One of the first things you’ll grow to dislike, once your travel for longer than your standard two-week vacation, are banking regulations.
When you travel for short spells, ATM and credit card transaction fees won’t amount to that much. In fact, you may avoid them all together if you use Traveler’s Checks and your bank provides them free of fees.
Another strategy is to convert to local currency all the cash you think you’ll be using during your stay. Both approaches may work, but only if you plan to stick to touristy places (that take traveler’s checks) or don’t mind carrying huge wads of cash with you (not recommended).
What to do? Here are some simple tips that will help you manage your cash better during short-term or long-term stays:
Watch the Exchange Rates
Exchange booths at airports usually are among the worst offenders when it comes to horrible (for you) exchange rates. I recommend that you only exchange what’s necessary to get you through the day or weekend until you get to a bank.
Banks almost always offer better rates than airports and currency exchange booths at tourist-heavy areas (I’m looking at you, Niagara Falls area ripoff-artists).
Put Away That Credit Card (If You Can Help It)
Another option is to use ATMs to withdraw needed amounts from your Visa/Mastercard check card. The advantage of using a check card is that you stay away from the typically outrageous “advance fees” that credit cards charge.
The downside is that you will most likely get charged an ATM fee whether you’re using a check card or credit card. There are exceptions, however.
The Greatest Travel Card in the World
Before embarking on your travels, you’re well advised to open a Charles Schwab High-Yield Checking account – the greatest card ever for travelers. They will reimburse all your ATM fees and offer competitive exchange rates. And, get this NO FOREIGN TRANSACTION FEES! Most credit cards will charge you 1%-3% fee on any foreign transaction.
They also have excellent customer service. I’ve already called them twice about ATMs that malfunctioned and did not spit out the amount I requested, and they refunded the money both times, with zero hassle.
Beware of ATM Fraud
On the topic of malfunctioning ATMs, watch where you stick that credit/debit card. Don’t just jam it in whatever ATM slot you come across, as there have been cases here where crude skimming devices have been found affixed to machines. Please practice safe banking ;)
While traveling, I’ve yet to be hit with any fraudulent charges. I credit this to staying away from using my card for point-of-sale purchases, checking out all ATMs I come across for signs of tampering, and only using those ATMs that are inside banks or guarded by lock and key after the bank closes. No 24-hour accessible ATMs for me.
Tips for ATM Usage in Guatemala
In 2011, there was a rash of complaints about fraudulent credit card activity near the ATMs in Antigua Guatemala’s Parque Central. By collecting victims’ accounts of compromise, others were able to narrow the culprit down to specific ATMs belonging to BAC Bank that were transmitting user’s unencrypted information to the bank’s branch nearby. The unencrypted information allowed hackers to sniff out the data traffic and get ATM users’ account information.
Again, this is why I recommend using ATMS inside the bank, or visibly hardwired to a branch within the same physical structure.
For ATM withdrawals in Guatemala, you’ll be limited to only Q2,000 max per day if using a yellow 5B Bank ATMs such as this one. This is what they look like:
Banco Industrial (BI) blue ATMs will allow you only Q2,000 max per withdrawal, but up to 3 times, for a maximum of Q6,000 per day.
Santander ATMs will also allow you three withdrawals of Q2,000, and offer the option to withdraw in dollars as well (I haven’t tried the latter option – why pay exchange rate fees twice?)
I haven’t tried BAC Bank ATMs’ (white with red Lion logo on the side), even though they’re right near Antigua’s Central Park. No need to when there’s a perfectly safe 5B machine inside the CitiBank branch (above), on the Northeastern side of the park.
What About Opening a Bank Account?
Opening a foreign bank account is one of the greatest challenges you may face as an expat, depending on the country you choose to settle in. Just because the bank is the same as where your account is located in your country of origin, it doesn’t automatically mean that you’ll be able to use your account the same way or even open another account at the foreign branch – which is what happened to me at CitiBank.
I inquired at CitiBank about opening an account in Guatemala. The requirements to do so were the following:
2- Another foreign ID – Driver’s License for example
3- Application with information about Guatemalan Sponsor and said sponsor’s national ID (Cedula)
4- 1,000 dollars or 1,500 quetzales (Not a typo – doesn’t make sense to me either).
5- Copy of Utility Bill in your name
Meet all these requirements and it still won’t guarantee you a bank account. Usually, other “required” documents tend to be asked for after the fact.
So plan your withdrawal strategy accordingly to avoid fees. It’s also a good idea to keep a reasonable amount on hand, safely tucked away at home. You never know when you might need to get out of a jam quickly should an emergency come up, as it’s not easy to get a hold of a significant sum quickly.
Also, check out my Pinterest page about Antigua Guatemala, one of the prettiest colonial cities in the world and latest digital nomad destination I’m trying out.