Expat lesson learned: you don’t have to go home but you can’t bank here

Another bit of frustration I’ve experienced here has been financial, and not just the exorbitant prices I’m willing to pay for wine and pork products. While banking and international transactions can be tricky whenever you travel, it gets more complicated when you are traveling long-term and don’t know when you’ll next be home or near your local bank branch.

After two weeks in Istanbul and a weekend in Milan, one morning I tried to use my debit card at the grocery store but it was declined. I paid cash and didn’t give it much thought, sometimes machines are fickle. Later I used the same card at an ATM in Taksim, where it was taken by the machine for security purposes. You may ask if I had informed by bank of my travels before I left Brooklyn and no, I didn’t. I’ve held the account for at least six years, traveled overseas many times and never had an issue before, including the three months H was in Japan last year. Naturally, this was the same week our building’s internet was on the fritz, making online time precious and each session like defusing a bomb: tense, calculated, and could go off at any moment. I managed to get onto Skype later and call my bank, who requested that I send a request via fax with my signature at least five times. This presented further errands: convincing H to remember to print the letter, an embarassing episode at the post office where I was laughed at for asking something to be faxed to the US, and finally a trip to H’s company office to pick up the new card. Fortunately, I had other cards to use and other sources of cash to sustain me in the two weeks it took to get a new card, but from now on, I’ll call the bank in advance every time I go abroad.

The same week my card was eaten, we had to pay the rent on our new apartment. H’s company said we could do it via bank transfer to their bank in Istanbul and I figured it would be simple, a few keystrokes and a big green TRANSFER button like in caper movies with Swiss bank accounts. Turns out, not so much. My main bank (TD, formerly Commerce, of aforementioned debit card debacle) said they’d be happy to do it, provided I come in to a branch in person to make the transfer, of course they are only located on the East Coast of the US. Second fail was from ING, where I was informed that my ING Direct account is not really the same thing as the bricks and mortar ING Banks here in Turkey. Finally, I went to HSBC (the world’s “local bank”) where I have a savings account in the US. Again I was told they couldn’t transfer internationally, even HSBC-to-HSBC. In the end, I had to withdraw cash over several days and hand over a fat envelope to my (very happy) landlord. Lesson learned: don’t look to Jason Bourne movies for reality. And know your maximum daily withdrawal limit.

Today I went to book flights for a weekend trip to Bodrum on Onur Air, a Turkish carrier. They only take Visa and Mastercard through a secure system. I tried us my American Airlines card (may as well get miles somehow on a random airline with no frequent flyer program) and after I entered in the info, I had to enter in some security information to confirm my identity, yet I was still declined. A few minutes later, I got an email from my credit card asking me to call them about a fraud alert. I called them over Skype and approved the transaction, yet minutes later, I was declined again. I ended up using another card but will be checking both statements to make sure I wasn’t double charged.

While these problems could have all been solved with a Turkish bank account, it’s near impossible to open one without a residence permit and a tax number or some such thing. Plus, having a US account and billing address is quite handy for buying TV shows on iTunes.

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