I’ve always been able to use my debit or credit card during my visits to the Philippines. Though it has always been a struggle to use an ATM, sometimes bordering on panic, when it appears that I may have been blocked out of using my cards.

Let me just say that the problems I encounter are, for the most part, due to not having lived in the regions that I’m visiting, and not yet experiencing what works and what doesn’t. I am sure that most expats have found reliable ATMs for their transactions on their US based cards. They have also learned the available limits and the required fees. Unfortunately, that doesn’t help the visiting tourist who doesn’t know these things. Even after many visits to the Philippines I still find myself in this later category.

In theory I should be able to use most ATMs in the Philippines and withdraw funds from my US bank accounts. It is important to note that before you leave on your trip that you should notify your issuing bank of the place and times of your visit. I learned that one early on, as one of my banks put my card on hold and I couldn’t even use it when I returned until I contacted them regarding the matter.

What I have encountered when trying to withdraw cash is a VERY mixed bag of results. More often than not, I have not been able to get any cash at all on a particular transaction. The percentage of success I’ve had is quite low. The extremely frustrating part of that is the notifications from the ATM rarely explain the reason I was not able to withdraw cash. Sometimes telling me to contact my US based bank. That’s really difficult to do on a weekend in the Philippines.

The reasons seem to be: wrong pin (yes I’ve gotten frustrated and entered the wrong pin on occasion), trying to withdraw more than that particular bank/ATM allows, the ATM or bank being offline, the ATM being out of cash, debit/credit card not compatible with the bank’s system, and the ATM not working with US debit/card cards.

In addition to the unknown of what machines might actually work with your card, there is the unknown of what charges you will incur. Evidently the ATMs there now charge anywhere from P150-200, depending upon the bank. That fee is listed on your receipt, assuming you get one and you can read it. Three of the receipts I got from the BDO ATM at NCCC Mall were completely blank. This fee is new to me, as I had not been charged it in the past.

The fee for BDO turned out to be P200, that is in addition to the fee that my bank charges. Upon returning I looked into my charges more closely (as I could never remember the exchange being so high before) and learned that I was charged the P200 by BDO, $2.50 by my bank, and 3% visa fee by my bank. There was also what appeared to be a small exchange rate difference, but it was not much. Effectively I had an exchange rate of about P39.5 to 1 on every transaction.

You know that wouldn’t have been too bad, that’s the price of not knowing but also having money for my vacation, but I used the ATM four times, as I did not know how much I could withdraw at one time. Many attempts, as I stated, were unsuccessful and it appeared that I was locked out of my cards. When I finally got it to work I took out a minimal amount, wondering if I had been trying to take out too much previously. I increased the amounts each time, but did not want to try too large a sum, as I needed the funds for the rest of my stay.

I’ve done a lot of research since that time, and that’s where I learned of the new ATM fees being charged by Philippine banks. I understand that HSBC may not charge those, and I will give them a try next time. I’ve also learned the percentage charged by your bank can vary anywhere from 0% to 3%. It would be wise to check with your bank(s) before you leave to find out about your charges. I certainly will from here on out, and it may effect how much physical cash I decide to bring.

Checklist for using ATM with US card:

  • Notify your bank of your trip so they don’t lock your card(s)
  • Bring as much cash as you can, but only what you feel comfortable with
  • Check your bank’s fees – both ATM use and visa percentage charge (here is a good source)
  • Bring at least two different bank’s cards, if you have them
  • Have a back up source, such as Remithome/Xoom to send emergency funds if all else fails
  • Contact other expats in the area you are visiting and find out which ATMs work for them
  • Have lots of patience – try other banks’s ATMs and other ATM locations for the same bank

This is another of those areas that I feel could be improved upon to help attract tourist and keep them coming back. I don’t know how the government would go about standardizing this, or even if they could, but if it could somehow make it more clear how to get your money and where, it would surely help increase the amount a tourist would spend while there.

It really seems to me that sometimes the big picture tourism push is missing the point and not paying attention to the basic necessities of their visitors.

photo: WN / Renzelle Mae Abasolo

Anki Bisaya Phrasebook Flashcards