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Credit union debit card did not work in some European ATMs

I recently joined Bethpage Federal Credit Union to avoid bank fees (especially Bank of America which now charges 3% foreign transaction fee + $5.00 for withdrawals at European ATMs). My BFCU debit card, which is a MasterCard, did not work when I tried to withdraw money from the Belfius ATM at Brussels airport and from the Europabank ATM on Vlamingstraat in Bruges, and I had to fall back to the BofA card. But the BFCU card did work at an ABN Amro in Amsterdam.

When I got home I asked someone at the BFCU branch about it, they asked me: "Did the ATM have a MasterCard logo on it?" I couldn't answer, but just now I checked the ATM finder on MasterCard's website, and the Belfius and Europabank ATMs are both there, with an indication that they are "chip reader enabled" (will read debit and credit cards with "chip and/or magnetic stripe"). My card does not have a chip (BFCU promises they are coming soon) but it does have a mag stripe.

I am going to contact MasterCard about this; in the meantime, does anyone have experience with credit union debit cards in Europe?

Posted by
16883 posts

I believe that the MasterCard logo is what matters. Magnetic strip should also not be a problem at ATMs. Another question might be what did the error messages actually say, and maybe they did or did not specifically reflect the problem.

  • Was the withdrawal request within the limits allowed for your BFCU account?
  • If the BofA card succeeded at the same machine, was your withdrawal request for exactly the same amount? Machines have limits, too.
  • Did the BFCU card later work with no communication needed (e.g., they knew you were in Europe and no alerts were raised)?
Posted by
9363 posts

I have used my credit union debit card all over Europe and Costa Rica without a problem (no chip). I also use a debit card from an online bank (Ally) as backup, and have had no problems with it, either. I have occasionally come across the random ATM that doesn't work with either, so I just moved to the next one, where it worked fine.

Posted by
4736 posts

Quite possible that the mag stripe reader in each ATM wasn't working. As local cards will nearly all use the chip reader these faults don't always get noticed or repaired that quickly.

Posted by
5 posts

The withdrawal request was for €200, which I'm sure was within the allowable limit. The card worked at ABN Amro so withdrawal limit was not the issue.

Withdrawal request was for the same amount at the same machine, with BFCU no good and BofA OK.

The error message was something like "card invalid" but I didn't get the error until after I had entered my PIN and requested a cash amount. I understand that the delayed validation is how ATMs work when giving you money from an account other than the ATM owner (I used to work closely with programming teams who implemented ATM software).

I had contacted both BFCU and BofA before I had departed for the trip (standard operating procedure for me). I verified with BFCU after I returned that they were aware of my travel plans. I made no phone calls to either bank during the trip.

The mag stripe theory sounds valid, especially since the BFCU card doesn't have a chip but the BofA one does.

Thanks for the advice.


Posted by
4957 posts

I have two credit union cards as well, and neither have had any real problems in Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro, and Bosnia when traveling in the last few years (as recently as two months ago). My experience has been just like Nancy's: very rarely I have an issue at one particular ATM, but in that case, I try another bank's ATM across the street and it works fine. I needed my backup card on my recent trip only because I forgot to transfer enough money to the primary account. The backup card worked fine, too.

My primary card is not even a "Debit Card" - it's just a plain-old ATM card. It's tied to my savings account, not my checking account (don't even have one at that credit union) There is no Visa or Mastercard logo on the front as you'd have with a debit card. (It can be used only at an ATM, not to make purchases.) Again, this card has worked fine pretty much everywhere I've needed to use it in Europe.

Neither of my cards has a chip either - just a magnetic strip.

Posted by
607 posts

Look on the back of your card. There will be little symbols like interac, cirrus, plus, star etc. These are the interbank system(s) on which your card will work. The ATM has to have the matching interbank system for your card to work.

Posted by
4535 posts

On occasion my ATM card won't work in a machine. Never really sure why but I just try another nearby ATM from a different bank. It's not really something to worry about; it just happens.

Posted by
158 posts

Like Andrew H I do a lot of travel in the Balkans, Germany, etc. I use my bank debit card to withdraw funds from my checking account back home in Canada. I have had the 'card invalid' problem, and have learned which banks to avoid/use. Major banks owned by big chains in Croatia, for example, accept my ATM card, but Splitska Banka does not. You can look for the symbols as listed above, or you can just identify major banks in each country - they have fancy foyers and are often German or Austrian owned. My debit card has a chip in it and a stripe. I can handle paying the withdrawals fee for the convenience and the better exchange rate, withdrawing the max amount each time and using a bank that is open at the time, in case it swallows my card (two of Rick's many smart tips).

Posted by
5538 posts

My sister's credit union issued VISA Debit card had no problems. My Charles Schwab debit card worked every time. I'm glad you had two cards with you "just in case".

Posted by
5 posts

I have also used my credit union debit card in Europe on several trips in several countries and only one time had the same problem in Germany. In this case, I caused the problem when I set up the trip. My credit union has no foreign fees but your must notify them to activate the card for each trip and each country. I forgot to include Germany in my list of 7 countries to be visited. I will never make that error again. Also, I did have an alternate debit (fee charged) card with me and it worked.

Posted by
337 posts

I just spent two months in Europe (Spain, England, France, Netherlands) where I used my Charles Schwab debit card everywhere I went. No problems at any ATMs and they refund all ATM fees that I might be charged. I can't say enough great things about how easy this card is to use. The Schwab debit card is easy to sign up for, they do require that you open a brokerage account with them, but you don't have to put any money in it (mine currently has a $0 balance in the brokerage account). It's easy to transfer money back and forth from your Schwab checking account if you want to only use it for travel as I do.

Posted by
21863 posts

I have used a VISA branded credit union debit card for years. Generally once or twice during the trip, it just doesn't work. Sometimes an error message and sometimes just rejected. The first time it happened I really panic. Since then I have learned to just move on to the next ATM. With a couple of exceptions, it always works in the next one. Never had three rejections in a row. I don't think it is worth spending a lot of time discussing it with your credit union. The error could easily be with the ATM that you were using. Most likely not MasterCard problem.