checking

ATM fees

Why pay a fee to take your own money out of your checking account? Many people do just that because they use ATMs that don't belong to the bank where they have an account. In fact, banks rake in more than $2 billion every year in ATM charges.

If you use a so-called "foreign" ATM, you can expect to pay two fees. Your bank will charge a fee because it has to process a transaction from some other bank's ATM, and the bank that owned the ATM will charge a fee -- called a surcharge -- because it has to process a transaction from someone who's not a customer. It's a double whammy, and it's very costly.

High fees for convenience

It's common for each bank to charge $1.50, $2 or even more in major metropolitan areas, airports, hotels, sports venues and other places where they know you're hard-pressed to find an ATM owned by your bank. Imagine withdrawing $40 and paying $4 in fees, a 10-percent charge for accessing your own money.

Consumer groups contend that processing ATM transactions costs banks very little and that these fees are just an opportunity for institutions to make money. Banks counter that surcharges provide them with more revenue to install automated teller machines at sites that wouldn't ordinarily have them. The end result, they claim, is greater customer convenience.

Plan ahead to avoid fees

You'll always know if you're going to be surcharged because a statement is displayed on the ATM screen before you press the key to get cash. You're given the option of continuing with the transaction or canceling it. In reality, probably very few people decline the transaction at that point. That's why it's so important to be certain you have cash on hand for planned and unplanned minor expenses.

If your bank or credit union doesn't have ATMs it will likely have an agreement with an ATM network that either allows you to access certain machines for free or you'll be reimbursed by your institution for surcharges. Usually there's a limit of four to six fees that will be reimbursed. Know your bank's policy.

Bankrate.com routinely surveys hundreds of checking accounts for the best checking and ATM rates, meaning accounts with the lowest fees. Check our database for the account that's right for you.

Have you ever made a deposit at an ATM? Be aware that under some circumstances you may have to wait longer to access your deposits -- more on that in the next section.

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