Brazil is in an economic crisis, but I can’t be made responsible for that. I will not be accused of harming the economic cycle by taking money out and putting it into saving accounts, investment fonds or other non-productive money nonsense. Not at all! I spend all my money, sometimes even more than that. And when I spend my money I don’t want to spend time worrying about the whole process. Take my money, give me my product and we are done. But guess how paying your bills works here in Brazil… Exactly. Let met tell you the story of how I almost gave up trying to pay for an online purchase, because nobody wanted my money.

Paying your bills – my German reference

As most of you know I am German and I lived in the US for a while, so these are my references. And when it comes to paying a bill, things are usually quite easy in Germany. You enter the account number and the bank ID as well as the name if the recipient and the amount of money and off your money goes. The whole process should not take more than half a minute, regardless whether you do that online or at an ATM. For online shopping you can pay with credit card or with a direct debit from your checking account. For regular payments like your rent, insurances etc. you can give a direct debit authorization and the company will take the money out of your account every month – and you just have to check if it everything was correct; if not you can easily get your money back. Oh how I miss these times.

A book of payments in Brazil

Two things struck me as odd very early when I came to Brazil: first were the long lines in front of lottery shops and that these people were going there to “pay bills”, as was explained to me. The second odd thing was the booklet I received after signing up for a health plan. This booklet had some useful but many more irrelevant information and it had twelve bills for each month of the coming year. Each bill I had to rip out, carry to the bank (or the lottery store) and pay there. (As you can see, I don’t use online banking, because I chose to stay with an account for which I don’t have to pay money. Online banking works pretty well and smooth in Brazil, for example you can just scan the bar code with your smartphone and a transfer will be generated. But as many people in Brazil I have to go to the bank and pay my bill there.) Paying your bill gets even more difficult when you keep in mind that you should not miss the due date of your bills, because fines are hefty in Brazil. For my health plan the process seemed complicated to me, especially since the amount of money was the same each month. Little did I know then, that there are more complexities when dealing with banks and payments in Brazil.

The importance of a bar-code

An invoice in Brazil has many information on it, most of which I have no idea why they exist. And it has a bar-code on the bottom, which contains the number of this bill and all necessary information and it is super important. In theory (as in so many cases in Brazil) this should make things easy: ATMs are equipped with bar-code scanners (and for online banking you can use the camera of your cellphone to scan it), then you confirm the payment and… voila. It is very comfortable. But let’s take the slow path, because many things can go wrong.
First and most disturbing was that at the time when I had to pay my bills, everybody has to pay their bills. It is usually the end, the middle or the beginning of a month and this means you have long lines not only in front of lottery stores, but also inside your bank in front of the ATMs. And if you want to pay at a person inside the bank, there is an even longer line for which you have to take a waiting number, pass through a metal detector etc.. Expect do spend not less than half an hour (for paying a bill!). And bring a book, because some banks don’t like you to use your mobile phone inside.

When dealing with an ATM things might also not be as smooth as you expect. Sometimes the bar-code scanners can’t read the code, and instead the machine asks you to enter a 32-digit number, which contains the same information. Good luck doing that the first time. And then there are all the times, when the ATMs are not working at all. Why? Nobody knows. “The system is not working” is a sentence I have heard a lot in Brazil. Funnily it mainly refers to computers.

When paying a bill takes three hours and a lot of nerves

Now it’s time to tell the story of how I almost could not pay for my online purchase, because me and the Brazilian system of paying bills didn’t seem to get along. It all started with an online purchase. One of the nice things in Brazil: when you pay everything at once you usually get a discount. For this product it was 15% – quite a bit, since it was a little more expensive. The only problem was, that in order to get the discount, you couldn’t pay with a credit card, you had to use an online payment system that I had never heard of, or you had to print the bill and pay in your bank (or a lottery shop – see above). This I did and I expected no problems, but everything went downhill from there.

Since the purchase was expensive and a present from Germany, I wanted to take some money from my German account and put it into my Brazilian account. But for some reason my bank (Banco do Brasil) didn’t accept my credit card to take out money anymore (which it had accepted for the last 1,5 years without a problem). Instead I received a message: “Daily limit exceeded.” That was total bollocks or simply a lie. Because as I found out soon, another bank accepted my card without a problem. Then I only needed to put the money in my account and pay the bill on one of the ATMs. Only problem with this: for some reason (nobody ever explains these things or gives you a heads up) my bank did not allow any deposits for a while. (I found that out after standing in front of an ATM puzzled, because one button on the display hat simply disappeared. But many Brazilians were standing in front ot the ATM trying to deposit money without success as well, so I didn’t feel quite as bad.

My next plan was to go back to the first bank, take out a little more money from my German bank and pay the bill inside the bank in cash. After all you should be able to pay at every bank, right? So I took out more money, went inside the bank only to be informed that this bank did not have a cashier, since it was only a small branch, but I could pay my bill with their cooperating partner in the nearby shopping mall: a paper shop. Hmmm. I wanted to pay a bill with an amount of money that I felt unpleasant to carry around, especially in a country where you avoid to take cash at all because of robberies. Did I trust a paper shop with this? I knew that a big branch of this bank was just two hundred meters away, so I decided to go there to pay the bill.

When I arrived at the main branch the bank employee at the security gate between the room with ATMs and the inside of the bank looked at my bill and informed me, that I could of course enter the bank and pay the bill, but since it was beginning of a month, he warned me that I would have to wait in line for a significant time. He suggested I go to a payment and credit card agency nearby, where paying bills was also possible. “Really?” I asked, and he nodded. “No problem”, he said, “it will be a lot faster.” Since the whole procedure had already taken almost an hour, I decided to remain positive and went there.

Of course I had to wait in line again, but the line was only one old lady in front of me, who took forever to pay some bills. After fifteen minutes it was my turn (finally), I handed the bill to the girl behind the computer and took the money out of my bag. Only to be informed a minute later that there was a problem with the bill. “What problem”, I asked. “The bar code scanner can’t scan the bar code. Sometimes that happens, when you print a bill with your printer at home”, the girl explained. “Then our scanner has difficulties scanning it.” “Can’t you just type in the numbers above the bar code, because the barcode is nothing else but these numbers”, I suggested. This is what you do at a ATMs. “Sorry”, she said, “only a bank is allowed to do that.” I tried to argue, but without success. I had to walk back to the second bank, stand in line for 45 minutes until I could finally pay my bill. Oh wait, there was one more funny incident.

Since I had to pay this bill anyway, I had decided to take the electricity-bill for my apartment with me and pay both bills at the same time. That’s easier than trying it at the ATM of my bank, I thought. But guess what. “This bill you cannot pay in our bank”, I was told, “only at Lottery store or at your own bank.” At this point I was so worn out and could not help but laugh in the face of the cashier, who in return looked confused and puzzled. I asked him why that was, but I forgot what he answered. And it doesn’t really matter, because there will always be some reason for things not working. There always is. So I thought to myself: “Screw you Banco do Brasil. screw you Bradesco. screw you MagazineLuiza. I will just stop buying things at all.” The banks finally made me turn away from capitalism. Who would’ve thought?

Note: The title picture is taken from Rodrigo Denúbila on Flickr. Thank you very much!

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