Poor quality renders ATM fee unacceptable to Vietnamese

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Last weekend Nguyen Van Tu, a worker at a furniture company in Hanoi's Quang Minh Industrial Park, tried in vain to withdraw money from three ATMs. "Two were broken, the other was out of cash."

"Many people don't like to use ATMs because of their poor quality. The recent hike in fees for ATM use could reduce the number of customers [further]."

Banks have been allowed to charge their own customers VND1,000 (5 US cents) for each withdrawal from ATMs from March 1. This will double next year, and triple by 2015.

Now they only charge clients of other banks using their ATMs.

They can also charge their clients VND100-500 for other services like transaction printouts, which earlier used to be free.

Many card users and others have protested against this, with analysts pointing out that banks are actually making profits from ATM services through various fees imposed on their fast growing clientele base.

There is a one-time issuance fee of VND50,000-100,000 and an annual membership fee of VND50,000.

Nguyen Quang Vinh, a lecturer at Hanoi University, said though imposing the fee itself is not a big issue, "[It] is unacceptable with the current ATMs' quality."

The quality has not improved much in the past several years.

Economist Ngo Tri Long said having to pay a fee is reasonable since banks have sunk large amounts of money to set up the ATMs. But the fees should only be sufficient to cover costs and should not earn banks profits since the government and banks are encouraging people to use cards.

Besides, the quality of the service should be improved, he said.

Economist Le Dang Doanh said banks should reconsider the fee structure since people are struggling to make ends meet because of rising prices and falling incomes. Many could stop using ATMs because of the fees, he said, adding banks and employers should share the burden since they benefit when employees get their salaries through bank accounts.

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Nguyen Thi Thanh Hang, director of the cards department at Vietnam's third biggest lender, Vietcombank, said ATMs have been free for the last 10 years but banks now need to collect the fee since they have invested large sums to set up the system.

They also have to set aside large amounts of cash for dispensing through the ATMs, which is unprofitable, she said.

Cash withdrawn from ATMs could rise to VND70 trillion (US$3.4 billion) a month, she said.

Charging fees for ATM use is common in many countries, she said, adding the fee of VND1,000 per transaction is not enough to even cover costs.

An official from the Vietnam Banking Association said: "It is a difficult issue. Nobody likes to pay fees. However, banks cannot continue to expand the ATM service as well as improve its quality if they do not collect fees to cover costs."

But the fee should be carefully calculated to make it acceptable to clients while also enabling banks to cover costs, the official said.

ATM cards were first introduced 20 years ago, and now there are tens of millions of cardholders, who mostly use them to withdraw cash.

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