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    fossildoc is offline Moderator 518 points
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    Jan 2005
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    Logistics for new students - part I: Money


    I am a new student. I got here December 22, way ahead of the start date for the January semester. This thread contains advice on the logistics problems you will face during your first few days here. Please respond if you are a current student and have found alternate solutions to these problems, or have any questions.

    First, some brief impressions of the local scene. The people of San Pedro are intelligent and friendly. Contrary to the environment in the U.S. where talking to strangers is considered bold and risky, and even rude, people here routinely start up conversations with strangers for no apparent reason. There is almost no violent crime, and the police do not carry guns. Children barely old enough to walk wander about unattended without untoward incidents. Most people are also desperately poor. Being a place of interest to tourists and wealthy retirees, the locals have evolved an entrepreneurial work ethic to suit both their own needs and to cater to tourists who hope to be treated in the manner to which they should never have become accustomed. Put more bluntly, everybody's working an angle. Everyone over the age of eight seems to have a business. If you're from New York, recall the squeegee guys.

    This works to the benefit of MUA students. Whatever your problem, you're not far from someone who can solve it. The school staff -- Maggie, Rhonda, and Blanca -- are terrific, and we could not survive without them, but they cannot become knee deep in the minutiae of each student's problems. That's what this thread is about.

    There are several issues regarding money: (1) amount of cash to bring; (2) how to move money back and forth between San Pedro and the U.S. (or other countries); (3) credit cards; (4) travelers checks; (5) personal checks drawn on U.S. banks; (6) disposition of Teri loans.

    Here's my first take on these issues.

    (1) Bring $2000US, and distribute it among your luggage and person. You can get a money belt -- not a money pouch, but a real pants belt with a zippered compartment -- on eBay for $4.50. Do a search for "money belts" under "Clothing and Accessories". (The suffix "US" or "BZ" you may see after money amounts is traditional in Belize to avoid confusion, as both U.S. and Belizean currency are accepted everywhere. The exchange rate is always $2 BZ = $1 US.) You need this much money because you may wind up with a landlord who insists on cash, and if you are in a worst-case scenario of a $500US apartment plus security plus last month's rent, you could be down $1500US before you even unpack your bags. You could bring much less, or even none, by taking advantage of check cashing services and credit cards, but those amenities may dry up. Cash is king, money talks, <add your own slogans here>, and other students have agreed that this amount is sufficient.

    (2) Wire transfers are a little complicated. The biggest mistake you could make is to fail to get the wire transfer PIN from your own bank before leaving the U.S. There's a couple of options: you can get a "repetitive transfer" PIN or a "per transaction" PIN. Different banks may have different names for these. A repetitive transfer PIN is a code that allows you to order, by phone (Internet not allowed), a transfer only to a specific account at a specific bank in Belize. That is generally a safe way to do things because a hacker couldn't cause much mischief. The problem is that in order to get a repetitive transfer PIN you must already have an account in Belize, and you cannot establish one from afar; you must do it in person and have a Letter of Reference from your home bank. (A Letter of Reference is a more or less standard form that says you exist and haven't robbed any banks lately; you must get this before leaving the U.S. and present it in person at Belize Bank.) You cannot get a wire transfer PIN from a U.S. bank if you've already left the country; therefore, it is impossible to get the safe repetitive transfer PIN. That leaves the per transaction PIN. You must fill out the application for this in the U.S. and present it in person to your friendly banker; no Internet stuff allowed. They will snailmail -- not fax, email, phone, or teletransport -- the PIN to your address of record; this is a security feature that they won't relax. Anyone having both your U.S. checking account number and its associated per transaction PIN can help him/herself to your money, so security is paramount. You don't need an existing account in Belize to set this up; you order the wire transfers by calling (Internet is not allowed) your U.S. bank's wire transfer division and giving them your checking account number, PIN, the (eventual) Belize account number, and the amount to transfer. For which, incidentally, you will pay about $45US. Making that phone call is a problem, too; neither cell phones nor Skype are secure -- anyone with a shortwave radio can listen to the former, and anyone on the Internet backbone can eavesdrop on the latter. That means you must make a traditional landline call to do the wire transfer, and that will add substantially to your transaction cost. My advice is to avoid all this headache; if you are intent on doing wire transfers, send personal checks to a friend back home and ask him/her to cash it and wire money from his/her account to your account in Belize. That way you can forget all about the PIN business. There are better options for handling money below.

    (3) Credit cards from American banks are accepted by all hotels and larger merchants. Smaller operations and roadside entrepreneurs can't take them. The good news is that you can get everything you need from stores which are close to school and which accept credit cards. To pay your credit card bills, set yourself up for the e-bill (e-pay) services of your home bank. You can order money to be paid from your checking account to any credit card account, and you can transfer money from your savings account to your checking account as needed. None of this costs anything. There is no surcharge for using a credit card in San Pedro, but some merchants offer a "cash discount", which is an oblique way of imposing a credit card surcharge. Some stores allow an "overage" when making purchases, a common practice in U.S. supermarkets where you let them charge you more than your purchase, and you take the difference in cash. In a pinch, this is a quick way to get cash.

    (4) I don't use traveler's checks, but I've heard from other students that they're accepted as cash at the larger merchants. Personally, I see no need for them, because personal checks are readily accepted (see next section). The secret motive behind traveler's checks is the "float", not the little fee you pay for them. The banks know that most people will never spend all their checks, but will leave them in a desk drawer forever, thereby making the bank an interest free loan.

    (5) What you may have heard about the uselessness of personal checks is simply not true. I just bought a golf cart, from a private owner no less, for $2500US and paid with a personal check. Some hotels and many merchants who are familiar with the school will cash your checks, as there is no penalty to them for doing so, and it promotes good will (i.e., students are expected to patronize those places). So if you've got a lot of dough in your checking account, bring your checkbook and relax.

    (6) Teri loan disbursement. How you distribute your loan proceeds between your Belize account and your home account is up to you, but there are a couple of nuances you need to know about. First, every time you deposit money in your Belize account by means of a check drawn on a U.S. bank, which includes personal checks and Teri checks, the bank will give you a "pink slip" acknowleding that the money came from the U.S. When you close your Belize account, you will be allowed to wire out in U.S. funds the total of all your pink slips. I.e., whatever came from the U.S. can go back there. The purpose of this rule is to prevent you from earning money in Belize and moving it out of the country. Therefore, you need not be afraid that your accumulating Teri money is going to be stuck in Belize when you leave. The interest rates for savings accounts in Belize Bank is 5% for a no-minimum-interest account, and 6% for a $500BZ minimum account. This is rougly double what you would get in the U.S. You can get an ATM card at no cost. There's a small fee (10 cents BZ I think) for using a live teller to withdraw money, and the (free) ATM maximum is $350BZ per banking day. Also, when you deposit money from a U.S. bank, including personal and Teri checks, there is a six-week delay before those funds become available to you. This is another reason for bringing $2000; you may need to cough up another month's rent for your cash-only landlord before your Teri money is freed up.

    Next post: Transportation
    Last edited by fossildoc; 12-25-2005 at 10:42 PM.
    Brain surgeon to another: "Hey, this isn't rocket science".
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