Bank cards and ATMs

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Bank card at an ATM

The best way to exchange currency — in terms of both convenience and exchange rate — is to use bank cards (not credit cards) at ATMs in Brazil. The ATM will give you Brazilian currency and you will be the debited the equivalent US$ or CAD$ from your US or Canadian account.

Any bank card that has the Plus or Cirrus network logo should work at some ATMs in Brazil, but by no means all of them. Smaller branch locations won't have any ATMs that operate on the Plus or Cirrus networks. Large locations will have a dozen ATMs without the logo and one or two with the logo. Your card will work only in those one or two ATMs with the logo.

In the US and Canada, every ATM gives cash. However at large bank branches in Brazil, some ATMs are reserved for deposits and transfer only. Carefully observe the signs above ATMs and look for Saques (Withdrawals). The sign is usually a plaque mounted high above the ATM. It is not on the screen of the ATM.

Avoid any ATM that has a sign that doesn't include the word Saques (Withdrawals). Such machines don't give cash, but if you insert your ATM card it nevertheless presents an option to withdraw cash even though the machine has no cash. If you then proceed with a cash withdrawal, a typical experience is that the machine will hold onto your card for several minutes while making dispensing noises and finally return your card without giving any cash or receipt. One foreign customer noted that the money had been debited from his account, but then automatically credited back some minutes later.

ATMs in Brazil impose their own withdrawal limits in addition to the limit imposed by your own bank. Common ATM withdrawal limits in Brazil are R$600, R$800, and R$1000 even if your own bank's withdrawal limit is greater than all of these. The maximum withdrawal at any Brazilian ATM using any kind of foreign card in a single transaction seems to be R$1000 (about US$500).

My experience has been that the transaction limit is also a daily limit. For example, if you withdraw the maximum R$1000 at a Banco do Brasil ATM, then you can't withdraw any more cash at any Banco do Brasil ATM with the same card until the next day (regardless of having a higher daily limit back in the US or Canada).

If you need more cash after reaching the transaction limit, your options are to use a different card at the same ATM, or to use your same card at an ATM of a different Brazilian bank. By all means bring two or more bank card when visiting Brazil so you have flexibility. Before you leave home, make sure your daily withdrawal limit is at least US$500. If you have not specifically requested a higher limit, banks often set an annoyingly low withdrawal limit (of perhaps US$100) to minimize risk. Be aware that North American banks have a habit of automatically lowering your withdrawal limit if you haven't used the maximum in a certain period of time. For example, if your limit is US$500/day but you haven't withdrawn US$500 all at once from your account in over a year, you might be surprised to discover that your bank has lowered your limit to US$200/day without telling you.

ATMs in Sao Paulo (of any bank) severely restrict the amount of cash you can withdraw at night to prevent muggings or forced withdrawals. You are limited to about R$100 between 10pm and 6am.

The standard advice is that PINs for bank cards and credit cards should not be longer than 4 digits because bank machines in foreign countries have trouble dealing with it. I've heard this advice repeatedly for many years and I wonder if it's still true. Brazilians with Brazilian-issued cards can and do use PINs longer than 4 digits.

The typical ATM withdrawal will incur an exchange rate that is within 2% of the interbank exchange rate, and your bank will typically charge you a fee of about US$5. Losing approximately 2% on the exchange is not bad compared to currencies more obscure than the real, and unless you're dealing with very large amounts of money, I haven't found a better way.

If you use a currency exchange kiosk at a Brazilian airport, for example, you'll lose an astonishing 15–20% on the exchange. If at all possible, also avoid ATMs at the airport. They'll tag on an absurd transaction fee of US$20 or more.

Since your bank will charge you a transaction fee, it is better to withdraw a large amount at once rather than multiple small withdrawals.

Summary

  • Bring several different bank cards if you can.
  • Verify your withdrawal limits before leaving home.
  • Look for ATMs labeled with the Plus or Cirrus logo (whichever appears on your card).
  • You want an ATM that says Saques (Withdrawals). Don't use an ATM that says, for example, just Depósitos (Deposits).
  • With one card, the most you'll be able to get per day is R$600–1000 at ATMs of any one bank.
  • Use ATMs at actual bank locations or inside major shopping centers to minimize risk of running into an ATM skimming device.

Specific banks

ATMs that are likely to work with US or Canadian cards, but only at those ATMs with the Plus or Cirrus logo:

  • Bradesco
  • Banco do Brasil
  • HSBC
  • Citibank (has very few locations)

ATMs that will not work with US or Canadian cards. I have never seen Plus, Cirrus, or any other international network logos on any of these ATMs, and whenever I tried, my cards were immediately rejected before entering a PIN:

  • Itaú (Itaú Unibanco)
  • Santander (Banco Santander)
  • Caixa (Caixa Econômica Federal)

Anomalies

There are some combinations of card and ATM that just don't work — even though both are part of the Plus or Cirrus network. One personal example: A particular bank card of mine with the Plus logo that worked for years at Banco do Brasil ceased to work at any of their ATMs around June 2013. Even though Banco do Brasil is still part of the Plus network, a representative of the bank told me that clearing agreements are made bank to bank, and that my particular North American bank might no longer have an agreement with Banco do Brasil. My card continues to work with Bradesco however.

The only way I found to mitigate this problem is to have cards from different North American banks. If one doesn't work, another might.

Contact Info

Corrections and comments about this article are welcome. Please email to:

dacanada [at-sign] nym.hush.com

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