One issue that comes up from time to time, is the issue of money, how to get it, whether to bring it, where to keep it. In the past, American Express Travelers Cheques were a good way to travel with money, as if you lost them, they could be replaced. The problem with those were, back in the 1990's and even today, is getting them changed for actual cash when you're traveling China. Even getting a cash advance from a credit card can be difficult, unless you go to the bigger, better known banks in China, such as Bank of China. The easiest way to access funds when traveling Asia, is via an ATM card.
Here's a quote (unknown author) about the use of ATM's in Asia. I'll add some other comments towards the end of this article.
Many readers often ask us where is the best place to change money when travelling to X country. As carrying large amounts of cash or even travelers cheques can be risky and even slightly nerve racking, we do not recommend it.
Instead, it is much safer and easier to use the ATM machines that are to be found all over the world, even on small idyllic islands. When you use an ATM machine in a foreign country you will normally be charged a small fee, so it is worthwhile checking with your bank what that fee is as some may not charge if you use an ATM at a bank in its own network. For example some accounts at HSBC in Hong Kong don't charge any fee as long as the machine you are withdrawing money from is part of HSBC, even if it is in another country.
When you use an ATM machine in a foreign country the money dispensed will be in the local currency and the exchange rate is often even better than the rates you would get from a local bank or regular currency exchange shop.
There are though some restrictions to using ATM machines, and each bank will have its own rules and regulations. For example in Thailand you can only withdraw a limited amount from most machines at any one time, this amount is normally around 20,000 Baht or so. There may also be limitations on the amount you can withdraw from your own bank in your home country so again checking with them helps.
Also remember that some banks charge for this, so check with your bank. The charges are not always just at your bank's end as well. In Thailand for example, all ATM machines now take advantage of people using overseas ATM cards by charging them THB 150 per transaction, this can only be avoided by using an AEON bank ATM machine which thankfully does not charge you anything.
Of course, it should also go without saying that the same precautions you use at home, such as checking nobody is stood too close when entering the PIN number, or checking that the machine or card slot has not been fiddled with, applies no matter where you are using the ATM. See also: Using your ATM card safely.
There are some important, basic issues to be aware of when using ATM's in Asia:
- Be very wary of every machine that you use. It is not uncommon for unscrupulous, and very smart, people, to put additions on the front of the machines, additions that actually read your card as you place it into the slot of the actual machine. These little devices are glued onto the machine over the machine's card reader slot. After a day of collecting card numbers, and getting the camera that stores the PIN numbers being entered, it's relatively easy to create new cards, and access your account. So, make sure that you use a reputable bank ATM, that it does not appear to be tampered with, that there are no suspicious looking cameras watching the key pad, and that there is no jury rigged device attached to the machine. These devices are sometimes very difficult to discern from the real thing. I wiggle every card reader before I use it. If it falls off, it didn't belong there. Use ATM's that are actually attached to the actual bank, not some rinky dink ATM that is standing on the street next to the local bar or whore house. Even ATM's that you'll find in 7 11's, and they usually have one, can be tampered with. Bank building ATM's in a well lit area, are the way to go.
- Only use your ATM card in a well lit area, better, in a very public place, with people nearby. Be wary of anyone hanging out near the ATM.
- Never give your PIN number to anyone, regardless of who they may be. Bank people will never ask you for your number. They may ask you to input it into a keypad on their desk, inside their bank office.
- Of course, keep your ATM card protected at all times. If you lose it, notify your bank immmediately. They'll stop the card, and they'll usually FEDEX you a new one right away.
- Your ATM card should be from a large, reputable, preferably internationally recognized bank. A local credit union ATM can be absolutely useless when traveling. Even a state wide bank, one that is very well known in your state, might not be recognized out of the state, or country. You might want to consider the larger, more reputable banks, such as Wells Fargo, Chase, HSBC, Bank of America, etc. An ATM from "Fargo Credit Union" or "Hookers Charity Bank of Las Vegas" is probably going to be fairly useless.
- ATM cards that are internationally recognized usually carry other insignia, other than the bank they come from. Cirrus and Star symbols usually mean that the cards will work in other banks, and other countries. If in doubt, open an account in a large US bank (if you are a US citizen), such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Chase, etc. Tell the banker that you need your ATM to work in other countries. Access your ATM first in the US to make sure that it is registered properly, and that it works. If your bank is small, or is a credit union, you may have some serious issues when trying to access money from that account when overseas. It just may not work.
- Your internationally acceptable ATM may not work, when using some small bank overseas.. It works both ways. Using a well known US bank ATM at some rinky dink Chinese bank, such as China Farmers, or Agricultural Bank of Thailand, just won't work. Those banks might not be "on the system" to communicate with your Chase or Bank of America bank back in the US. When in China, use Bank of China. When in Thailand, use Siam Commercial Bank. Don't use the little private banks that you'll find here and there; they may not work. If they don't, don't fret it. Usually, the ATM will just give your card back.
- If your ATM card does not work in an ATM machine overseas, don't try it again. Repeated attempts at using it might cause the ATM machine to keep it. If the ATM won't accept it, it's because the bank that owns it probably does not do international banking, or is not part of the Cirrus or Star network. Don't ever push it. Losing your card in a machine overseas will give you no end to grief. Use the large banks, and use the ATM's at the large banks. This way, if for some reason you do lose your card, you can go inside, find someone that speaks English, and get it back.
- Mastercard and Visa cards have so called debit cards. They're not credit cards per se. They generally won't work in Asia. Make sure what you have is a genuine ATM card; not some prepaid debit card, not some limited use Mastercard / Visa. Also, remember, you may have trouble getting cash advances from a real, high limit, credit card. Bring credit cards to help you purchase things, but don't depend upon them to get cash from.
- As far as credit cards go, I'm a firm believer in using American Express. They're more expensive, not as widely accepted, but they're service is non pareil, and if you get into trouble, they'll help get you out. I always travel with an AMEX card (I use the Platinum level, as I like having the emergency medical evacuation insurance that they offer as part of the Platinum card membership)
Remember, the money that you get from that overseas ATM machine will give you local cash, not US dollars. And it will automatically do the exchange rate, usually the better rate that you can get. Changing US dollars with money changers in overseas countries can sometimes lead to poor conversion rates. And, fake money. For example, in Thailand, you input how many Thai Baht you want, the machine gives it to you, and then your account back home is charged that amount, according to the then current commonly accepted conversion rate, along with a surcharge for the foreign bank ATM use, a surcharge for foreign exchange, and maybe your usual bank ATM surcharge. It gets expensive, more so than taking money out in the US, where you might not be charged at all if you use your bank's ATM, so consider this the next time you want to just take twenty dollars out of your account in some Chinese bank ATM. Make the transaction significant enough where the three to five dollar (and sometimes more) charge won't bother you.
Also, if you really get stuck, and you need your parents, friends, or home boys send you money from back home, the cheapest, easiest way to do so, is via Moneygram. You can go into any Walmart in the US, and send money to someone, usually most anywhere in the world, for a few dollars. It's just about instantaneous, and it's easy to find Moneygram pick up places in Asia. Western Union is expensive, and bank transfers, not only expensive, can take a few days to process.