Cash Withdrawal Exchange Rates
Exchange Rates Used by Your Home Bank
Most of the big banks in the country you are visiting will charge you in the local currency. So if you are in Brazil, you will be charged the amount of Brazilian Reals that you chose to withdraw (plus any ATM fee that the Brazilian bank charges) and your home bank will use a standard exchange rate (mid-market rate) as displayed on XE.com or google). This is where banks aimed at travellers such as N26 will guarantee you the best rates, although there shouldn’t be too much difference compared to the rates of traditional banks.
Exchange Rates Used by a Foreign Bank or Non-Bank ATM
However sometimes, especially with non-bank ATMs, you will be offered an option to withdraw an amount in your home currency (Euro, Dollars etc.) which the foreign bank will convert for you, at their own rate. This is called dynamic currency conversion (DCC). They will be fully upfront and display their conversion rate to you but in most cases this is not a good option as they can charge very high rates and if you are not informed, you will go with this and pay a much higher rate than needed.
How I Avoid ATM Withdrawal Fees in South America
The Cards that I Travel with
I travel with the following cards:
– Traditional Bank – VISA – Debit Card
– Traditional Bank – Mastercard – Credit Card
– Modern Bank (N26) – Mastercard – Debit Card
– Prepaid Card Service (Revolut) – Mastercard – Prepaid Debit Card
– Prepaid Card Service (Revolut) – Mastercard – Prepaid Debit Card (Spare)
The Waterfall Card Method
My method, let’s coin it the ‘Waterfall Card Method’, is quite simply about keeping your money in different places to let you have the most safety but always allow you to be flexible and have a card with you at the same time. Here are the steps to the Waterfall Card Method with a budget of €12,000 for 1 year of travel (€1,000 per month):
Level 1: At the beginning, all of your money (€12,000) is sitting safely in a traditional bank account (Traditional Bank VISA Debit Card). You have this card with you on your trip but it always stays in a safe place like a locker. This is because as it’s a traditional bank card, the overseas rates and fees are not great and you won’t use it at ATMs or for POS (Point of Sale) transactions. Also, if you lose this card it will probably be a nightmare to get another one shipped out to whatever remote place you might be in.
Level 2: For the first month, do an online transfer of your money for that month (€1,000) to your ‘Modern Bank’ account (N26 Mastercard Debit Card). This is the card that you will use for taking money out of the ATM because this bank card will give you the best foreign exchange rate and won’t charge you ATM withdrawal fees. You still won’t carry this card around all the time though because it might also be an issue to get a quick replacement and it might have up to €1,000 on it. That could be a lot of free almuerzos for a cheeky mugger!
Level 3: So you’ve used your second card to get cash but you only need to do this once every week or so. For everyday transactions, you only need to carry one card and that’s your Non-Bank Prepaid Debit Card. Daily or as often as you like, from your mobile app, transfer €50-100 from your Modern Bank to your Revolut account. And if you do happen to get mugged or lose your Prepaid Debit Card, don’t worry. You can disable the lost card from the mobile app. Also, before you leave on your trip, you can request a second card for under €10 and have 2 cards for the same account, which means that you always have a back up. Also, as you will use this day to day, you can track all of your expenses in the app and easily manage your budget!
So I travelled with 5 cards: 3 for separate bank accounts and 2 linked to the same Revolut account. It might sound a bit crazy to travel with so many cards but this will give you the most options to avoid ATM transaction fees as much as possible. Also, in Argentina, a lot of vendors like restaurants only accepted either VISA or Mastercard, and rarely accepted both, so on these occasions I carried both VISA and Mastercard cards to cover myself. It also really makes travel less stressful knowing that you have 4 back ups!
How I Avoided ATM Cash Withdrawal Fees in Most Countries in South America
Below is a table showing the banks in each country that didn’t charge me a fee for using my N26 card to withdraw cash from ATMs.
Bolivia Banco Mercantil Santa Cruz
Colombia Banco Pichincha
Ecuador Banco Pichincha
French Guiana Part of France / EU / Eurozone
Guyana Sorry, I haven’t visited this country yet!
Paraguay Sorry, I only used an ATM once and forgot which bank it was!
Peru BCP (Banco de Crédito del Perú)
Suriname Sorry, I haven’t visited this country yet!
Venezuela Sorry, I haven’t visited this country yet!
What to Look for in a Bank Account for Travel
The Competition: Which Bank or Prepaid Debit Card is Best for Travel
There are limited banking options in a small country like Ireland but in Europe and large countries like the USA, there are a larger range of options that are available. So it really depends where you are coming from and what options you have in your home country’s market. In this article, I haven’t focused on specific banks in any market because there are just too many moving variables as bank account products and rates change regularly. This article has used examples from the Irish/European market and although these might not apply to you, the methodology should be the same all around the world so you can apply the same principles when deciding what bank account options are best for you and your travels.
A Bank, Not a Financial Services Provider
There are lots of financial services and tools out there such as currency cards and transfer services – remember that these are not necessarily banks. For security reasons (as outlined in this article), a registered bank that has a banking licence is generally a much better option than a financial services provider or currency card service. Revolut is one example of a non-bank card that I have used and although it worked very well for me most of the time, I did have issues with incorrect information being displayed in my app. I spotted one transaction where the amount was completely incorrect. I raised the problem with Revolut’s support and they fixed the issue although there were several other incorrect transactions that they corrected that I didn’t even spot. For me and probably for most people, banking is not a service where you want to see any mistakes! This is worrying and I have lost a lot of trust in the service so as a general rule I would never put huge sums of money onto these types of cards. However, these types of services still have their uses for the savvy traveller and it’s always good to have an extra option, especially if it’s a free service that’s not costing you anything.
A Modern, Mobile Bank
There are traditional banks and modern banks. In Ireland, the traditional banks such as Bank of Ireland and AIB do have mobile friendly Apps but still lack the functionality, services and value that a modern bank provides. N26 is a modern bank and brands itself as a ‘Mobile Bank’. It’s ‘N26 You’ (previously ‘N26 Black’) service has a monthly fee but allows for free unlimited overseas ATM withdrawals. I paid for this service and found it to be great value on my travels.