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Finding Free ATMs

When ATMs first appeared about 20 years ago, not many people used them. Banks had to resort to promotional gimmicks to get anyone to try these newfangled and frightening machines. All transactions were free. Historians now refer to those early days as "The Golden Age of ATMs."

Sigh. With all the fees attached to them today, ATMs, although more plentiful, exist more as a profit center for banks than as a service to their customers.

How Did We Get Here?

One of the primary reasons you probably have a banking account is so that you have something to take out of all those friendly ATMs that are now on every street corner. And banks are quite happy about that. Banks discourage their customers from making transactions with a live teller (sometimes by charging as much as $8 for a face-to-face encounter), because that involves paying somebody to smile at you while they're helping you out. It costs banks about 27 cents to have a deposit or withdrawal processed at an ATM machine, but about $1.07 to handle the same transaction by a live teller.

But there's another reason that banks love to have people go to ATMs -- the fees that can be charged. Today, U.S. banks are taking in a pretty penny in fees every year, as people are not paying very close attention to the fees associated with using the ATMs. After all, it's just a dollar here, a dollar there, right? Wrong.

The Center for Responsive Law estimates that banks today make more than $2 billion on ATM transactions. That total is going up rapidly, as banks have seen fit to continually raise the amounts they charge customers for the privilege of using the ATMs. Furthermore, nowadays it isn't just your bank that's socking you with a fee -- if you aren't using one of your own bank's actual ATMs, the other bank is probably hitting you up as well.

There isn't too much you need to know about ATMs except how to avoid incurring fees when you use them. (You also need to remember to wait for your card to come back out after you've been given the money. But, really, you already knew that.) To avoid fees, simply bank at an institution that doesn't charge you when you use your ATM card at a foreign institution, and learn where the free foreign ATMs are.

The most likely banking institutions to offer totally free ATM transactions with a checking or savings account are credit unions, s