Guide to Using an ATM

By Jacqueline DeMarco · March 08, 2023 · 8 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

Guide to Using an ATM

An automated teller machine (ATM) makes it possible for bank customers to access select banking services while they are out and about. That means there’s no need to worry about finding a brick-and-mortar bank location during business hours. With an ATM, it’s possible to access cash and make certain deposits.

However, you may wonder just how many different kinds of transactions you can conduct at an ATM, as well as what the steps are for the most common ones. And, since this is all about personal finances, you may want to know just how much you might pay for the convenience of using an ATM.

Here, you’ll learn more about ATMs, including:

•   What is an ATM

•   How to use an ATM

•   Things you can and cannot do at an ATM

•   Tips for staying safe at an ATM.

What Is an ATM?

An ATM is an automated teller machine, a device that performs some of the same functions as a human teller at a bank, such as dispensing cash. Almost anywhere you go, you can find an ATM, providing certain banking services quickly and conveniently.

For example, it is usually possible to find ATMs in major hotel lobbies, at grocery stores, in shopping centers, and in airports. You can withdraw cash from ATMs, and it’s likely you can deposit cash at an ATM or possibly checks (although deposits have more restrictions than withdrawals).

ATMs made their U.S. debut in Rockville Centre, NY, in 1969, and there are currently approximately 450,000 of these devices in America.

How Do ATMs Work?

An ATM machine gives bank customers easy access to their banking resources at various locations and around the clock. You insert your card into a reader that scans your banking information, and you can then conduct transactions. (At some locations, contactless transactions may be possible; see more on this below.)

Here are some of the main functions an ATM can perform:

•   Most ATMs make it possible to withdraw cash.

•   Some ATMs allow you to make deposits. To make a deposit at an ATM, the device typically needs to be within the same network as the customer’s bank. Often, it’s not possible to make a deposit at an out-of-network ATM or, if it is, you’ll be charged a fee.

•   With an ATM, you can possibly review your account balance, which can help you avoid overdrafting when making a withdrawal or using your debit card. The balance can appear on the screen or on the printed receipt. It’s usually only free to check an account balance at an in-network ATM. If the ATM is out-of-network, this service may come with a fee.

Some ATMs do make it possible to access them without a debit card present. This is known as a cardless withdrawal. These types of withdrawals are typically supported by a smartphone app that uses technology such as a QR code in lieu of a debit card. This can provide the ATM with the relevant account information needed to complete the desired transaction.

Quick Money Tip: Typically, checking accounts don’t earn interest. However, some accounts will pay you a bit and help your money grow. An online bank account is more likely than brick-and-mortar to offer you the best rates.

ATM Fees

It may be free to use an in-network ATM, but when there isn’t one around and you need cash (or to conduct another transaction), you’ll likely be hit with a fee for using an out-of-network device. It’s wise to read the fine print associated with your checking account to better understand what kind of fees you may need to pay to use an ATM. It can also be helpful to make note of where some local in-network ATMs are. This can make avoiding ATM charges easier.

How much can ATM fees be?

•   Your bank might charge you between $2.50 and $5 when you use an out-of-network machine.

•   The operator of the out-of-network ATM you are using may charge you a fee. This could be anywhere from $1.50 to $10 if you are not an account-holder at their financial institution or if it’s a free-standing machine.

•   Additionally, if you are traveling internationally, you may have fees of, say, $2 to $7 to make withdrawals as well as a conversion fee.

Recommended: Can You Use Your Debit Card in Another Country?

Things You Can Do at an ATM

These are some of the things banking customers can often do at an ATM.

•   Check account balance (without having to make a transaction)

•   Deposit checks and cash

•   Withdraw cash

•   Possibly cash checks for free as well as money orders

•   Possibly make bill payments (say, to a credit card or mortgage)

•   Get a cash advance from a credit card (though this typically carries a high interest rate).

Things You Cannot Do at an ATM

ATMs do have limitations; here are some things consumers likely can’t do at an ATM.

•   Withdraw coins or low-value bills

•   Open a new account (unless you have pre–selected and pre-screened)

•   Close an account

•   Send a money order

•   Purchase a cashier’s check.

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How to Use an ATM to Withdraw Money

If you decide you want to use an ATM machine to withdraw cash, you will usually take the following steps.

1.    Insert debit card into the machine. This is usually the first step in how to work an ATM. Wait until the screen prompts this action.

2.    Enter your PIN number. This is the custom PIN (personal identification number) associated with the debit card linked to their checking account.

3.    Choose the transaction type. In this case, it would be a withdrawal.

4.    Pick the account to access. If you have multiple bank accounts, this will make sure the money is coming from the right place.

5.    Take the card back. Now it’s time to complete the transaction. Many ATMs say to take your card back and then the machine will dispense your cash.

How to Use an ATM to Deposit Money

Now, let’s walk through how to use an ATM machine to deposit money.

1.    Find an in-network ATM or an ATM that allows deposits to the bank associated with your debit card.

2.    Insert your card and enter your PIN. This is usually a 4-digit code.

3.    Choose the transaction type. In this case, it will be a deposit.

4.    Choose a dollar amount. You’ll type in the exact amount of the intended deposit.

5.    Insert the cash or check. If this is a check, endorse the back first; then follow the on-screen instructions to get your card back and a receipt, if desired.

Recommended: What to Do if an ATM Eats Your Deposit?

Tips to Keep Yourself Safe at ATMs

When using an ATM machine, it’s important to learn how to do so safely, whether making a deposit or withdrawal. Here’s some tips for staying safe:

•   Be aware of your surroundings. If there is someone loitering around an ATM that you’d like to use (especially at night), you might want to go elsewhere.

•   Use ATMs located in bank branches when possible.

•   Have your card in your hand as you approach the device versus fumbling through your pockets or bag while at the ATM.

•   Cover the keypad when entering in the PIN number so no one else can see it. Some keypads are designed in such a way as to help protect your personal information as you type in those digits.

•   Review ATMs closely for hidden cameras, misaligned card readers, skimming devices, or suspicious markings before using one.

•   If you are withdrawing cash, put it away ASAP when you receive it. Don’t walk away from the ATM with cash in your hands.

The Takeaway

ATMs can offer a convenient way to access a few basic but essential banking services without having to actually visit a branch location during business hours. It’s important to remember to pay attention to ATM fees, which are much easier to avoid when using an in-network ATM. It’s also essential to keep safety in mind to avoid theft or fraud when using an ATM.

Better banking is here with up to 4.50% APY on SoFi Checking and Savings.


Are there any ATM scams?

Yes, there are ATM scams. One common one involves card skimmers, a device that a fraudster attaches to an ATM (or gas pump card reader) in order to fraudulently collect the account information of users. Inspect card readers for signs of tampering; you may try to wiggle an ATM’s card reader to detect card skimmers.

What are the pros and cons of ATMs?

The major pro of using an ATM is probably convenience; you can access some banking services during non-business hours or when you aren’t near a brick-and-mortar branch location. The cons associated with ATMs include the fact that services are limited, fees may be charged, and there’s the possibility of theft.

How many times can I use an ATM?

How many times someone can use an ATM depends on how much money they choose to withdraw each time. Most banks limit the dollar amount someone can withdraw during a certain timeframe (usually $300 to $2,000). Consumers can check with their bank to see what their withdrawal limits are — the amount can vary by account type, not just by bank.

Can I use my debit card at any ATM?

You can generally use a debit card to withdraw cash (although not necessarily to make deposits) at any ATM, even if it is out-of-network. However, making a withdrawal at an out-of-network ATM can lead to having to pay fees.

Photo credit: iStock/Eva-Katalin

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