Your ATM card won’t work in Myanmar. The latest-edition travel books will tell you that. Travel websites will tell you that. The US Embassy will tell you that, even if you don’t ask. They are presumably tired of strapped citizens showing up on their doorstep looking for a cash advance.
As you may have heard, though, things here are changing.
Two weeks ago, at a press conference at their main branch down by the Yangon River, Myanmar’s Cooperative Bank announced that machines at 36 of their Myanmar locations can now do business with any international MasterCard that works in an ATM. This follows a roll-out of a network for in-country cards earlier this year—a big step in itself for an antiquated banking system stunted by years of international sanctions, misguided domestic policy, and a widespread bank collapse nine years ago.
I was glad to find out about these new ATMs, when, on my second day in Yangon, I needed to head up north on an unanticipated — and un-budgeted-for — reporting excursion. Off I went to CB Bank’s main branch, MasterCard-stamped ATM card in hand.
I found the ATM in question and, after two bank employees finished up some diagnostics on the machine, I started in. The machine welcomed “Mr. Wallace, Bruce,” and things went well until I got to the part where you ask for the money.
That function was “not available at this time.”
A few more tries got the same result.
I asked from help from one of a number of super-obliging bank employees on hand. They seemed to be monitoring the international ATM rollout closely. She went upstairs to check the server and find the error code connected to my attempts. She came back down and suggested I try their other machine, outside and a few doors down.
After getting the same message there, she guessed it might be their internet connection, which could be slow, “when it was cloudy,” as it was today.
Or maybe the problem was on my bank’s end? My translator found a three-computer internet stall down a nearby alley. A VOIP call got me through to someone at my bank.
A few more tries and some good dialogue back at Cooperative yielded nothing, at which point I resorted to one of the final options for getting more dollars in Yangon: there’s a travel agency on the 15th floor of a nearby office tower which can approve a withdrawal through an only-vaguely-sketchy Thai internet exchange. There is a fee.
But, in theory at least, your MasterCard ATM should now work in Myanmar. Cooperative Bank says they should be up and running with Visa soon too.