Travel dilemmas: Overseas ATMs and the possibly too-long PIN dilemma

Los Angeles TimesJuly 14, 2014 

Q: I've been reading with interest and confusion about automated teller machine fees when traveling to Europe. So I went to Bank of America and asked how to avoid them. The branch manager said BofA has a relationship with BNP Paribas in France. But then he dropped a bomb. He told me that Europe doesn't recognize personal identification numbers that are longer than four digits. I would have to change my PIN for it to work. He said a business traveler recently had a horrible experience and finally got to a BofA customer service agent who told her that her too-long PIN was the problem. Is this true? And if so, why is it a secret?

- Leslie Edmonds, Los Angeles

A: The branch manager is only partly correct. Some ATMs in Europe will not accept a PIN that's longer than four digits, but that doesn't mean all of them.

If you look at a couple of banks' websites, you can see why there's confusion:

Here's what BofA's website says: "Most international ATM operators support up to 12-digit PINs. However, some operators only support 4-digit PINs."

Here's what Wells Fargo's website says: "If you have trouble using an ATM in a foreign country, it might be because you do not have a four-digit PIN. ... Most foreign ATMs require a four-digit Personal Identification Number (PIN)."

So the reports conflict, but at least these banks address the issue. Other banks don't make it so easy to discover their solution to the four-versus-more question.

I've never changed my more-than-four-digit PIN because it has always worked for me, most recently at ATMs in Europe and Australia. But that might be a matter of where I used that ATM card, said Odysseas Papadimitriou, chief executive of personal financial websites CardHub.com and WalletHub.com.

This four-digit-limit "can be an issue with older ATMs," he said in an email, "and older ATMs are more prevalent in Europe than in the U.S. So a four-digit PIN is a great idea."

The nondisclosure of a four-digit PIN requirement is probably not a conspiracy. Given Papadimitriou's explanation, it might be a matter of not wishing to disclose that the technology isn't up to date, which is nothing I'd want to advertise.

If you want to change your PIN, BofA has these instructions on its website: "To change your PIN, insert your ATM or debit card into a Bank of America ATM, enter (the) current PIN, select 'More Options,' select 'Change PIN' and follow the screen prompts."

BofA also notes that you should "be sure to know your PIN by numbers, as some ATMs outside the United States don't have letters on the keyboards."

In other words, if you know your PIN as a four-letter word (oh, the possibilities!), you should know that the word DRAT (I'm sure that's what you were thinking of) translates into 3728.

And BofA notes that your PIN should not start with the number 0.

If you don't want to change your PIN, there's one other solution that I've used as backup: My checking and savings accounts are not at the same financial institution. My savings account has a four-digit PIN, and that's what I used in Latin America when I overshopped and ran out of folding money.

If you do get your ATM card to work, the next issue you must face is this: How much are you paying for using that card?

If you go outside your bank's network, you may be assessed a fee. You also may be assessed a foreign transaction fee of as much as 3 percent.

If you're traveling abroad, these fees probably won't bankrupt you. But they are among the hidden costs of traveling that can put a dent in your wallet (not quite as damaging as lodging taxes and rental car concession fees, but still part of the monetary mix).

On its checking account chart (www.bit.ly/1j9dwxZ; under "Advanced Options," click on "no foreign transaction fees"), WalletHub notes two that don't charge these fees: Charles Schwab High Yield Investor Checking and Capital One 360 Checking Account.

Is it worth the hassle to change banks? Up to you. But maybe opening a vacation account may keep you, if not rolling in dough, at least out of serious credit card debt, which can take the fun out of being away.

(Have a travel dilemma? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.)

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