September 19, 2006

The frustrations of banking in Honduras

Banking can be frustrating in Honduras, and probably in most other Central American countries. Here in La Ceiba, efficiency is an unknown characteristic. Opening an account routinely takes 2-3 hours. Go to a bank on a Friday afternoon or Saturday and you can easily spend more than an hour in line. Some of that time may be spent standing in line outside in the sun just waiting to get into the bank. Have a problem with your account or need a special service? Well, it's best to have a glass of wine or take a tranquilizer before you go − and don't make any appointments for the rest of the day.

Even if the bank isn't crowded, you will still have the pleasure of having a guard wave his metal detector over you and stick the nose of his rifle in your purse − that is if they allow you to carry your purse into the bank − most don't. They routinely tell El Jefe to lift his shirt to show he isn't carrying a weapon when his belt sets off the alarm. Once at the counter, most of the bank tellers will treat you with an attitude ranging from disdain to downright rudeness, not even acknowledging you when you say buenos días (good morning).

We've had accounts at many of the banks in La Ceiba. In the beginning when we came here, we transferred a large amount of money to buy property and build our house (that money is long gone). Since two banks went bankrupt right about the time we moved here, we weren't too comfortable putting it all in one bank. We started with the biggest bank, Banco Atlantida, the oldest and supposedly the most secure. The service was appallingly rude and inefficient. The other banks were smaller but not much better. When I got to the point where I was hyperventilating every time I even thought about going to Banco Atlantida, I knew it was time to close those accounts.

A few examples, just so you won't automatically think that I'm just another demanding American:

Once my computer generated bank book did not add up correctly. While the ending balance seemed right, it appeared to have some transactions missing. The customer service representative told me I would have to pay for her to give me a computer printout of my account activity. I said that I wasn't going to pay for her to show me what should have already been printed in my bank book, but I had to go to an assistant manager to get it done.

One time we had to withdraw approximately L.160,000 to pay for construction materials. I asked for it to be in the form of a check, since I didn't relish the idea of carrying that amount of cash with me to San Pedro Sula, which is a two-hour drive away and a very dangerous city. The bank teller insisted that they charge 1% for typing a check. I said that I wasn't going to pay a single penny for a check, went to the bank manager, and guess what? I didn't have to pay. That rule is only for those who don't have an account at the bank. A mistake which would have cost me L.1,600 (at that time about $100) if I hadn't complained.

Another time we were paying approximately $5,000 to a supplier who didn't accept checks. In Lempiras, this is L.94,500. The largest Lempira bill is L.500 so $5,000 equals 189 bills. Try putting that in your wallet. Oh, wait a minute. I wasn't allowed to carry my wallet into the bank since it has a metal clasp and wouldn't go through the metal detector. Since robberies outside of banks are common − in fact it is sometimes suggested to be a result of a signal from a teller to his/her cohorts outside − I thought it reasonable that the cash be put in an envelope. Nope, banks don't give envelopes away. So I stuffed the money in my pocket and left.

One bank lost my Honduran identification card while making a copy of it. It was late in the day and the representative blithely suggested that I return the next day and it would probably turn up. You can't do anything in Honduras without your ID card. In fact it is a law that you carry it. Merely not possessing an ID card gives the police the right to take you to jail. I said I was not leaving the bank until they found it. Although I got some menacing looks from the guard, the disgusted clerks kept looking until they found it − on the copy machine, which was where I had suggested that they look in the first place.

Finally we found Banco Ficohsa, which is the only Honduran bank to have mini-branches in the U.S. Apparently they have a customer service training program or maybe it's just a better place to work and the employees are happier. They actually smile, greet customers, usually even remembering our names. They act as if they appreciate our business. We have gotten to know one of the assistant managers. He is very friendly and whenever there is a problem, he usually can take care of it.

Many of the banking laws in Honduras are to protect the banks not the customers. When a U.S. check is deposited, the funds will be withheld by the bank for up to one month before the customer can access them, even though the transfer is usually effected electronically in 3 or 4 days. Western Union transfers and even bank wire transfers are routinely 'misplaced' for 3 or 4 days or a week or more before the money is available to the recipient and of course no interest is paid for the use of your funds during that period. Every bank book (there are no monthly statements for savings accounts) is preprinted with the notice that the "bank reserves the right to demand a 90-day written notice prior to withdrawing any amount of money" from your account.

When using the debit card, we sometimes suffer the rath of store clerks tossing the card back at us and shouting "Denegada!!" (Denied!!) for all to hear even though our balance is well over the amount of the amount we are trying to charge. Ficohsa always apologizes for the embarrassment but can't seem to figure out what is the problem.

Just recently some of the banks seem to be competing for customers offering (they say) higher interest rates and special services. It's not perfect but we are still much happier with Ficohsa. At least they smile and say they are sorry when something goes wrong.

In my next article I'll write about some of the things you can do to make your Honduran banking experience a little better.
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