Navigating banking and bill paying in a foreign land

5 Sep

I wasted several hours today trying to figure out how to pay our mobile phone bills.  This story is a great illustration of numerous experiences we’ve had trying to navigate the banking, bill paying, and bureaucracy here.  The systems for these sorts of things are pretty different from the US, so it’s all a learning process for us, and the language barrier just makes it worse.  I speak a decent amount of Spanish, but my Spanish vocabulary is related to typical things that would come up in casual conversation: the weather, food, how something makes me feel, etc.  My bureaucratic vocabulary is not as good.  So when someone gives me explicit instructions for an unintuitive process in Spanish, I sometimes miss a key detail.  And the devil is in the details.

It started when we thought we were getting overcharged from our mobile phone company.  They were charging us separately for each of our mobile lines and the land line/internet package, which alone cost what we thought all 3 should cost as part of the mobile + landline + internet package we enrolled in.  After the local retail store of our mobile service provider had made mistakes in our enrollment, we were understandably critical of the charges.  It didn’t help that there was a really obtuse process for logging in to view our bills; a different login for the landline/internet package and each individual mobile number, with a very confusing online interface and all sorts of impossible hoops to jump through.  So we went to our bank and told them to block any further charges from Movistar Mobile.  It was only when a friend who is fluent in Spanish helped us call their customer service line (which wasn’t helpful) that she noticed that the price we expected to pay did not include IVA (sales tax).  When we looked closely at the fine print, the amount that they were charging us actually seemed to be correct.  Of course, every other vendor and service we’ve purchased here listed their prices including tax. Movistar did not, just to trick you into thinking that it cost less than it actually does.  Have I mentioned that IVA is 21% ?  It’s a lot – which I’m happy to pay if it means that the government can afford to provide health care, unemployment, and other social services for its people, including me – but I like to know up front what I’m paying, because the difference with and without is pretty significant.

Jump to today.  After we realized that we had blocked a justified payment for our mobile phones, they sent us a text giving us 48 hours to pay up or have our service shut off.  They said we could pay our mobile phone bills via one of several local banks or at the post office.  I walked to the closest branch of the listed banks, went inside, and waited in line for the only teller, only to learn that payment can only be made via ATM. Went home to get my ATM card (for the bank account that I wanted to charge the bill to), came back to the ATM, followed the instructions on the screen, entered phone #, tax ID # and payment amount, and then paid it in cash which was the only payment option (so why did it ask for my ATM card?). When I was done with the transaction, it did not return my ATM card!! Thanks a lot, ATM. You didn’t need my ATM card and now it’s stuck inside.

Stood in line in the bank again and spoke to the only teller about getting my ATM card back. She was just about to leave for lunch (the bank closes for the day at 2pm), and after making me wait for her coworker, who then pushed it back on the teller, and waiting while they argued about it for a while in Catalan (probably commenting on how stupid I was to insert my card when I can only pay with cash amongst other things), they told me to come back tomorrow morning.

So I left the bank without my ATM card and decided to go to the post office to pay the second bill. Signage was unclear re: which line to wait in. Waited in the “other” line, only to learn once I got to the front that I needed to be in a different line that had a numbering system.  When I took my number, I learned that there were 28 people ahead of me, and only 3 tellers. So I decided to go back to the ATM, since it had no line, a fancy touchscreen, and an English menu option to try again; I had noticed on my first try that it offered an option to do transactions without an ATM card.

It asked for a pin # (from whom, I don’t know… the mobile company? the bank that operated the ATM machine which is not my bank?) and it displayed it in plain text as I typed it. I was standing on a major street in a very touristy area where theft is common, so I made up a pin # to try to move forward and see what other barriers I’d run into (for the next time around). It then asked for the payment amount, but had no comma button (they use a comma here instead of a decimal) and only allowed me to enter 3 digits.  FAIL.

So I came home to regroup and am now nursing my wounds with a local beer.  If this isn’t paid by today, Rob’s mobile service might be shut off, so I’ll have to go back to the post office and wait my turn. Hopefully they won’t demand to see the bill in question, since we have electronic billing and no printer. E-billing is pointless in a culture that is so heavily dependent on paper for proof of anything.

4 Responses to “Navigating banking and bill paying in a foreign land”

  1. Shoosh 2013/09/05 at 16:00 #

    Hi kids! I LOVE all the food photos….yum!! LIfe there sounds busy, interesting, and full of the typical issues we all face at times with our computers and phones….So, we are still planning on coming in late June or early July. I am hoping to confirm our new flights this weekend, and will keep you posted. Meanwhile, a good friend of mine, Joanne Ruggles, an artist who used to teach figure drawing at Poly, is going to be in Barcelona in a few weeks with her husband Phil, who also used to teach computer stuff at Poly. She knows Rob from Poly (did he model for her class?) and says she would LOVE to see you guys there. SO, what is the best email to use to reach you or Rob so she can also contact you? I only have the old eorbit one and have no idea if it is still good? Fill me in on the latest, and send me the email. You can always reach me through my website. :)

  2. Chris Collins 2013/09/07 at 20:25 #

    My my you have the patience of Job. Enjoy that brew.

  3. Alex Dupuy 2013/09/17 at 12:37 #

    E-billing and no printer? Sadly, we can relate to that, as we brought laptops only. However, at least in Berlin there are some kinkos-like places (sprintout) that you can take documents on a USB stick (or pretty much any media) and print it out for not too much more than the cost of a photocopy.

    Now if only we could actually get online access to our bank accounts (opened almost two weeks ago) – we’re still waiting for our online PINs to arrive by mail. And in Germany they have these special things called TANs which you need to use to authorize each online transaction that moves money (it’s basically a sheet of numbers, like a one-time-pad, and you enter the next number when prompted), and those haven’t shown up either.

    In the meantime, we can at least make bank transfers, which are pretty much the only way to pay any kind of account (I tried to make a cash deposit for one payment but at least at the Sparkasse I was in, it wasn’t possible for anyone with as little German as I have). You have to fill out a paper form and hand it over to the teller. Once we get an online PIN, the Deutsche Bank iPhone app (otherwise pretty useless) allows you to take a picture of the paper form and submit it instead of bringing it in person. It is the same kind of half-assed solution as the US banking apps that let you take a picture of a check in order to deposit it – why can’t they make it easier to just eliminate the piece of paper entirely?

    I can see that some (many?) things are better here in EU – free or very low-cost bank transfers make much more sense than the checks we have to use in US to avoid $20 wire transfer fees (to send AND to receive), and from a security perspective, the TAN system is much better (if less convenient) than the lame web obfuscation stuff the US banks use to try to improve the limited security of PINs. But as an outsider, the few places where it just doesn’t work smoothly are more glaringly obvious for me as I’m not yet inured to them.

    Card-eating ATMs, on the other hand? They are just evil in both US and EU (a German friend lost hers at an Deutsche Bahn ticket machine) and the only (very small) consolation is that at least in the EU you don’t have to pay $3.50 for the privilege. I hope you got your card back in the end.

    • Aleta 2013/09/19 at 02:26 #

      We too have had similar experiences with our banking here. In fact, we’ve been wanting to blog about it but haven’t gotten around to it yet.

      The secret decoder cards were a pain to figure out how to use; it did not come with an instruction manual. The major security flaw with those is that if it gets into the wrong hands, the security of your bank account is easily compromised. Instead of having a unique login for my online bank account, I enter my NIE (equivalent to a US SSN) and my birthdate, both of which are easily found if someone wanted to steal my identity. There is also a pin number instead of a password, but it has a set number of digits, and they’re all numbers, so again, a password algorithm could figure it out pretty easily if someone were actively trying to access my account.

      I did get my ATM card back the next day! The staff had already opened up the machine and had it waiting for me when I got there; they even allowed me to skip the line to give it back. I thought they were extremely perturbed at me the day before, but they were very kind to me the next day. Seems customer service people here don’t hold on to their job dissatisfaction when they get all their breaks :) They also probably realize how lucky they are to have any job at all, considering the unemployment rate in Spain.