So, You're Broke in a Foreign Country and your Card is Declined...

21 May 2015

It was 6:37pm in La Fortuna, Costa Rica, and I was running out of money.


Our bus to Liberia was scheduled to leave around 5:30 the next morning, and the ticket price was 4,000 colones, cash only. I pulled out my wallet to count what little I had left -- 2,800 colones, or about $5, and certainly not enough to leave town.

No worries, I thought. I'll just grab some more from the ATM. 

There were only two ATMs in the city center, which seemed odd, given that in much of Costa Rica, cash is more widely accepted. One happened to be close to our hostel, so we popped into the little stall on our way home from dinner. I swiped my card, entered my PIN, and punched in the amount of colones I needed. 

Transacción Cancelada, the screen flashed at me in red. I was broke in a foreign country, and my debit card was being declined. 
Source: likeablerodent
After several more attempts to withdraw cash and even trying the only other ATM in La Fortuna, I still had no luck. But my panic attack only lasted a moment. I was prepared for a situation like this. Running out of money in a foreign country can be scary, so take the following precautions to help formulate your own back-up plan.

Before you leave, inform your bank of your travel plans.
One of the most common reasons your cards will get declined is if you fail to inform your bank that you may be using them abroad. I learned this lesson in Puerto Rico but was quickly able to resolve the situation. For this trip to Costa Rica, I had notified both of my banks before I left, so I was really confused as to why this was happening.

Bring a copy of the international customer service line for your bank. 
Because I had this number handy in Puerto Rico, I was able to quickly call my bank and have them activate my card again. In Costa Rica, however, I had some challenges making a call over Skype. So, my next option was to...

Seek out help from someone you trust back home.
First, I had my boyfriend try to call Ally, the bank with which my debit card had been opened, to figure out what was going on. Even though I had given him all of my passwords, Ally refused to speak to him. I can appreciate the sense of security here, but their suggestion was to have me chat with them online instead, and I'm not sure how that's really any more secure. So, I managed to FaceTime with Caileigh over wifi, and she called and pretended to be me. Sneaky, I know, but desperate times call for desperate measures! Ally claimed I had been entering the wrong PIN number, but I know that's not true. I used the same PIN to withdraw cash from an ATM at the airport just a few days prior with no trouble. This had happened to me back in the States, too, and I had to have Ally issue me a new card. But just to be certain that I wasn't simply being a dumb-dumb, I did try to use the card a few days later, entering every single possible PIN it could be. No luck. 

I slumped down against my hostel bunk as Caileigh told me that the rep instructed her to reset the PIN again, but that she had to call back from the phone number listed on my account to do so. The gig was up. I would have to call them myself. This posed a problem for me because Skype jumbles up your actual phone number when you use it to make a call. So, there I was, in a foreign country with less than $5 cash and a debit card I could no longer use. 
Have a reserve of your local currency in the event of an emergency.
Luckily, I had thought to bring $60 in USD, which was stowed away in my money belt for an emergency. By the time I had gotten off the phone with Caileigh, it was too late to head back to the ATM again. The desk staff at Arenal Backpackers Hostel where I was staying offered to exchange $20 for the equivalent in colones for me. I was lucky that they were kind, and they even gave me an awesome exchange rate. 

Bring a back-up debit card.
Man, I was so lucky that at the last minute, I grabbed my Chase debit card and threw it in my money belt before I left home. Leaving it behind would have been such a rookie mistake, as this left me with another option for withdrawing cash. I was disappointed that I was forced to use it, however, because the ATM fees for this card are astronomical compared to Ally, and the foreign transaction fee is 3% compared with 1%. In the long run, not a huge deal, but as you can imagine I was pretty frustrated with Ally for the glitch with my card. 

Consider authorizing someone you trust on your account.
Since this unfortunate experience, I've authorized another person on each of my bank accounts so that they can access it and make any changes for me in the event of an emergency. This is a great move, because my options were incredibly limited with Ally. Had Caileigh actually been authorized on my account, she wouldn't have had to pretend to be me, and she could have fixed the situation for me rather quickly. 

If you take these suggested steps, we feel confident that you won't find yourself in a financial bind while traveling. 

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