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3 Things That Can Go Wrong at a Mexican ATM -- and How to Fix Them

One of the occasionally frustrating things about living in Mexico stems from a mundane activity -- withdrawing pesos from a local ATM for living expenses.


What makes it frustrating?


Unlike the tech you are accustomed to from your home country -- ATMs in Mexico are far less reliable in my experience. So when things go sideways (as we'll get into below), you must summon patience, resilience, and problem-solving skills to get things back on track.


Below are three ATM snafus I've encountered in the past 6 months, and what to do about them.

BBVA ATM machines
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Headache 1: The ATM Doesn't Dispense Your Money -- But Debits the Foreign Account Anyway


On a Friday afternoon last February, I stopped to get cash at the ATM of a Santander branch I visited frequently, as it was a short bike ride from my house. On this occasion, the ATM failed to dispense any cash, which sometimes happens after everyone's cashed their paycheck.


Before leaving I tried one more machine in the branch, and this attempt failed too.


Because I needed money for the weekend, I stopped at a Banorte ATM later that same afternoon, and the transaction was declined yet again, even though I had plenty of funds in my source account.


At Banorte, the ATM declined the transaction for an odd reason. It said I'd exceeded my daily withdrawal limit, despite receiving no cash on any of my three attempts at two different banks.


Hmmmm.


That evening I logged onto my U.S. bank account and noticed that Santander had debited my foreign account for the $6,000 pesos ($355 USD) it never gave me. Sheesh.


My first thought was... This will be a pain to sort out because I can't prove I didn't receive the money.


How to Fix It


Upon discovering the error, I immediately called my foreign bank (Fidelity), to explain what had happened.


To my surprise, the gentleman in Fidelity's fraud department said he'd heard of it happening to other clients in Mexico and agreed to open an investigation. While promising nothing, he said electronic errors like this usually take about 10 business days to resolve.


Returning to Santander the following Monday morning (since bank branches are always closed on Sat-Sun in Mexico) I was prepared for the worst.


Wise money transfers

I'd already met the branch director Señora Rodriguez on a previous visit while investigating savings account options. When I described how the ATM failed to dispense money to me but debited my foreign account anyway, she seemed unfazed.


Sra. Rodriguez readily admitted the ATMs at her branch sometimes failed like this. Next, she advised me to file an inquiry with my foreign bank (already done) and assured me the two banks would resolve it.


I followed up once more with Fidelity a few days later to pass along the branch manager's name and number, and on the 10th business day, USD $355 was restored to my foreign account.


 

Summary of Steps to Take


  1. Contact your foreign bank and ask them to open an investigation as soon as you discover the error.

  2. Enter the branch where the error occurred and report it to the bank's manager. (do this first if it happens during business hours)

  3. Get the Mexican bank manager's contact information and pass it along to the fraud team handling the matter at your foreign bank.

  4. Wait for your foreign bank to resolve the matter with the Mexican bank, and follow any other instructions they give you.

  5. Follow up with your foreign bank if the issue isn't resolved within the time frame specified for resolution.


 

Depending on the foreign bank involved, your mileage may vary. But with prompt action on your part, the missing funds should be returned to you in full.



Headache 2: The ATM Declines Your (Valid) Pin & Locks Your Account


On a recent weekday, I needed a few thousand pesos for a contractor coming to my house. Because I've now got a BBVA account I've been using their ATMs almost exclusively.


I visited my usual branch in Zapopan and entered my PIN number. For some reason, the ATM didn't recognize it, so I thought maybe I'd entered it incorrectly.


I tried again -- and the transaction failed a second time. Frustrated because I needed the cash and didn't want to wait in the bank line, I moved to a different machine and attempted to withdraw cash for a third time.


It failed again, and then indicated my account was now locked.


How to Fix It


Because it was during normal business hours, I entered the branch and explained that my ATM card had failed.


The greeter gave me a number and directed me to the bank tellers to resolve the problem. When it was my turn, I explained what had happened to the teller.


She asked to see my BBVA card and two forms of photo ID. Since I only had one photo ID with me, I had no choice but to head home and return later with more identification.


When I returned (well-dressed), the greeter sent me to the private bankers' side this time. Once again I explained how the ATM failed to recognize my valid PIN and locked my account.


The banker asked for my ID (only one this time!), told me to run my ATM card through the card reader, and then enter my PIN number.


He completed the steps to re-authorize my ATM card with the original PIN. While waiting for the process to be completed, I asked the banker if their system had erased my PIN (no, it hadn't) or if I needed to create a new PIN (that wasn't necessary, but probably a good idea).


Okay, then... why did it fail?


He responded vaguely -- it was simply a machine error. And like a computer that's cached the wrong data, it didn't reset on my subsequent attempts. So when I repeatedly attempted to withdraw funds, it eventually triggered the "too many tries" error.


With no satisfying answer to why it failed, I pondered the situation.


Given the frequency with which ATMs in Mexico throw errors, my theory is that the software probably isn't being updated very often, so bugs don't get addressed until they reach a certain threshold.


Eventually, the banker gave me an "order" to bring to the tellers, who execute ATM card reinstatement.


After receiving yet another number from the greeter and waiting my turn, I approached the teller and handed her the work order. She asked to see my ID. Then she asked me to provide my signature, home address, and phone number.


Finally, I received a sealed piece of paper containing the PIN to reactivate my ATM card. I opened it to find my original PIN number printed there. This was the same number that failed repeatedly earlier in the day and the one I'd just entered at the banker's desk.


Skeptical that it would work, I headed back to the dreaded ATM to try it out. This time, everything went smoothly.


 

Summary of Steps to Take


  1. If your ATM card fails and your account gets locked, step one is to enter the branch to report the problem.

  2. Show your ATM card and photo ID (depending on the bank/banker, you may need to have several).

  3. Request that your card be reinstated.

  4. Once the bank has reactivated your card, immediately retry it to ensure the card is working properly.

  5. It's also a good idea to change your PIN following an incident like this, to safeguard your account if somehow the PIN was compromised.


 

Problem 3: You're Forced to Pay A Huge Commission When Withdrawing Cash


Virtually every foreigner living in Mexico will have occasion to visit a local ATM to access pesos at one time or another. Newly arrived expats and digital nomads are especially likely to withdraw those funds as an "out-of-network" customer, meaning someone who doesn't keep an account at that bank.


For this type of transaction, you're looking at paying two different fees -- the "convenience" fee a bank puts on the ATM withdrawal itself (ranges from $30-100 MXN in most cases) and the commission it takes on converting money from your home country's currency to Mexican pesos.

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If you do not take specific steps to mitigate them, the fees can hit an astonishing USD $16-19 per withdrawal.


Ouch.


While the transaction fee can't be avoided (though various foreign banks will refund them), you can protect yourself against egregious exchange rate commissions.


As this topic has been written about almost everywhere, I won't rehash the basics here. But if you're unsure, please do yourself a favor and read my previous post so you don't accidentally spend a bundle on commissions.


In a nutshell, the standard advice is to DECLINE the Mexican bank's conversion rate when withdrawing funds at an ATM. When you do this, your cash is converted at your foreign bank's exchange rate instead, typically a much more competitive rate.


But what if the ATM doesn't provide the option to decline the Mexican bank's conversion rate? It's a costly twist I've noticed at several large banks recently.


How to Avoid It


If you routinely withdraw cash from Mexican banks as an out-of-network customer, avoid ATMs at BBVA and CitiBanamex completely.


These institutions don't let you choose which conversion rate is used, so you're practically guaranteed to pay higher commissions than at banks where you have the choice. PLus, BBVA charges the highest transaction fees I've ever seen (> $100 pesos in most cases).


If living in a city or town where most major banks are represented, I recommend using Banorte, Santander, or Ban Bajio ATMs instead.


Not only do these banks typically have far lower transaction fees, they also give customers the option to decline the Mexican bank's conversion rate.


 

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