A question that gets asked a lot by backpackers: Can I avoid ATM fees while travelling? This question is more complicated than it appears at first glance as the answer depends on several things; your nationality, the country you are travelling in, your bank and which bank owns the ATM from which you are trying to withdraw money from.
In this article, we’ll attempt to give you some advice on how you can avoid, or at the very least, minimise, costly ATM fees whilst backpacking in Southeast Asia!
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- The best travel cards and mobile banks.
- 10 tips: How to save money to travel the world.
- How much does it cost to backpack Southeast Asia?
How Much Are ATM Fees in Southeast Asia?
Again, it depends. Across the world, ATM fees can vary between $5 USD at the lower end of the scale and $15 USD at the higher end.
Fed up with what he sees as capitalist bureaucracy gone mad, our penny-pinching writer, Tim, went on a mission to find out how much of your hard-earned cash ATMs in Southeast Asia will take from you!
- ATMs In Cambodia – Most ATMs in Cambodia charge $4-$6USD per transaction. It’s reported that Vattanak, ABA and ACLEDA have slightly lower fees. The maximum withdrawal from an ATM in Cambodia is $500USD.
- ATMs In Indonesia – The quantity and reliability of ATMs in Indonesia depend on where you are in the country. More heavily populated islands have a better ATM infrastructure than less inhabited locations. ATMs in Indonesia tend to charge $2-$5USD per transaction. Some may charge more.
- ATMs In Laos – ATMs are common in Laos but they generally have low withdrawal limits, less than $100USD. They also have a 1%-3% fee on each transaction.
- ATMs In Malaysia – ATMs in Malaysia are common and tend to be free to use. The maximum you can withdraw in one transaction is 1500 Malaysian Ringgit ($340USD).
- ATMs In Myanmar – ATMs in Myanmar are more common than they used to be but it’s still worth carrying perfect dollar bills with you. The ATMs can be temperamental and stop working for hours or even days at a time. However, they’re usually clustered in groups so if one doesn’t work, you’re likely to find another nearby. Myanmar’s ATMs tend to charge $5-$6USD per withdrawal. The maximum amount you can withdraw is around 300,000 Kyat ($160USD)
- ATMs In the Philippines – ATMs in the Philippines have a reputation for being unreliable, either losing connection or often running out of money for extended periods. In recent years, they’ve improved dramatically but you should still be prepared with some backup cash you can exchange if necessary. ATMs in the Philippines generally charge $4-$6USD per withdrawal. Withdrawal limits differ but tend to be around 10,000-20,000PHP ($200-$400USD).
- ATMs In Thailand – Most ATMs in Thailand charge you a 200-250THB fee on top of your bank fees. Look out for AEON ATMs, they tend to charge less and are often found in shopping malls. Krungsri Bank, Bangkok Bank and CIMB tend to have higher withdrawal limits, allowing you to withdraw more money for the same fee.
- ATMs In Vietnam – The cost of using ATMs in Vietnam varies depending on the brand of ATM. Military Bank and VPBank don’t tend to charge but have lower daily withdrawal limits. Citibank allows higher withdrawals, around 8 million VND ($340USD) but charges 60,00VND per withdrawal ($2.50USD). Other ATMs charge more, especially those run but private companies and not banks.
The Difference Between ATM Fees and Bank Card Fees
Travellers often get confused when it comes to the difference between bank charges and ATM fees. Many people in our Facebook group believe that by getting equipped with a travel card from a mobile bank or Fintech company before they go (for example Wise, N26, Revolut or Starling) means that they will be able to get money out abroad without being charged a penny. After all, these cards advertise ‘free cash withdrawals’ don’t they?
Unfortunately, this is not the case. While your bank itself may allow free withdrawals at ATMs, it is the ATM provider that is responsible for charging you the fee. This is sometimes called an ‘access fee’.
“I got charged every time I withdrew cash at an ATM in Thailand using my Starling bank card. Wherever possible I tried to pay on card in the end, just to try and save my cash!” – Kate.
Are Travel Cards Worth Getting?
Despite the fact that ATMs can (and do) charge you whilst abroad, we definitely recommend that you still consider getting a travel card (or two or three!). They don’t charge a bank fee at their end for taking money out (some banks still do!) and they will also give you a much better exchange rate than the average bank.
“I’ve been in Thailand [the] last month, and the entire time I used my Revolut Card, with no issues at all. It saved me hundreds of Euros in conversion and other bank fees. You can’t avoid the ATM fees in Thailand, you will find them at every ATM and it’s not a card related expense. My best advice is if you really need to withdraw money, make sure you take the maximum amount allowed so that you don’t have to pay the 220 baht fees that often.” – Ana.
Tip: Check out the following digital banks and Fintech companies that have good travel cards for backpackers: Wise, N26, Revolut and Starling (for UK citizens only). Remember these cards will not eliminate ATM fees, but they will save you money on bank charges and offer much more favourable exchange rates than your average high street bank.
Can You Avoid (or at Least Minimise) ATM Charges When You Travel?
There are several ways that you can keep the ATM costs to a minimum or even get rid of them altogether! Here are some insider tips from experienced travellers…
Tip 1: Go Into the Bank To Withdraw Money Manually
There’s been a backpacker rumour for years that you can avoid the fees by going into the bank with some ID (your passport) and withdrawing money with the bank teller manually. But does this work? Many travellers in our Facebook group claim it does!
“As most of you know, ATM fees are crazy in Thailand (THB 220/withdrawal). I was in Bangkok today and easily found a solution for such fees. There is a branch of Bangkok Bank on Khao San Road and the employee agreed to a withdrawal at the counter so I was able to withdraw THB without any fees using my Revolut card.” – Pauline
While we at South East Asia Backpacker haven’t tried this ourselves, we have heard numerous reports of travellers getting free withdrawals at a number of banks, in several different countries, with a variety of different cards, using this method, so it’s definitely worth a try!
“Go inside the bank. No fees. No withdrawal limits. Works in every SEA country.” – David.
“Just go into the bank and withdraw the money from a bank clerk. It’s not always free… but it is pretty much always cheaper than the ATM fee!” – Charlotte.
“I would say it is up to the discretion of the bank employees. I also have a Starling card and a few of them have shooed me off to the ATM and some have said debit cards are not allowed. It really depends on the different branches but the ones in bigger (and more touristy) cities seem to be more willing. Kasikornbank in Thailand have been the most consistent in withdrawals for me.” – Ca Ling.
“I tried doing this today at multiple bank branches in Phuket, and they said the money could only be withdrawn with a credit card, which I don’t have, as I only have debit cards. This was at a Bangkok Bank branch and another bank nearby.” – Anthony
Tip 2: Use The ATM Fee Saver App
The ATM Fee Saver app gives information about ATMs anywhere in the world. It includes their fees and withdrawal limits and the built-in calculator even lets you know exactly how much a withdrawal will cost you!
Tip 3: Withdraw the Maximum Amount From the ATM
To keep fees to a minimum, many travellers withdraw the maximum amount that they can out of the ATM at one time. (This is usually around $500 USD.) This way you can keep charges to a minimum.
Of course, if you come away from the ATM with a wad of notes, you will want to make sure that you don’t carry this cash around with you all day/night! Our advice is to keep the money in several places (for example, your money belt, your daypack, your main backpack and your underpants!).
Tip 4: Always Withdraw in the Local Currency
You’re standing at the ATM and there’s a big queue behind you. A message flashes up on the screen: Do you want to take the money out in XX currency (the local currency) or in XX currency (your home country’s currency)? So what do you choose?
You are always better off choosing the local currency. This is because when the ATM calculates the conversion rate of your home currency, it will most likely give you a really bad exchange rate (below market). This way, the ATM provider can make a bit of money on every single cash withdrawal as they pocket the difference between the bad exchange rate they’ve offered you and that day’s real exchange rate.
Tip 5: Pay on Your Card Where You Can
More and more places across Southeast Asia (and the world) are allowing customers to pay by card even for small transactions. The more you pay by card (free of charge with most travel cards), the more cash you get to keep in your wallet, thus saving money on ATM withdrawal fees. It’s a simple tip but one which will save you money if you remember to do it!
Tip 6: Look for a Bank That Will Reimburse Your International ATM Fees
There are some banks that will cover the cost of international ATM withdrawal fees for their customers. In fact, this is becoming more and more common as part of the bank’s service, though it’s usually reserved for ‘special’ bank accounts that charge a monthly fee.
At the moment, Europeans don’t seem to have a decent option for a bank that reimburses ATM fees but Americans and Australians are in luck. These are some of the banks that we’ve heard good things about from our readers:
- Charles Schwab Bank: US citizens can open a bank account with Charles Schwab which claims to reimburse you each month for any ATM withdrawal fees that occurred while you were travelling!
- ING Bank: Australians can get an ING bank account which claim to reimburse all ATM withdrawal fees and international transaction fees.
- CitiBank: CitiBank offer fee-free withdrawals only if you use their own branded ATM machines which are available in more than 160 countries.
Several other banks (such as Capital One and Fidelity for US Citizens) also claim to reimburse ATM fees, though we do not have personal experience with them so can’t vouch for this. (Depending on which country you are from, it’s best to research this before you go!)
N26 Bank – If you’re an N26 Black, Metal or Business Black cardholder, you can be reimbursed for foreign currency ATM withdrawals.
So what’s your experience with ATM withdrawal fees whilst travelling? Do you constantly feel ripped off? Or have you figured out a way (that we haven’t mentioned above) to keep them to a minimum? Tell us about your experience in the comments below and help other travellers to save their precious cash!