It’s Not All Chivitos and Ponies – part 2 – Banking for USA folks

Marcos here, with another “it has its hassles” post for you. Lisamaria and I are dedicated to bringing you the truth about life here in Uruguay. Remember, we love it overall, are thrilled that we are here, and have every intention of remaining in this welcoming and thriving country.

That said, especially if you are estadosunidense (literally USA-ian, and far less offensive in English than appropriating two whole continents for the name of one country), you are going to have one heck of a problem banking here. Because every bank in Uruguay is “firing the customer” if you are a US citizen. It isn’t their fault. It is the fault of the USA. The USA is trying to make every bank in every other country into an IRS Enforcement Agent. Hey, if I was running a bank I’d fire every US customer too, to avoid the Wrath of Obama (plenty of Republican blame on this one too, bipartisan arrogance in trying to rule the world.)

Of course there is one bank remaining that will still open account for US people. The bank run by the Government, Banco Republica, or more fully, Banco República Oriental del Uruguay, BROU. Especially if you already have a cédula like me, because that means you have to be treated with full Uruguayan rights under our very liberal and friendly immigration laws. They cannot refuse a cédula holder, and as of my inquiries last week, they still even will open accounts for non-residents with US passports.

Picture of hand grenade and BROU logo that looks just like a grenade.
Someone set us up the bomb – in their ATMs

There is one little problem with that.

Now I am not saying that BROU is bad. They are all over the country, at least much more so than any of the other banks. Here in Atlántida, in our little seaside bedroom suburb of Montevideo 45 kilometers from the Centro of the capital city, BROU is our only bank. There are ATMs in the competing Banred network – the Disco supermarket has a Santander Banred ATM next to the RedBROU Banco República ATM. (Red means “network” en español.) But no other banks have branches. And all the other privately owned banks anywhere near, like Spain’s BBVA at the Parque Roosevelt shopping, or Hong Kong’s HSBC at the airport, or even USA’s Citi (not that I would ever do business with those Banksters again) are firing US customers. So I probably was going to open an account with BROU one of these days. But hoping for an alternative.

In the meantime, Lisa and I have been using our Credit Union account (Move Your Money!) from the USA with its Debit MasterCard. Only a 0.8% foreign exchange fee added by BECU in Washington State (being able to open and keep this account was one of the best things resulting from our year trying to make a go of it in the PNW before we blew out of “America”), and 6% (that is right, Six Percent!) interest on the first $500 in checking and the first $500 in savings, then only 0.8%. BECU has a permanent-in-Uruguay travel notice on file for us, our cards work fine for purchases, work fine at Banred ATMs, work fine everywhere, except at the near-ubiquitous BROU ATMs. Where with one exception that definitely requires invisible unicorn dust and a particular planetary alignment, any attempt to withdraw money will cause it to just put a big fat numeric 0 on the screen, no text in any language, and spit the card back out.

We also have a pretend-it-is-checking brokerage account with no minimum balance from BigFinancialCompany where I used to be a Corporate Tool. As a Former Corporate Tool I was not so stupid to close it. Its cards do work in the BROU, at least during a few more phases of the moon. However, I was so stupid so as to change the address to my new US official address with a relative in Florida, before receiving the replacement cards, which expired the end of September – by which time I was already back in Uruguay.

So the BECU Debit MasterCard that causes conniptions at the BROU cajero was the only option. Until yesterday, when the care package of US mail curated by by daughter arrived US Priority Mail in the Correo, by a nice Correo Uruguayo deliveryman on a bicycle knocking on my front door at 830am. Hope on to Google Voice via the plugin for Gmail that makes it better-than-Skype free VOIP to real US phones (or via an app in Android), call BigFinCo from my “home phone” in Florida, activate the card, and boom there it is! Just in time for a monthly early retirement annuity to hit that account at month-end and not having to wait another day to transfer it to BECU.

But even that card works like the bomb in BROU. Yes, it does get money. But it is entirely random whether the peso limit is 2000, 3000, 4000, 5000 (tops, about $255 US today), or nada. With no meaningful messages. Also, in every single BROU, once you do an operation with a US sourced card, even if it completes, the ATM goes out of service for approximately 2 minutes. Which really adds to the fun interactions you have with the uruguayos standing in line behind you. Being a software designer, analyst, and technical writer by trade, I quickly recognized that pattern. If an enclosed single-machine ATM booth with a locking door (common here) I often wait till it comes back in service. I still get the stinkeye, just like the guy in the toilet stall for too long, but at least they don’t blame me for clogging it up!

If I use an open-space one, like in the ATM lobby of a bank, or at the airport where I sometimes change buses, I have learned to say in (not very good) Spanish, La machina no está rota, pero despues de usar una tarjeta estadosunidense, se necesita esperar dos minutos antes de funcionar.” With a smile.

Every stinking BROU ATM, even at their central Montevideo branches in the Financial district. It is embarrassing.

Tomorrow or Monday, I have to open a BROU account, as the only bank that will accept me as a USA citizen. I am a resident with a cédula, but the USA nationality poisons me for banking. I need it because I do, at least for now and to my utter surprise, have a RealJob™. With a Uruguayan subsidiary of BigCloudSoftwareCo. Which only pays people through a direct deposit into Discount Bank of Uruguay. They opened me a free savings account with Maestro (a form of MasterCard) debit. I went to the bank in Montevideo the other day to pick it up and sign the papers. As soon as they asked my nationality and I honestly answered “USA” (in order to avoid violating a dozen or so US and Uruguayan laws by lying), they immediately grabbed the card back and closed the account. Leaving me nowhere to get paid. My employer is working with me to figure out the best way to make an exception just for me. I did everything right by lining up my own residency with Lisa before even considering this job. But now I and they have to deal with a substandard inefficient bank, with charges to deposit money and no interest at all, even in so-called “savings”, because of the USA Government’s arrogance with FATCA.

I’m not a money launderer, I am not hiding anything, I am just a semi retired working guy who for the time being has a job as well as my freelance stuff, what I hope can be a really fascinating job. But now I am stuck with BROU as my only bank. I hope their ATMs work at least with their own cards. But we’ve seen evidence that there are sometimes a day or so in a row where even that isn’t true.

So if you are coming to Uruguay, yes, your ATM card will pretty much work, but look for the Banred ATMs. If you are using a BROU ATM, you should hope your US or other non-Uruguay debit card is a Visa Debit, not a Debit MasterCard, or hilarity may ensue. And if you have a US passport, forget about being allowed any kind of bank account in this country except at BROU.

Published by

Mark Mercer

Site co-owner Mark Mercer. AKA Marcos Cristoforo Mercer, AKA the Fuzzy Wanderer. Expat from USA living in Uruguay as of mid-2012, after "test-driving" it for a few months in 2011 and early 2012. Married to Lisamaria, AKA well-known travel and fitness writer Lisa Marie Mercer. Follow Mark on Twitter @mcmxs and his many other sites, which you can find at http://about.me/MarkMercer. I write and engage about many of my other interests, on Google+ at https://google.com/+MarkMercer

2 thoughts on “It’s Not All Chivitos and Ponies – part 2 – Banking for USA folks”

  1. I have been following all of your post and am delighted that you take the time to inform us future expats. This is the only one so far that scares me. Most banks here in the US have changed over to giving Mastercards now instead of Visa cards. My husband and I both have direct deposit. Fortunately, we wont be there til August or September of 2013. Please let all this be straightened out by then.

    Good Luck with everything and keep the info coming ot os very helpful.

    Alicia and Scott

    PS We should be down for a week or two stay in March. I am so excited.

    1. Hi Alicia and thank you for following us. Delighted you are here!

      For your stay visit next march, I wouldn't worry much even if what you have is a Debit MasterCard. At any Banred machine, it will work just fine.

      The Banred machines give a manual choice of specific networks after you put in your card and enter your PIN. I just choose "MasterCard International", and never have a problem. Regardless of whether your card and the cajero share another network, a Debit MasterCard is of course on the MasterCard network. So it just works.

      The screen also gives options for Visa Uruguay, Visa International, MasterCard Uruguay, and some others. It's unusual, for me coming from the USA, to have to tell the machine what network to use, I am used to the machine just auto-magically knowing. As a software guy, I would expect that bank would have specified what we call use cases for all types of accepted cards, in decreasing order of the Bank's profitability (lowest interchange fees), but hey, what do I know. In a small coastal town in Thailand I can just pop in my Visa Debit from a tiny Boston, Mass area bank (Salem Five) and out pops my money in Thai Baht. But here in Uruguay there's a tiny more seducing of the machine needed!

      Now in the RedBROU machines, the network run by BROU their banks and some standalone locations, I have rarely had a problem with using a Visa Debit. That Fidelity Visa Debit works fine. Well when the card isn't expired and the replacement isn't 4500 miles north of here in Gainesville, Florida, that is! We used to bank with a regional Colorado non-bankster bank, First Bank of Colorado, before we wound down our life there. Our Visa Debit cards worked just great here, in both networks. I also used without problem a PrePaid Visa Debit – the Kroger Supermarkets 1-2-3 Rewards Visa Debit offered through them by US Bank. Used that during the Feb-June period this year when I was back and forth; spend on the Visa and also used it to access cash, got a lot of free and discounted groceries at City Market and King Soopers! I called them, of course, about the travel notifications. But their card also worked great in BROU.

      Well, as great as any card works in a BROU machine. BROU still randomly throws the big fat ZERO error if you are requesting more money than that ATM feels like giving out, regardless of network, regardless of card brand, regardless of your issuing bank's daily withdrawal limit, regardless of how much money you have in that account available. One of the reasons I prefer the Banred machines is that they are upfront about limits: Maximum withdrawal – $5000 Uruguayan Pesos or U$S 300 dollars. And yes, the machines work in either Spanish or English. Some also offer Portuguese due to our proximity to Brasil and being in the same trading/political integration bloc, the Mercosur (or Mercosul in Portuguese).

      Yes, every ATM in Uruguay I have ever seen also gives out US dollars. Typically only in hundred-dollar bills, and thus only in increments of U$S 100. Due to the dollar being the other, unofficial but widely used currency here (all automobiles, major appliances, some minor appliances, all real estate for sale, and many rentals are priced in USD), people do use dollars for here for some things. Don't even think about using dollars at a small store or restaurant, but you could at the supermarket/hypermarkets. I did so at both Tienda Inglesa and Supermercado Disco this past month. One of those situations where I didn't want a second approx-4-dollar ATM fee but wanted more money value out than the 5000 pesos, so took out 300USD instead (not quite 6000 pesos currently – we have live exchange rates on the site sidebar.) Then went and did the shopping, got change back in pesos uruguayos.

      So don't worry, but be aware of my reports on how the ATMs work and which ones to choose. Be sure to give a travel notice to your banking institution (bank, credit union, brokerage, prepaid card issuer) that you will be here. Don't forget to tell them your layover connecting airports too! I make sure they know I will be in Brasil or El Salvador, Peru or Panama depending on who I am flying. Don't want problems getting a quick lunch or doing some shopping, and want to be prepared for an unscheduled overnight delay at my cost. I rarely fly American, since they hate me, LOL. See my Fuzzywanderer.com blog for that – http://fuzzywanderer.com/2011/11/23/why-do-you-ha…. Thus I usually connect through one of the excellent, efficient hubs of Taca, Copa, LAN, or TAM and want to be prepared

      Just be prepared that if you use your any-US-atm-card at a BROU ATM, the ATM will go out of service for 2 minutes afterwards, whether it gave you the money or goose eggs. Be ready with my anti-stinkeye phrase! (OK, the new ATM on the calle 11 side of the Atlántida BROU, but not the one on the front side of the same building, does not do this. But it's the only one I've found. Must be their "we should do a beta test of an ATM that actually works" ATM. But it still gives me gooseggs instead of money 75% of the time on MasterCard)

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