Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Banking Adventures

After seeing over six apartments in two days, my friend, Liz, and I settled on an apartment that we were both excited about living in. I naively thought the hard part of the apartment hunting was over. I soon learned that for foreigners there is an added layer of stress: paying your landlord. Here is the basic problem we ran into: we have the money in our American bank accounts but needed to get a Spanish bank account or check in order to pay our landlord.

Last Saturday, we went to meet our landlord (dueno) to put down a 500 euro deposit for him to hold it for us until Monday when we had access to the banks. Apartments here go really quickly and a lot of university students are returning from summer vacation around now so it is important to act quickly once you find a place. On Saturday, I planned to go to Citibank to withdraw some Euros. While I had come with some start up cash, I had already gone through most of it through purchases of a cell phone, metro month pass, and cab ride to the residencia. It turns out the first two Citibanks I went to had broken atms. I have never encountered this problem in the states but it appears to be fairly common in Spain because I have already had this problem on two separate occasions.

After paying our landlord on Saturday to hold the apartment, Liz and I planned on getting the rest of the money on Monday. Neither of us felt comfortable paying the rest of our rent and deposit in cash so we planned on getting a cashier’s check or wiring the money to our landlords account. We went to the bank starting at 9:30 am. First we were told that we could not open an account the same day and get a cashier’s check. It turns out that even though Citibank exists in the US and Spain, bank employees in Spain cannot pull up information regarding your American accounts. For all intensive purposes, they are separate unrelated banks except for the fact that you get charged fewer withdrawal fees if you use a Citibank atm abroad. While discussing our options with employees at the Spanish Citibank we were constantly asked why we could not just pay the landlord in cash. Both Liz and I have lived on campus all four years and never rented an apartment in the states let alone abroad, so we wanted a paper trail in case anything went wrong and we didn’t want to be walking around the city with 3,000 euros. One employee went so far as to write a hand written receipt for us to have our landlord signed when we pay him.

Still this did not sit right with us so we decided to try to wire the money to my landlord by going online. I figured it couldn’t be too complicated considering the fact that my landlord as a Citibank Spanish account. There is a lot of conflicting information regarding what is on the Citibank website, what customer service will tell you, and the employees in the US say. Both online and in the American Citibank, my mom and I were told the wire would go through the same day if it was going to any Citibank account. However, after starting the transaction online, I had to call in to the customer service line to confirm my identity and at the end they say it takes 2 days to 2 weeks. Now two weeks is unacceptable when you are trying to pay a landlord! What I have come to understand is that most people quote the time it leaves the US Citibank office however the process can take 2 days to 2 weeks before it shows up in the other person’s account.

Having cancelled the wire transfer and after spending close to thirty minutes on the phone with customer service, Liz and I went back to the Spanish Citibank office. After talking with a senior level employee, she said we could open a Spanish Citibank account, withdraw money from my American Citibank account from the atm, the redeposit the money in the Spanish Citibank account and have the wire the money to my landlord instantaneously. This seemed like a great solution although we still encountered a couple of problems. When I gave the employee my phone number, she said I must give them a landline. I don’t have a landline. So Liz ran back the residencia about three blocks away and found the Fulbright commission’s phone number and we gave that even though she knew it was not my correct number. After providing most of the information the lady needed, I went to the atm in the office to withdraw my money. Well the screen was all black, the screen did not even display a message that it was broken like the other broken atms that I have seen. After being told it was rebooting and waiting close to twenty minutes, Liz and I decided to go to another Citibank to withdraw the money. By this point, I had moved the bulk of my money in my checking account so that I could withdraw it all from one account. Well, for some reason, when I put my atm card into the machine at new Citibank location, my joint checking account that I share with my mom did not show up. I have since learned joint accounts don’t show up on the atm machine. So despite having found a functional atm machine, I could not withdraw my money because the account was not displayed under account information.

Thoroughly frustrated, we went back to the residencia and the original Citibank we started at. I went straight to my computer so that I could transfer the funds from my joint account to my individual savings account so that this money would show up on the atm while Liz ran back to the original Citibank to see if the atm was now working or if we would need to find a third Citibank to withdraw the money from. Luckily the atm at the original Citibank was now working so I began to withdraw my money. The atm does not let you to enter the amount of money you want to withdraw but rather you must choose from preset amounts. All told I needed to withdraw 3000 euros to cover Liz and I for our first month rent and two months deposit which seems to be standard. (Before this ordeal began, Liz and I thought using just one of our banks and having one of us repay the other would be the easiest and because Citibank is in Madrid this seemed like a logical choice to use my account). I soon learned that you can only withdraw 900 euros on each account, for a total of 1800 euros (900 from savings, 900 from checking despite being told by Citibank in the US that I could withdraw $5,000 US dollars on one day while in Spain). Realizing this was the best we could do, I walked back up to the lady who helped me open my Spanish Citibank account. At this point, it was close to 1:30 and Spanish banks close at 2 and do not reopen after siesta and to top it off, the next day was a holiday so we needed to complete this transaction within the thirty minutes remaining in the bank day.

The people at the Spanish Citibank office were quite helpful despite the fact that they could have treated us like stupid Americans not gone out of their way to help us figure out a solution. Now at this point, I have 1800 euros in my wallet but no atm card for the Spanish account that I just opened (it takes about a week for the card to get mailed to you) so I had to walk up the bank teller who was able to deposit it for me after I showed him my new account number and passport. After counting the money which I had just withdrawn from my American account, he deposited it and then wired the money to my landlord with just minutes to spare. Luckily, my landlord is very understanding, so he is letting us pay the remainder of our deposit on Wednesday when the banks reopen and I can withdraw more money and have it wired to the landlord.

Despite all of this trouble, I am now in possession of the keys to my apartment and I am quite happy that everything has worked out. From this experience, I have learned that nothing goes as smoothly as you think it should and despite being part of a global economy, many banks are still very localized not prepared for international transactions. Needless to say after this adventure, I went home and took a long siesta.

Below are some pictures of my apartment.


Emily said...

Michelle, I don't know how it is that I am just getting to your blog, but I love it! I also use vodaphone, I love your to do list, and the pics of your super sweet apartment are great! I hope you're beginning to feel settled and finding a nice routine. Talk to you soon!!

Cassie said...

oh my gosh! that sounds like such a crazy time. im impressed that you got that all to work out. hopefdully everything else goes a bit more smoothly...cute apartment! :)

sandykoo said...

It's all downhill from here.