What’s up with ATM fees, and how can I avoid them?

Woman using an ATM Image: Woman using an ATM

In a Nutshell

ATM fees could cost you a few bucks every time you withdraw money from your bank account — but luckily, they can be avoided. Here’s how these fees work and how to find fee-free ATM options.

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If you need to withdraw cash from your checking or savings account and you’re not near a branch, you can likely get money from any ATM. But you might have to pay for it.

Depending on the ATM you use, you may get slapped with a double whammy of ATM fees — one from your bank and another from the company that owns the ATM. Fortunately, there are a few ways you can make fee-free ATM withdrawals.

Here’s what to know about how ATM fees work and what you can do to save money when you need access to your cash.

What are ATM fees?

Automated teller machines, also called ATMs, are automated terminals that allow you to perform basic transactions with your bank or credit union account without the aid of a teller or customer service representative.

In general, you can use an ATM to withdraw cash, deposit checks or cash, and check your account balance. If you use an ATM that’s operated by your bank or credit union — or is operated by a network that your bank or credit union partners with — you can usually perform all of these tasks for free.

But if you use an ATM that’s not run by your bank or credit union (an out-of-network ATM), you’ll typically pay two separate fees for the service.

  • Out-of-network ATM fee: This is the fee that’s charged by your bank for not using an ATM in network.
  • ATM surcharge: The company that operates the out-of-network ATM charges this fee.

These individual fees can add up — and total fees may hover around $5 for each withdrawal you make. Some banks may also charge a fee for checking your balance at an ATM that’s not theirs. If you prefer cash over plastic, you may rarely run into ATM fees, if ever. But if you regularly withdraw cash from an out-of-network ATM, you could rack up hundreds of dollars in fees each year.

And there’s another type of fee you need to be aware of: overdraft fees. If you withdraw money from an ATM when you don’t actually have enough money in your bank account to cover the transaction, the bank may give you the money anyway and then charge you an ATM fee and an overdraft fee for overdrawing your account. But there’s good news: Banks and credit unions can’t charge you an overdraft fee for withdrawing too much at an ATM unless you’ve opted into the financial institution’s overdraft protection service.

Learn more about overdraft protection

How to find fee-free ATMs

For the most part, the only time you’ll run into ATM fees is if you use an ATM that’s not in your bank’s or credit union’s network.

Each bank and credit union is different, and a smaller bank doesn’t necessarily mean a smaller ATM network. Some community banks and local credit unions, for instance, may participate in shared networks with other financial institutions, giving you access to fee-free ATMs whether you’re close to home or out of town.

You can find out how big your institution’s network is and locate ATMs within that network by checking its website or mobile app or calling customer service. The bank or credit union might offer an ATM locator, too. Another option is to look up local branches that may have an ATM you can use.

Other ways to avoid ATM fees

While ATMs that are part of your financial institution’s network are always a good option to take money out of your account without paying a fee, they’re not the only option. Let’s take a look at three other ways you can get cash without having to pay ATM fees.

1. At the cash register

Some card issuers allow you to make a cash withdrawal at checkout  without paying a fee when you use your debit card to make a purchase at certain retailers. For example, if you use your ATM card to pay for a $20 purchase at the grocery store, you can ask the cashier (or use the card reader) to process your purchase and also request cash back.

For example, Mastercard provides a list of retailers that offer this service for its branded debit cards and will indicate whether there is an associated fee. If you have a Visa debit card, call local retailers ahead of time to find out if they can give you cash back at checkout.

2. With a bank account that reimburses ATM fees

Some financial institutions reimburse some or all of the fees you incur when using out-of-network ATMs. But they may also limit reimbursements to a certain amount each month or restrict transactions to U.S.-based ATMs.

Other banks and credit unions refund ATM fees for customers who maintain a high average balance.

Opening a new bank account with a bank that has numerous branches and ATM locations could help solve your ATM-fee problem. But keep in mind that it can take some time to move all your finances over to a new account from your old one. That includes updating your direct deposit information and changing all your recurring payments over to the new account.

It can be worth it in the end, but it’s a good idea to avoid doing this without fully considering the legwork that the process requires first.

Learn what you need to open a bank account

3. Your local branch

ATMs often limit how much you can withdraw in cash each day. So if you need to withdraw more than your ATM limit, visit a local branch of your bank or credit union to withdraw cash with one of the tellers.

They probably won’t charge you for the service (although some might, so be sure to check with your bank on whether they charge a teller fee). And going to a teller means you’ll have more flexibility with how much you can withdraw and the denominations you receive.

Bottom line

There are many ways to avoid ATM fees, so it’s a good idea to take some time to consider the options that work best for you. Checking with your bank or credit union to locate an in-network ATM when you’re on the go, for instance, can be an easy solution, as can requesting cash back when you check out at a local store.

But if you want to avoid having to search for an in-network ATM every time you need one, applying for a free checking account with a bank or credit union that will reimburse your ATM fees can save time and reduce stress.

Also, keep in mind that there may be instances where finding a fee-free ATM is impossible, or at least inconvenient. If possible, try to keep situations like this at a minimum by getting enough cash in advance.