A few days ago I had some errands to run. It was time to pay for cable, internet and cell phone and we needed groceries.
We also needed to replenish our cash reserves at the trusty ATM.
The cab dropped us off next to our preferred bank’s ATM, and my husband whipped out his card and stepped up to the machine. He punched all the buttons, waited and . . . nothing. Nada. Zip. No message on the screen, just back to the usual “welcome” setting.
No Cash for Us at the Local ATM
So he tried again. Same thing happened.
We stepped into the bank and asked the young woman at the desk. She indicated there was a problem with the machine, we thanked her politely and went down the street to another bank and another ATM.
It was a replay of the first episode, only this time the final screen told us ominously that it couldn’t complete our transaction and we needed to contact our bank.
“Maybe it’s an issue with his debit card,” we thought. So I tried mine. Same thing.
Trying hard not to panic we went on about our errands. I was able to use my debit card to pay for cable and internet, a good sign.
The Problem Wasn’t with our US Bank
When we got home I called our credit union back in the US. (We’re living in a small town in Panama as expats.)
“There’s no problem with your account,” the rep told us cheerfully. “And I can’t see any attempts to withdraw or any declines. Maybe their system just wasn’t communicating with ours. Why don’t you try a different ATM?”
We did, I explained.
“Well,” she said cheerfully, “just try again later.”
That’s all well and good, but it’s hard to stay calm when you don’t know where your next ATM cash withdrawal is coming from. Is it a temporary glitch between Panama’s banks and the US? Will it be fixed right away? Will it drag on for weeks?
Get a Local Account
This is why it’s important to have a local bank account when you’re living abroad. Why don’t we have one yet? Because we goofed.
Before leaving the US, I visited our credit union and got the letter of recommendation I knew we’d need. But what I didn’t know was that we would need a separate one for each of us. Even though our account is joint, we need one letter with my name on it and one letter with my husband’s name on it.
Not every bank in every foreign country has this requirement, but it’s the norm here.
Up until now, the whole ATM thing has been working perfectly, so we weren’t rushing. Now we’ll step it up. Because we only have enough cash on hand for about a week’s worth of expenses. After that, if we can’t access our Stateside funds, we’re up the proverbial creek without a paddle.
This little incident does have a happy ending. We were able to withdraw funds the next day without a problem. Phew!
Set Up Your Local Bank Account Early
As soon as you have an address in your new country, set up a local bank account. Even if you plan to get most of your funds from your “home” account, you should have a local account with enough funds for a couple of months worth of living expenses.
This is one part of your life administration you don’t want to find out the hard way!