Endless World Cup ATM Search Shows Disconnected BanksChristiana Sciaudone and David Biller
World Cup visitors in Brazil who need a little cash might find themselves visiting one ATM -- and then another, and then another.
That’s because Brazil’s banking system, with more ATMs than any other country, bucks the practices of the world’s more advanced economies by not linking its automated-teller machines into a network allowing seamless transactions.
The difficulties awaiting soccer fans at the tournament starting June 12 are more than an inconvenience. They offer a window into the gap between Brazilian banks and their global peers on a benchmark of financial connectivity, a legacy of decisions taken decades ago by local institutions to distinguish themselves by offering their own ATM service.
“Brazil is very unique in that they don’t have a shared network,” said Mike Urban, director of portfolio management at financial data vendor Fiserv, based in Brookfield, Wisconsin. Foreign travelers in Brazil for the World Cup “are going to be frustrated if they go to ATMs and expect all of them to work.”
A lack of network links reduces most ATMs in Brazil to their most basic function: dispensing cash from the bank whose name is emblazoned on the machine. Tourists from the U.S. or Europe accustomed to accessing funds across the international banking system are likely to be disappointed as well as annoyed.
Just ask Denver resident Mike Tevebaugh, a 29-year-old information technology manager at CapTech Consulting Inc. When he visited Rio de Janeiro in March for Carnival with two buddies, they prowled the airport for 30 minutes to find a compatible ATM, checking five machines and trying three different bank cards.
“It was a stressful experience for something that normally is pretty cut-and-dried,” Tevebaugh said.
Days later, the group visited the colonial tourist town of Paraty and walked 15 minutes to a bank. All their cards failed. They were pointed to a small grocery 15 minutes away that had a stand-alone ATM. It accepted just one of their three cards.
None of this is a mystery to Brazilians familiar with seeing multiple stand-alone ATMs studding malls and other public spaces. While bank-to-bank connectivity was a hallmark of U.S. ATMs as they gained popularity in the 1970s -- and is the international norm today -- Brazilian banks didn’t adopt those links because they chose from Day One to each go their own way.
Brazilians have traditionally been less mobile than Americans, not leaving home for college, and less likely to uproot to new cities for jobs. That’s negated the need for expansive access to cash machines. The use of formal banking services is also relatively new for the 42 million Brazilians that have risen to the middle class over the past decade or so.
“It’s really annoying, but it’s so true, everyone knows you can’t use your ATM card at another bank,” said Patrick Stoffel, a 29-year-old partner at bamboo design and construction company Bambutec Design, who lives in Rio de Janeiro. “I was really surprised to learn that in the U.S., it’s different. I think it’s great.”
It’s not easy to find estimates of how many of Brazil’s almost 160,000 ATMs would dole out Brazilian currency, reais, on demand for a U.S. tourist. When asked about foreigners’ access, bankers and the government say the ATM system is tied to interbank networks such as MasterCard’s Cirrus and Visa Plus -- as long as non-Brazilian banks ensure that their debit cards are locally compatible.
“There is no impediment towards taking money out in reais from machines in Brazil using foreign cards,” the Finance Ministry said in an e-mailed response to questions. “However, it is up to the industry to make sure the service is fully available.”
Banco do Brasil, for example, says it accepts VisaPlus and MasterCirrus cards at 78 percent of its 37,000 ATMs.
“It’s the responsibility of the bank from abroad to affiliate itself with international networks, and to orient their clients on this theme,” Banco do Brasil said by e-mail.
Like the Finance Ministry, Banco do Brasil declined to make available any executives to discuss ATMs.
Some banks have connections via ATM operator TecBan, whose 14,100 Banco24Horas machines -- 8.8 percent of the nation’s total, based on World Bank estimates -- accept cards from member institutions including its controlling stakeholder, Itau Unibanco Holding SA. Formed 31 years ago and owned by seven banks, TecBan says it saw a business opportunity and allows the use of most foreign cards.
“The company has an expansion plan to increase the reach of its network and ATMs in World Cup host cities will attend to the population and tourists,” TecBan said by e-mail.
TecBan recently released a system that will allow banks to open their networks to users from other institutions, according to the company’s website. The site doesn’t say how many banks have signed up or when the service might be in effect, and TecBan and Itau both declined to comment.
Another impediment to using ATMs in Brazil is a difference in anti-fraud protections embedded in the bank cards. As in Europe, Brazilian bank cards’ identifying information is typically contained in a so-called smart chip that’s more secure than the magnetic strips common in the U.S. And even with the sophisticated encryption, card-data thievery is widespread, adding to the list of reasons not to bother with plastic.
With Brazilian state tourism agency Embratur predicting that the month long World Cup finals will attract 600,000 visitors from outside the country, Fiserv’s Urban had some low-technology advice for outsiders: Carry 30 percent of your projected spending in bills.
“It could make sense to bring in cash from the U.S. already traded to avoid having to find that ATM,” Urban said. “That’s certainly an option.”