Cashless in the UK


Upon returning to civilization from the arctic, I discovered that my debit card had become a non-functioning piece of plastic, instead of the magic money-spewing device I had been enjoying for my entire trip. My first inkling of this was while I was still on board the good ship Expedition, awaiting my 4am flight out of Longyearbyen.  At 2:45 I was woken up and informed that my card, upon which I’d placed my bar tab and gratuities for the trip, had been declined.

Long story short: I was able to use a different card to charge everything to.  Sleep eluded me, and I arrived back in civilization with about an hour of sleep only to discover upon logging into my bank site that I had apparently been in Mexico instead of the arctic, withdrawing money from ATMs at a frantic pace.

Happily the fraud was caught.

Not so happily, my card is dead.  Shuffled off the mortal coil.  Pushing up daisies.  It is an ex-card.

Taking stock of my situation, I found that I had some Kronor left from Norway, which converted to 16 pounds.  I also had a 20 pound note left over from before I left for the arctic.  I had been saving some Euros in case I ever landed in a Euro country again, but now I figured was a good time to convert them as well.  Not a great deal of money.  I would obviously need some method for acquiring more funds.

A not-so-quick call to my bank assured me of a few things:

  1. There is no way to resuscitate my card now that it was compromised.  Changing PINs would not be good enough.  A new card is needed.
  2. I should be able to use my credit card to get a cash advance from any bank that handles card transactions.

Good enough.  I got a new card ordered and the following morning proceeded to take care of business:

  1. Pick up the train ticket I previously purchased for my trip to Edinburgh.
  2. Get cash from a bank to supply my trip in Edinburgh.
  3. Wash my clothes that have become quite ripe after ten days.

Item #1 went off without a hitch since I luckily had purchased the ticket from a travel site using my credit card.  Simply insert the card into a ticket machine and it spit out my tickets.  Easy.  Plotting how to get to King’s Cross station (point of departure to Edinburgh) was also simplicity itself: my hostel was right by a tube station that would take me directly there, and I still have money on my Oyster card so that’s sorted.

Item #2 proved to be a bit more difficult.  The first bank I tried (HSBC) informed me that this wouldn’t work:

Lady: “No, sorry, we can’t do that here.  You can get cash from an ATM though.”

Me: “No, I can’t because it’s a credit card, I need a cash advance.”

Lady: “Right, but you can put it in the machine and take money out with it.”

Me: “No, see, it’s a credit card, it doesn’t connect to my bank account.”

Lady: “I understand sir, but if you put that in a machine and put in your PIN…”

Me: “It’s a credit card, for charging things, there is no PIN.”

Lady: “I see sir.  Well, you can go to a shop and buy things with it.”

Me: “Yes, that’s all well and good.  However, I’d like to get a cash advance.”

Lady: “Yes, I’m sorry sir, we don’t do that here.  Have you tried Lloyd’s?”

So I tried Lloyd’s.  And I tried many other banks as well, eventually trying some rather out of place ones (an Arab bank, an Indian one, a tiny bank office from indecipherable origins).  In desperation I even tried a Western Union branch, and they just laughed at me and said “try the post office.”

The post office?  Really?  Well, I had nothing to lose.

Actually, to be precise, I had about fifteen minutes to lose.  While they had a “travel money” window, they informed me of the root of the problem: you could not get money from any process in the UK without a card that had chip+pin security.

See, if you have a card with a security chip on it, that attests that you have the card physically in hand.  The PIN then validates that you are the proper owner of that card.  In the US, we just have a magnetic stripe that holds account info.  There are many machines that can easily read and store that info, and capture your PIN as you put it in a hacked machine.  It’s frighteningly easy for a criminal to do this and I’ve found many sites that walk you through how this works, completely with pictures, and even places that sell the equipment.

The irony: I can only get a cash advance with a card that has chip+pin security.  However, if the US had a chip+pin system, it would be far more difficult to spoof and defraud a card and I wouldn’t be in this position.

Hey U.S., you are missing this thing here.

So, at the end of all this, I had to admit defeat.  No cash for me.

As for #3, the travel fairy wasn’t done with kicking me yet.  While the hostel had a relatively affordable washer and dryer rent (two pounds to wash, one pound to dry) the dryer turned out to not actually circulate air, just heat it up a lot.  So after a couple spins through the full cycle, my load of laundry was still mostly wet.  My roommates experienced a similar thing.  So we all hung our laundry from our beds, window blinds, lockers, and any other surface that would let a piece of fabric hang.

We opened the window to increase air flow.  The rain pelted right back in at us.  Drying was going to be a challenge.

And so I sit here on a train to Edinburgh.  36 pounds in my damp jeans pocket, backpack full of clothes in various stages between wet and dry.  The morals of this story:

  1. Always travel with at least two payment methods, if not more.
  2. The US should get off it’s butt and implement better card security like the rest of the world has.
  3. A small hostel room filled with wet clothes ands up smelling like pungent cats after twelve hours.

Now it’s a race between my spending habits and the arrival of a new card.

In more positive news: train travel is so much nicer than air travel.  No horribly security scans or forced checking of luggage. Abundant electrical outlets and free wifi.  Ability to move around freely.  Real breakfast served to you on a plate.  Fabulous scenery.  Space to set up a laptop or stretch out and rest.  If only we could get high speed trains connecting the world.

9 thoughts on “Cashless in the UK

  1. First of all – man, that sucks! Sorry you’re in that pickle. One idea worth trying would be to have someone in the U.S. (I’m happy to help) wire you some money via Western Union, at least to temporarily tie you over until you get your new ATM card or return back to the U.S. I believe all Western Union offices are set up for international wire transfers.

    Now, for future travel here are some tips that may help avoid similar situations in the future:
    1. Travel with an American Express card. AmEx has offices all around the world which can handle cash advances. I imagine that a lack of chip card wouldn’t be a problem for them since AmEx has centralized account tracking and it’d be easy for them to verify your identity.

    2. U.S. is slowly joining the chip card band wagon. Some banks are already starting to issue chip cards. One of them is Bank of America, which recently sent me a brand new MasterCard with – you guessed it – a security chip. Even though BofA is The Devil, it may be worth selling your soul to them at least temporarily until BECU and others join the party.

    1. No worries, I got the card expedited here (showed up Friday). Amex? Nobody takes amex! Still, good thinking that this would be an easier way for cash advences.

      BofA *is* the devil. But that’s who my 2nd credit card is through (Alaska Air card). Was about to set it up with PIN for cash advances when my new card arrived. All is well. Still: neither one has chip security. Poop.

  2. Oh no!! So sorry to hear about the jack hole who messed up your funds!! Good luck, hope you get your new card asap…

  3. Oh maaan! I’m reading your blog for research right now. It’s like I’m cramming for potential pop quizzes that Life may throw at me on my travels. I am about to fly to London this coming Thursday (Aug. 22) for a wedding taking place the following Monday in Portsmouth, UK. I’ve put minimal planning on this was a last minute YOLO decision and was thinking of wandering Europe Fri, Sat, Sun until having to be in Portsmouth, UK for wedding on Monday. I’m literally going to arrive, probably grab lunch in London then hop on a train in whatever direction…. Scotland, Paris, Brussels. Maybe I should country hop each night!? Squeeze the most out of my spontaneous weekend.

    Anyhoo, I’ll know to bring at least two forms of payments.

    Nice Blogginatioin!


    1. Sweet, have fun on the trip! My recommendation: stay in one spot for longer: get the most out of a place instead of spending all your time on travel.

      And yeah: 2 forms of payment. 😉

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