Living abroad can be a pain in the a$$: banking edition


Living a travel lifestyle is wonderful, but make no mistake. It’s not rainbows and unicorns all the time.

One of our biggest fears is not being able to access our money.  Well, yesterday that’s exactly what happened. Gnarly bank problems are always annoying and can happen at home too, but they are SO much more difficult to sort out when you’re abroad.

Problem #1: What do you mean there was an automatic 4-wk hold on our cheque?

  • Normally we deal in cash or credit cards. But on Dec 7 Mark got creative and deposited a Canadian cheque in our Mexican bank account, thinking this would leave plenty of time to pay January rent.
  • The bank slapped an automatic 4-week hold on the cheque.
  • We knew the cheque would take “a while” to clear, but had underestimated just how long.
  • Around Jan 1 we started to sweat. Seriously, any time now guys…
  • The money finally showed up in our account on Jan 3.
  • We monitored our convoluted, all-Spanish bank website, and the moment the money arrived, we paid the rent. A couple days late, but fortunately our lovely landlady isn’t a stickler. She’s happy to have nice tenants who treat her house respectfully.

Problem #2: What do you mean our cheque bounced?

  • The next day, Jan 4, we got a call from a nice lady (literally nice, not ironically nice) at the bank telling us that although the automatic hold had been lifted and the money had “appeared” online, our cheque hadn’t actually cleared. Say what?!? Apparently we hadn’t had enough funds in that account to pay the rent after all.
  • Hmmm.  Plenty of cash is gathering dust in our Canadian chequing account, so that couldn’t have been the problem. Mark and I blamed the tightly regulated Mexican banking system. We figured some anal-retentive bean counter had second thoughts about Mark’s signature or something.
  • And hey, why did the website indicate the money had been there? The bank had tricked us into thinking our money was available to pay our rent. We anticipated all kinds of horrible penalties for sending an unfunded bank transfer. Huge fees. Lectures in rapid Spanish from a scowling Latin bank manager. Being ignominiously stripped of our transfer privileges.

Problem #3: What do you mean we can’t have any cash?

  • Armed with our trusty U.S. debit card, we made a beeline to our regular ATM so we could get cash, deposit it, and pay the rent.
  • The machine wouldn’t give us any money. What the…? That card is connected to our U.S. bank, which should have had plenty of cash in it. The Spanish message flashed across the screen too fast for us to read it, but the manager popped his head out, and told us the machine was running low on bills.
  • Oh, that’s all. We decided to try another bank.

Problem #4: What do you mean we can’t have any cash?

  • At the 2nd bank’s ATM, same problem. No cash + rapidly moving Spanish message = we were out of luck again.
  • We tried a couple more times. We’d become those people. You know, the irritating ones in front of you who take 20 minutes desperately trying to get cash over and over. A queue of bored Mexicans, presumably WITH money in their accounts, stretched out behind us. I could feel the judgement. I wanted to turn and yell, “We have money, I swear!!!”
  • Our stomachs tightened. The problem wasn’t Mexico…it was us.
  • Off to a third ATM we skulked.

Problem #5: What do you mean we can’t have any much cash?

  • At the third bank’s ATM we had tepid success.
  • We got a few pesos, but less than we needed to cover the rent.
  • We wished we had our Canadian ATM card. It charges steep fees, so we don’t carry it with us.
  • In the meantime, our bank closed for the day. With nothing else to be done rent-wise, Mark and I drove home to investigate all our accounts….Mexico, Canada & the U.S.

Problem #6: What do you mean our U.S. bank account is low on cash?

  • Our balance on our main U.S. account was much lower than I’d realized. So that’s why the ATMs here weren’t giving us too many pesos.
  • This was a surprise, but not a problem. I simply needed to make transfer some over from our rarely-used brokerage account.

Problem #7: What do you mean our brokerage account is locked?

  • When I got online at the brokerage, I got a message saying some piece of mail had been returned and our account was locked until I called to change the address. Oh great. When we RVd through Europe last year, apparently we’d forgotten to update the address.
  • Okay, fine. I called to give them our official U.S. mailing address.

Problem #8: What do you mean I have to snail-mail a notarized change-of-address form?

  • The brokerage lady said they need us to MAIL a change of address form.
  • And it needs to be NOTARIZED. (Oh my freaking God. Mail? Notarized? Seriously? So now we have to pay a Mexican notary and FedEx the stupid change of address form.)
  • The brokerage rep transferred me to someone higher up the food chain.
  • Rep #2 was understanding. He tried but failed to override the system. We were locked out. There was no way around the snail-mail address update.
  • I asked him if a Mexican notary would suffice.
  • He put me on hold for about 10 minutes during which time he called four people. Fortunately, yes, a foreign notary would be acceptable.


Today Mark dropped by the bank to speak with the lady that had originally called us about the bounced cheque.

Apparently our problem isn’t the fault of a type-A, disgruntled bank employee. It seems that Mark’s cheque-writing skills have atrophied in the online banking age, and he filled the damn thing out wrong. That’s why it was declined.

But get this. Our Mexican bank had covered the rent transfer anyway. So it turns out our rent was paid, even without enough money in the account. That’s pretty awesome, don’t you think? Also, there would be NO CHARGE OR PENALTY for doing that. Pretty incredible. Can you imagine that happening in the U.S. or Canada?!? Ha, no.

So that’s the current state of affairs at Casa de RambleCrunch. We have money, but for the time being we can’t access it abroad, which is pretty unsettling. Fortunately we have some emergency cash and can put groceries on our credit card, so it’s not a disaster.

But it’s clear we need to change a few procedures (like NOT EVER using cheques and making sure all our contact information is current at all our different banks/brokerages.) so that we don’t find ourselves cashless and in a real emergency.

I need a drink.

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lyndajo Thomas January 5, 2013 at 12:47 pm

OMG! I need a drink just reading about it. Great tension, Renée!


2 Mark January 6, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Yes. It was crazy there. But it all worked out in the end. Just a funny combination of errors.


3 Kirk January 5, 2013 at 1:04 pm

I knew it would be Mark’s fault…. 🙂 Great story to hear, not very fun to live through….


4 Mark January 6, 2013 at 4:26 pm

For 24 hours I was fuming at Mexico and the banking system here, only to find out it was my own dumb mistake. Writing checks is not something I do much anymore. It seems so archaic. Though I have to give the Mexican banking system good grades on security. Besides the machine-gun-toting guards outside most ATMs, I am required to use a VPN of sorts when I do my online banking. Punching numbers into a little credit-card-sized device. Nothing like that in North America that I am aware of…

The whole episode was like a financial perfect storm — all combining to make the situation seem dire. It sure is disconcerting to be in a foreign country and not be able to access your money. But like all storms, they pass. And the sunshine comes out.


5 Brian January 5, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Renee and Mark…your story makes me smile as I’ve definitely been there! I’n certainly not laughing though, as I remember all to well, there sheer terror of having zero dollars in a foreign country. In a way, you’re fortunate to be doing this in a world where electronic banking and ATM cards work. My brush with Mexican banking was back in the 80s when it was pretty much “cash on the barrel” or nada! I had a broker in Vancouver who agreed to send a US bank draft with a friend of his who was flying down to Acapulco the next day. Had I known that this “friend” was going embark on a 5 day binge and leave our bank draft tucked safely under an overfilled ashtray on his terrace during this time, I may have considered other solutions.
When we finally got the beer stained draft, about a week later, after stumbling accidentally on this dude at Bar Mitla across the street from the yacht club, we still needed the equivalent of a presidential decree to get it cashed. The particular bank that we dealt with ( no names mentioned ) first converted the US funds into pesos
( where we lost about 10% ) Then they allowed us to buy US dollars with the pesos (costing another 10% ) Of course there was also a small service charge ( about 10% ) and a tip for the hotel manager who helped get us through the loops! ( You guessed it…about 10% ) In the end we had just enough left to pay our hotel and bar bill with very little to spare! Needless to say our “on a shoestring” drive back to the USA was a whole other story.
Anyway, I’m glad everything worked out for you guys and remember, the worst times make for the best stories!


6 Mark January 6, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Hey Brian. Your story about the bank draft is very funny, though I am sure it didn’t seem like it at the time. I am sure banking in Mexico has changed a lot. Like most of world now, the use of ATMs makes getting access to your money so much easier than it used to be with Travelers Cheques, bank drafts and Western Union. We even have a bank that reimburses us for the ATM fees while we’re abroad. Can’t beat that!

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with it all. We now have multiple bank accounts in three different countries. I wish it were simpler, but there seems to be no way around it for us. Life can be complicated. When are you coming down to Mexico again?


7 Kirsty January 5, 2013 at 1:32 pm

yikes! You can do instant bank transfers in the UK to other accounts now, where it used to take 3 days or more. I think I’d miss that soooooo much. But yay to no charges. They wouldn’t do that here either!


8 Renee January 6, 2013 at 11:33 am

I think we can wire money, but it’s costs $50 USD or something horrible. But in a true emergency, yes, that would be an option. 🙂


9 Nancy Sathre-Vogel January 5, 2013 at 4:29 pm

Oh my! It’ll be a great story someday – once you’ve moved past the frustration of it all. We had a panic attack in Peru when the machine ate my card. Fortunately, we still had my husband’s as a backup, but still…


10 Renee January 6, 2013 at 11:32 am

Long-term travelers are so vulnerable to financial cock-ups. We haven’t had an ATM card eaten yet, though I lost mine last month. Such a drag.

Glad you guys had a back-up. Phew!


11 Mark January 6, 2013 at 8:08 pm

Nancy, it could have been worse. More a scare than anything. There is nothing worse than being in a foreign place and not able to access your money. We’re at the mercy of the banking system. Though it’s a lot better now than it was 20 years ago. I am sure you would agree.


12 Tiffany January 5, 2013 at 5:17 pm

Drink away. Oh my goodness, what a rodeo!


13 Renee January 6, 2013 at 11:30 am

It was quite a day!


14 Tom Medsger January 5, 2013 at 5:52 pm

¡Hola! This is just the sort of reality reporting that us rainbows and unicorns need, lest we get too dreamy-eyed, thinking about moving to Mexico. Better that you go through all this so we can learn from it.

It’s another excellent entry from Casa RambleCrunch. Keep ’em coming. I’m hoping you’ll write about your trip to Querétaro to visit with me. That would be a rich experience, a comparison of Ajijic and QRO (that’s what the airports call it).

Hasta luego, Tom


15 Renee January 6, 2013 at 11:30 am

Cheers, Tom!


16 Jen January 5, 2013 at 10:17 pm

Wow, waiting for something similar to happen to us here in Mexico. Thought of you all today when we drove and forgot all our vehicle papers at home…. hoping we would not get pulled over. I need more time(or never would be good) before that happens.


17 Renee January 6, 2013 at 11:29 am

Jen, you mean you left them at your Mexican home for the day, right? You didn’t leave them in the U.S. I hope! :-0

How long will you guys be in Sayulita?


18 Living Outside of the Box January 6, 2013 at 10:21 am

How frustrating! We store a whole slew of cards with us…JUST IN CASE. We typically only use 1 or 2…but you never know!! Glad it (well, most of it) turned out okay in the end! No charge?! I’m shocked!


19 Renee January 6, 2013 at 11:27 am

Alisa, when we started traveling nearly two years ago we had more bank cards, but some have expired and we’ve been lucky enough to have had no problems, so over time we relaxed a lot. This was an irritating day but a good reminder that we need to return to our earlier vigilance.

Yes, the no-penalty part is astonishing. (Though frankly I won’t believe it until a good month has gone by with no charges showing up.) It will balance out the gringo overcharge I got taken for a couple days ago by the La Floresta horse guys….


20 Mark January 6, 2013 at 4:36 pm

Same here. We now have bank and/or brokerage accounts in three different countries, and it can be confusing. Like you, I only carry one main card with me. The rest are safe at home. Like I was telling my friend, Kirk, the whole episode was like a financial perfect storm — all combining to make the situation seem dire. But like all storms, they pass. And the sunshine comes out.


21 Connie January 9, 2013 at 11:22 am

I was holding my breath almost through all of that and now feel quite drained! Another learning curve for you! Well you can’t say life is boring can you? Great posts thank you.


22 Renee February 2, 2013 at 8:25 am

Thanks, Connie. 🙂


23 Turkey's For Life January 12, 2013 at 6:17 am

Wow, hope you get sorted soon. We’ve got accounts here and in the UK and try to make sure there’s money in each one – of course it doesn’t always work out like that and we quite often have to get creative with our last few lira as we wait transferred cash to clear. 🙂


24 Mark January 18, 2013 at 4:09 pm

I never expected to open another foreign bank account. And I was always impressed you guys had an account in Turkey. Now I have one in Mexico. That makes bank accounts in three different countries. Would be nice to have one in Turkey one day. Thanks, Julia.


25 Annie André January 14, 2013 at 4:31 am

Oh yeah, banking issues around the world.
We are having similar problems with our bank in France. We apparently bounced a check months ago when a wire transfer went wrong. the way the banks work here, you dont’ really know a check bounces until the end of the month. Plus at that time, we rarely wrote checks so it flew OFF our radar.

Flash forward a few months, we went to check our account online and found out that every subsequent check we wrote after that original bounced check causes an 11 euro fee. WHAT? We wrote like 10 checks this month for our three kids school lunches and some misc sport team fees. so we incurred over 100 euros in fees.

And it will continue Unless we get a copy of the cancelled check otherwise they have to hold the money which bounced in a seperate account for one year and 3 days. it’s not much, 160 euros but still what the hell. We now had plenty of cash in the bank due to They can’t do a manual cancel of the check either.
Now we’re trying to hunt it down so that we can write future checks without getting dinged. Oh the misery of foreign banking…


26 Renee February 1, 2013 at 9:22 pm

Annie, I missed this comment earlier, apologies. This is absolutely horrible, so much worse than our story. Has you gotten this resolved yet?!? Foreign banking is indeed the pits.


27 Adam Sommer January 21, 2013 at 9:22 am

Wow, I’ve faced a few of those issues but not that many! Hope it gets better…shouldn’t be so hard in this “global” economy to use our money!


28 Renee February 1, 2013 at 9:13 pm

Adam, it was a good reminder to have backups in place. We’re good to go now. 🙂


29 Kelly November 7, 2013 at 8:21 pm

Would love to know: How do you recommend we access our US cash while in Mexico? If we will be in Mexico for six months, is it worth it to open a Mexican bank account and wire a big chunk of money? Or should we just use ATM machines with our US cards? What is the daily limit on withdrawals? Do you recommend bringing any US cash with you to exchange at banks or cambio places?


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