It’s interesting how accustomed I get to modern traveling. As a teenager I planned ahead where to best exchange currency, how much money I should take, and how much backup I need. Nowadays I pack my VISA and just fly or drive to any other country and get cash any time from an ATM. Works all over Europe, worked in the US, worked in Africa, and worked in the remotest locations in South America. But then came Busan, Korea.
I flew with Björn from Osaka to Busan as our first stop in Korea before visiting Regine, Christian, and Dong in Seoul. Immigration went smooth and after clearing customs we went straight to the next ATM. “Global ATM” was clearly written over all 3 machines, however even after several attempts both my and Björns cards were not accepted. I had some cash from a friend which was enough to bring us to the central subway station where we had to change lines to get to our hostel. In Japan ATMs were everywhere, since you couldn’t pay local transport with cards, so I assumed the same would be true for Busan where you cannot pay local transportation with cards either. We boarded the subway and went to Sasang station where we had to change lines. Unfortunately our ticket was not valid for transfer, so we had to buy a new ticket. My cash was not enough for the following tickets, so we started looking for an ATM at the subway station. Nothing. We left the station and searched for a bank overground. On the other side of the huge intersection was a “Bank of Busan” where we entered full of confidence that we will get cash here. But the ATMs did not have the “Global ATM” sign and subsequently rejected our cards. The security guard pointed us further down the road, there would be another bank, maybe we are more lucky there.
We thus walked down the street with our full backpacks, mine with about 20 kg on the back and 5 kg on the front, to try out the next bank. About 500m down the road we found another bank. The lady at the counter signaled us that they are closed, but when we pointed to the ATMs they let us in to try our luck. First attempt failed. Second attempt with different option in the ATM menu, failed. I asked the clerk if he knows what is wrong. He started to inspect my VISA card as if he had never seen a credit card before. “This credit card?” he asked, I confirmed. “Which bank?” he continued. “Comdirect, German bank” I replied. “Oh.” Silence. “No foreign cards.” While the ATM said “Global ATM” and had a sub-menu for foreign cards, it seems the bank did not support it. So we were sent further down the road, looking for yet another bank. A couple of hundred meters further the third bank. We were heartily greeted and curiously watched when we entered and went straight to the ATMs. New game, new chance. Yet failed again. Here as well the VISA cards were rejected. The clerk was very curious, he too looked at my card as if it was the first VISA he saw, but eager to help he tried several options on the ATM but wasn’t more successful than Björn or I. He started talking to his colleague and she began looking up things in her computer. Meanwhile I used the free wifi to search for information on VISA in Korea. And I found indeed the information that foreign cards are not commonly accepted in ATMs. Only the banks KEB, Citibank, and a third bank I forgot are safe bets, others might work or might not work. With that information I talked to the lady behind the counter to help me find one of these banks nearby.
Björn was talking to the clerk and remembered one safe bet when it comes to cash in Southeast Asia: 7-eleven! Their convenience stores always have ATMs and in his previous travels in Southeast Asia they were always reliable. So Björn and the clerk tried to find the next 7-eleven, while the lady and I tried to find the next KEB bank. Björn finally found a store not too far away, but since Google Maps is restricted in Korea navigating is not easy, especially if you are completely new to the city. So he showed the location to the clerk, wo started running out of the bank. He signaled us to follow him. We grabbed our bags and followed him, as he was running down the street. A few meters behind the next crossing he showed us the 7-eleven store, said goodbye and ran back to the bank.
The tension rose. Will the 10th ATM at the 5th location finally spit out cash? Feed in card. Not instantly rejected. Select “Credit Card Service”. Next screen loads. “Enter amount.” “Enter PIN.” “Please wait.” This was the time when the previous ATMs spit out the cards with “Service unavailable.” But then the liberating sound of rotating cash broke the silence. “Please take your belongings. Thank you for your transaction.” We finally had cash and could continue to our hostel. Good to know that if all fails, 7-eleven will be there for you. 😄