Bank cards abroad – a cautionary tale

February 3rd, 2010

I’ve been saying for a long time that one of the great unsung miracles of modern commerce is the magic way that I can slot a plastic card into a machine anywhere from St Petersburg to Punta Arenas and magically receive money drawn against my account. Compare that with when my father went on holiday to Devon as a child, when his father would get a specially-written letter of credit from the manager of Lloyds in his home town to the manager of Lloyds in the seaside resort they visited, outlining how much money he could draw whilst on holiday!

However, my bank (Co-op) are good at many things but foreign transactions are not one of them. The card seems to work reliably enough, but each transaction hits you for a £2.50 fee plus a “load” on the interbank exchange rate. This quickly becomes irritating, and I turned to the mighty earlier in the year for a workaround. What I got from them was a new credit card – a Santander Zero card, which charges no transaction fee and no forex load. This is great for making payments by credit card, but often you need cash as well. Now, you can get a cash advance on the Santander card, but being a credit card you pay interest on cash advances from day 1, rather than getting an interest-free period as you would for purchases. Enter the CaxtonFX card. The Caxton cards are a pre-paid Mastercard that’s good for payments and for cash withdrawals. You load them up, wait a couple of hours for the transaction to go through, then use as you would a debit card.

I thought with these two systems in place, I’d manage fine in Ottawa. However, things started badly when the Caxton card failed to arrive before I left – despite having been ordered several weeks before (admittedly, the Christmas holidays and the snow chaos can’t have helped). But I thought I’d be fine – I still had the Santander card, and ultimately the Co-op cards as a fallback.

Upon arriving at Ottawa airport I stuck my Santander card into an ATM. The machine declined my PIN. This is odd – but then I recall that I had changed my PIN at a Santander ATM in the UK before I left, but hadn’t used the card since. Perhaps the PIN change didn’t go through somehow? Anyway, I try the card again in the ATM at CRC, and get the same error. Oh dear. I call Santander and get them to issue me a new PIN. This has to come by post and can take two weeks to arrive (honestly, how long does it take to generate a four digit number?) and so that ruled that card out for a while. In the mean time I drew cash on the Co-op card (in large quantities, so as to minimise the effect of the £2.50 charge) and carried on. Eventually the Caxton card showed up in Cambridge and my mail agents forwarded it to me in Canada – where it works fine. I’ve used it both in shops and at ATMs. However, yesterday I was faced with a tricky dilemma – I have only a few days left in Canada and don’t want to draw more currency than necessary. I tried to top the Caxton card up with £30, and was told the minimum load was £100. Bah. The Caxton card charges £1.50 for transactions in the UK, so I want to leave the minimum balance on it between foreign trips. I call my mail agents in Cambridge, and the lady kindly ferrets out the PIN letter from Santander. Hey presto, PIN code. I take the bus downtown and try the card out. The first ATM I try (in a branch of Scotiabank) refuses my card without giving a reason (presumably their ATM network isn’t compatible with my card) and so I try a branch of Desjardins instead. Hurrah, $20CAD from my credit card! I pay for my breakfast in a cafe with the card (though interestingly they have no chip-and-pin, back to signatures – most Canadian retailers do have chip-and-pin now) and it goes through fine. At lunchtime I find myself at a suburban mall, getting a bite of lunch before getting a cab to the Geomagnetic lab nearby. The lunch counter’s card machine claims my PIN is invalid and won’t process. I pay with cash. Later, I put the card back into the Desjardins ATM I tried earlier, and it goes through fine. I think now that certain Canadian terminals possibly generate a “wrong PIN” error if they can’t authorise for some other reason – and that had I stuck my Santander card into the right ATM when I first arrived I might well have avoided the need for this particular performance! Oh well, you live and learn…

One Response to “Bank cards abroad – a cautionary tale”

  1. Cy Says:

    HSBC have a habit of blocking my card when I’m abroad. Which is annoying as I have to take a passport into a UK branch to unblock it.

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