Just over two weeks ago, just before flying south to Buenos Aires, I visited the bank to withdraw US$2000 in large bills—fifties and hundreds. Other things being equal, I’d rather not carry that quantity of cash, but in Argentina it’s an issue of economic convenience, if not necessity. For longer than I care to remember, the manipulation of exchange rates by the country’s previous government required extra-official work-arounds to avoid punishing prices and inflation (which, in fairness, have not ceased under the current government).
|What Argentine banks think of you...|
The perils of stashing bags of cash aside, changing money here long required seeking informal currency change sites, known as cuevas (“caves”) rather than banks and their ATMs, where one could only obtain the disadvantageous official rate. Cuevas paid the so-called blue dollar rate which, at times, was nearly double that. They did not charge a commission, and did not require waiting in line at a bank or formal exchange house.
There were shorter lines and less bureaucracy at bank ATMs, such as the one at my corner bank in Palermo, but there was still a penalty for using them. Of course, my US home bank would charge a percentage for each transaction and, moreover, the Argentine bank would collect an even larger fee.
|My neighborhood cueva was closed over the weekend.|
Since arriving here, I’ve usually changed at my neighborhood cueva—there are fewer these days, but they’re still around—where a grumpy old man disappears into the depths of his office and returns with the pesos I need. Friday night, though, in the interest of thoroughness, I chose to use the ATM at the corner. After entering my PIN, I had to choose how much money I would withdraw, and chose “Other” because I wanted more than the A$2000 (about US$114) amount indicated on the display
|The bank on the corner is just two doors away from our Palermo apartment.|
It was not to be. When I entered the figure of A$3000 (about US$170), the machine rejected it. When I reduced the number to A$2500 (US$143), it did the same. When I capitulated to the original A$2000, it proceeded, but then informed me it would impose a charge of A$106.20 (US$6.08, or 5.31 percent).
|Argentina's ATM fees are, arguably, punitive.|
In Chile, I regularly withdraw amounts of Ch$200,000 (US$319 at today’s exchange rate), and in Uruguay I’ve withdrawn similar amounts in US dollars (which is not possible at Argentine or Chilean ATMs). There is, of course, a one-time charge for each withdrawal, but as a percentage of the total amount that’s relatively small. In Chile, for instance, the charges range from Ch$4000 to Ch$6000 (roughly two to three percent in the case of the withdrawal above).
In many ways, Argentina is more visitor-friendly than it was recent years, but the banks’ continued insistence on multiple transactions and high commissions is not. Note also that, despite legal requirements, many Argentine businesses (including restaurants) still evade their obligation to accept credit cards in payment for services. They will often accept payment in US cash, but often at a lesser rate.