Up to bat at the bankomat: A note on ATM etiquette in Azerbaijan

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In Azerbaijan, you need cash to get around. Paying with a card is so rare that in some places showing plastic will only get a chuckle out of the cashier. Of course, in Baku, there are a couple of places that will accept credit cards, but even when I've seen the "Visa" or "Mastercard" stickers on the windows, I've been refused for one reason or another. At Traveler's Coffee, for instance, they did take my card, but the cashier grabbed his manager and dusted off the machine to complete the transaction. Paying with a card doesn't add much in the way of convenience, and it appeared as though the few that did take my card pushed the service fee on to me. This note will focus primarily on the bankomat (ATM) situation, but I'm definitely curious about the cash economy of Azerbaijan (which, 94% of the economy is hard cash), but that deserves a full post to call its own. Of course, being in a cash economy means ATMs are very important to the average economically active person, and they are quickly unfurling along the countrysides. Each ATM seems to charge the same fee for foreign debit withdrawals (~1%), while using a domestic bank's card at a different bank's ATM yields higher and variable service fees. (This may be to incentivize the influx of foreign capital, but don't take my word on that!)

This last point is very important as now, pensiyaçı (lit: pensioners, anyone who receives aid from the government) get money on debit cards, which are facilitated by two domestic banks: International Bank of Azerbaijan and Kapital Bank. These pension funds are deposited around the end of the month, and all of them eschew the other available ATMs (of nine other bank branches) to avoid losing valuable manat to high service fees.

As I also hold an account at one of those banks, and receive my money at the end of the month, I often meet large crowds of people at the ATM extracting every last manat. (Which, I've already discussed "standing in line" ad nauseum, in the previous post: Standing in line or waiting your turn.)

Crowding around the Bankomat - intentionally blurred to obscured identities, but you get the idea. This is normal. Zaqatala, Azerbaijan

As each person is trying to empty their account, it is very common for the machines to be out of money, or only have certain denominations. I often hear people try to scrape out every last manat because they don't trust banks. This is partly because they lost all or most of their savings during the dissolution of the Soviet system, and partly because they simply do not trust the current bankers. Another common reason that I hear is that they have bills to pay or they live in the "village," "countryside" or "rural areas" (kənd) and cannot afford to make several long trips to the city center where the ATM is located. To cut down on the travel costs and time spent, it's not out-of-the-ordinary to see one patron wielding four or five debit cards for the whole family.

As people are curious whether there is money left, those behind you may lean over your shoulder watching as you extract your manat. This was pretty unsettling the first few times it happened to me. Many people will even ask if there is money left after you have completed your transaction (bankomatda pul varmi?), and specifically they will ask if there is big or small money. Small money (xırda) is important because deposits are often not rounded to the tens or twenties, and every manat counts. Even if you give an answer, as many have traveled a distance to get cash, they will still insist on double-checking for good measure. When I first met someone inquiring whether the machine was dry, I mistranslated the man's request as "Do you have money?" rather than "Does the ATM have money?" Needless to say, I walked quickly away, only to feel terribly ashamed after I had mulled over the words some more in my head. Poor, fellow.

Another crowd around the Bankomat. Zaqatala, Azerbaijan

Many will also find that some people take a considerably long time at the ATM - besides the people who are withdrawing for their entire family. From talking with people and my experience, it seems that there are a couple reasons. If the machine doesn't have the suitable denominations for the transactions (say, you'd like 160 and it no longer has any twenties, but it does have hundreds and fifties), it spits out your card, and you repeat from step one. For those trying to extract all of their money, they first need to select "see balance" then calculate the maximum amount they can withdraw with the bills given - and the bankomat only allows a maximum of 500 manat withdrawals at a time. This is not always a problem, except sometimes - even for me - it is difficult to see clearly on some of the screens. This problem is confounded if these are elderly eyes. For this reason, in addition to the fact that ATMs are fairly recent developments to the countryside (say within the last 6 years) as is paying pensioners on debit cards, an older person will commonly hand their card and pin to a younger person in line. The first time the young person was me, I was caught horribly off-guard, and was terribly confused!

The main "problems" that I had at the ATM mostly came from the fact that I was a bit distrustful of people, where as most of the locals don't seem to be all that bothered. This is even more interesting when - I  can only speculate - some of them need the money more than I. So, even though the money is - in a sense - more valuable to them, the everyday encounters they have with mostly strangers at the ATM would show that they have an equally high degree of trust for their fellow men and women not to rob them. While, many of my local friends discuss the types of people they do not trust, and the things they are skeptical toward, stealing comes off as a low priority. It seems, for one reason or another, that fear of thievery is very low in Azerbaijan. Maybe, this idea alone would constitute a hearty future note.

Dustin is a traveler, researcher, and mountain and craftbeer lover trying to improve his writing. To learn more about Dustin, visit the appropriately titled About Dustin section.