However, not long ago we only had one type of Multi Bank machine, now we have the ‘Express’ version plus newcomers such as the Euronet ATM. Time to be aware of the differences. The original MB network was created on September 2, 1985, with the installation of the ATM network. It was a clever move, it had been observed that in most countries each bank had its own type of ATM, offering different services to its clients, some free, some paid. Portuguese banks created SIBS, a company owned by all the banks equally.

This immediately established one brand, one service range, and one pricing structure. At first there only had nine MB machines installed. Today there are more than 12,000 units plus close to 270,000 TPAs (automatic payment terminals) ​​and more than 19 million cards in circulation. More than 90 features are available, some of which have been awarded at European level. SIBS didn’t stand still. The MB machine can do more than your bank assistant. In the beginning, they simply handed out cash, but very soon SIBS realised that such machines could offer a wide range of services. There seems little you can’t do on a genuine full-size MB machine, from buying tickets, sending money, getting a bank statement, and the list goes on. If you can think of it, the MB machine can probably do it.

The big but is that there are now several types of ATM, not all operated by SIBS. The one you will see most of is the Euronet ATM. You won’t need to search the internet for long to find many warnings about the cost of using these machines for drawing cash from your overseas bank. If you are simply drawing cash from your Portuguese bank account, it’s free to you.

Don’t accept the ATM exchange rate

The minute you use a non-Portuguese bank card, then the charges start. You will be offered with the choice of exchange rates. The ATM will ask you whether you want it to convert the amount to Euros or whether you want to be charged in your own currency by your bank. It’s almost always best to say no to the conversion rate. It’s typically a bad exchange and much worse than what your bank will charge you. It could be as much as 16% of the total withdrawal.

The same rule applies on payment terminals most of which ask the same question to non-Portuguese card holders. As a visitor, you may hold a foreign exchange-friendly card such as WISE, Revolut or N26. These accounts allow you to hold currency in euros or withdraw from ATMs with minimal ATM fees. However, note that most of them have limits on the number of free ATM withdrawals you can have per month.

Three different types of ATM

There used to be one MB model, it handed out cash and a few other tasks. These days there is a definite move by the banks to cut down staff and personal contact. The most sophisticated MB machines are normally only found at the bank’s premises. These will do almost everything a staff member could have done. You can pay in at the machine, they accept notes and cheques, in fairness, a great time saver. You need to have the correct MB card for the account you want to pay into but the note-counting technology is fast and efficient.

No more queuing at the counter to pay in. These bank-based machines will also issue cheques (what’s a cheque?), make transfers, change codes, in fact almost everything you used to have to speak to a staff member to do. Most of these things you can do on the bank's app or website, but paying in bank notes is a bonus time saver, and its available 24/7.

The lower level of machine is the one you find in supermarkets, commercial centres etc. They still offer a good range of services but you can’t pay in via these. Don’t be confused by the ever-increasing use of the term ATM makes it less easy to identify third party machines such as Euronet.

A new MB machine from SIBS is appearing in smaller shops and outlets. These are branded ‘Express’. The fees charged by all these machines is a closely guarded secret and can vary according to your own bank if its not in Portugal. Although it’s hard to establish it seems that the SIBS/MB system charges less than Euronet. Most people have reported that the SIBS/MB system charged around 10 percent for currency exchange, a hefty fee by any reckoning, but less than Euronet’s 13 percent to 16 percent.

The golden rule is never accept the conversion the machine offers you

Euronet ATM machines are appearing everywhere, and they make their income from foreign exchange. Local cardholders get withdrawals free (but your bank pays the ATM operator). These machines survive on the foreign visitor. They are convenient, but they are very expensive. You thought the exchange desk at the airport was expensive, but nothing compares with the fees these non-SIBS ATM’s charge. Convenience costs!

One travel website says quite clearly, ‘Avoid Euronet ATMs like the plague. Euronet Worldwide is a Kansas-based business that specializes in “global electronic transactions.” It’s also likely the most expensive way you’ll ever access your own money if you’re unlucky enough to use a Euronet ATM. Just don’t’. Many travel websites say the same thing. Bear in mind this is only true if you are using a bank card not related to a Portuguese bank account.

New MB/ATM machines appearing at some bank branches

In recent weeks my local Millennium bank branch has installed a new model of these machines which appears to now offer even more facilities. In the past, they had two machines, a standard MB machine and an additional one which offered other facilities for bank customers. Now one machine does everything. It’s clear that the bank's policy is to make most transactions impersonal. The machine will do it all, except smile!

Is that a good thing, the jury is still out, but it’s happening, like it or not. Bank websites will offer ever-improving services, their apps will simplify day-to-day banking. Cash is slowly being phased out of day-to-day transactions. Even most coffee shops have a terminal. Bank branches are going to be few and far between, and those that stay open will have less staff and reduced opening hours.

They call this progress; you may not agree.


Resident in Portugal for 50 years, publishing and writing about Portugal since 1977. Privileged to have seen, firsthand, Portugal progress from a dictatorship (1974) into a stable democracy. 

Paul Luckman