Banking in Zim-Zam

If you’re planning a trip to Zimbabwe – okay, not that many people plan to go to Zim, lets start over – if you’re planning a trip to Victoria Falls and flying in, guess what, you’re going to Zimbabwe. The land of 7000 percent inflation, and the land where the government officially denies that there’s an issue with inflation. You say, “What? This is too abstract, can you give me an example of what it’s like there Dave?”. Yes I can:

When we were there one US dollar will get you 140,000 Zimbabwe Dollars on the street. The street observes the market reality of the countries inflation issues. If you go into a bank (which has to observe the governments “Official” rate to stay in business) and change the same dollar it will get you 250 Zimbabwe Dollars – that’s a lot less. So, no one uses banks, even locals. Also, no one uses the ATM (again official rates), or uses credit cards (guess why? official rates).

In terms of what you use that dollar for: Seven thousand percent inflation mean that if you are lucky enough to find a store or restaurant that can provision itself, prices will be written in pencil and changed every week. For example – a loaf of bread will cost 500,000 Zim dollars this week, but will cost 1.1 million Zim next week. Do you see where we’re going with this?

Therefore, you need to come here with all of the hard currency – Dollars, Euros, Rand – you plan to use. Or if you’re near a border you can cross over and use an ATM, or change Travellers checks. Of course carrying a lot of cash in the third world is never fun, but you wanted to see the Falls right?

So begins our story: Reading about the difficulties people here have we pulled out a lot of cash in Hong Kong and changed it into Travellers Checks, we pulled out more Rand than we needed at the airport in Johannesburg and we planned to use the ATM just over the border in Zambia. Now, apparently pulling out the daily maximum from three different countries on two continents with a four day span throws up a red flag to the security folks at the bank. When we dipped our debit card into the ATM in Livingston, Zambia it got locked down. No cash for you.

This was kind of a problem, because we still need to pay for a Safari we were planning to leave on the next day.

Why did this happen? Well, again, we were pulling out cash from different parts of the world, which got someones attention, but we had been diligent before we left called our banks and told them about our travel and named every country we planned to bank in. Zimbabwe was not one of them for the reasons we’ve already been over, so it shouldn’t have been a problem right?. Well, for whatever reason the ATM’s in Livingston , Zambia show up as being in Zimbabwe for Bank of America, and no amount of telling them otherwise was going to help.

We were locked out of our account and it was a pain in the neck to get it unlocked.

Bank of America has switched to a 800 number system exclusively, trouble is calling a US 800 number from Zimbabwe won’t work. So I ended up calling Bank of America offices (which have a real number) in the states and asking them to transfer me to their debit card division. First huddle cleared. Next, the phone we were using didn’t have touch tone dialing and all of BofA’s systems are automated. It took several calls, but I finally got through to “Ted”, explaining to him that he was my lifeline, and if I lost him, I lost all hope in BofA.

He was great, he treated me as if I were a caller to a suicide hot line: “David, I’m going to put you on hold for a moment. But I want you to understand it’s because I’m going to connect you with the person that can help you, and explain your situation to them. This will take a minute or two, but I am not going to disconnect until you are on the phone with them. Do you understand?”

Within minutes we had the hold on our card removed and were back in business.