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.
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.