I haven’t been much of a Bitcoin user despite having learned about it not long after the first wave of early adoption. My problem is that I don’t really have a use for the stuff. I generally don’t purchase anything that I can pay for with Bitcoin and I get tired of having to keep up with all the hacks and security best practices simply so that I don’t lose what little I have. “Be your own bank”, they say—only I don’t really care to be my own bank! I’m fine paying a modest fee for the services provided by conventional banks and have neither the time nor the inclination to get into mining or trading. That being said, I’m still fascinated by the concept of Bitcoin and curious to see what happens next.
Recently, with the price of Bitcoin hitting a record high for the year, I’ve been interested in converting some into dirty fiat money. My problem is that getting actual cash out of the Bitcoin ecosystem requires a fair amount of work in the form of troublesome research, paperwork, and verification—and most of the usual methods involve trusting some online service with my banking info, something I’d rather not do (partly for reasons of security but also because I’m living overseas and it’s a hassle). LocalBitcoins would be a viable option—but there aren’t many people trading in Taiwan 台灣, people seem reluctant to buy when the price swings high, and it takes some effort for schedules to congeal given that I’m living outside of Taipei 台北 these days.
My recent side trip to the Philippines offered an opportunity to explore another option: Bitcoin ATMs. I knew from previous research1 that there were several options for withdrawing cash around here—and after looking into the details I found an ATM mere minutes from my hotel and decided to go take a look.
Descending to the noisy streets of Makati I navigated a pedestrian-hostile obstacle course of broken concrete rubble to make my way over to nearby Sunette Tower, passing a group of steely-eyed armed guards, assault rifles in hand, on my way to the dimly-lit lobby of the building. Here I perused the instructions on the machine next to the elevators and attempted a withdrawal. A QR code came up on the screen and a timer started to count down from 200.
Not being someone who does much of anything with Bitcoin I had no application on my phone to handle such a transaction. Returning to the hotel I looked up Mycelium, a serviceable application for conducting the transfer, and shifted a small amount into the wallet on my phone. I wasn’t sure if the ATM would accept transfers without the usual six confirmations so I waited slightly more than an hour for those to roll in before heading back downstairs.
This time around I ran into a different problem: no mobile service inside the building, a common problem with the concrete monoliths so prevalent in Asia (not to mention lousy network coverage here in the Philippines). The ATM provider had helpfully setup a portable wireless network—but isn’t that a bit of a security risk? Anything to do with Bitcoin makes me naturally paranoid as I don’t feel qualified to sort out the safety of such situations. In principle Bitcoin is a “trustless” cryptocurrency—but in practice I find there’s often some level of trust involved one way or another.
In this case, I went for it, but not without testing out the system with a small withdrawal at first. The spread (difference between the buying and selling price) was about 1,000 PHP and I was getting something around 17,500 PHP per BTC. Looking up prices online, this is actually on the high side of what I was expecting. Bitcoin enthusiasts regularly talk up the “no fees” aspect of the digital currency—but I assumed I’d be paying through the nose for the convenience and relative anonymity of using the ATM. I withdrew 4,000 PHP, which is about 85 USD, and appear to have paid about 10 USD for the privilege given the current exchange rate for BTC to USD2. This first withdrawal was instantaneous. I scanned the QR code, hit send on the app on my phone, and within about 30 seconds I had cash in hand. I didn’t need to identify myself, fill out any forms, or do anything unusual apart from installing a wallet on my phone and transferring some coinage over.
I then tried a slightly larger withdrawal. This machine has a 5,000 peso limit for instant transactions; anything more than that and you have to wait for confirmation of the transaction from the network. I entered a higher figure, sent BTC to the machine using the QR code, and collected a receipt with another code for redemption. Five minutes later I returned to the ATM, entered that code, and had even more pesos in hand. Not bad!
A day later, after exploring a little more of the area, I returned to take out more cash, figuring that I may as well take advantage of the convenience of having a Bitcoin ATM just next door. Imagine my surprise when I strolled past the armed guards into the lobby only to find an “out of order” sign on the machine! Was that my fault, I wonder? Perhaps the owners hadn’t counted on some random foreigner waltzing in and withdrawing a bunch of cash on a yearly high! Looking up the exchange rate, it appears to have tumbled by 15% that same day. Bad news for Bitcoin ATM owners, I suppose.
Overall I am fairly satisfied with my experience of using this particular ATM apart from it not being in service the second time I tried it out. My general sense is that Bitcoin is much easier to acquire than it is to convert back into “real” money—and this experience certainly adds weight to that notion. Of course, your mileage may vary3, particularly if you live somewhere much more Bitcoin-friendly than I do! Maybe there’s some truth to the idea that Bitcoin is the future of money—but if it is, it certainly isn’t evenly distributed4.
- To make a long story short: several months ago a friend of mine alerted me to a medical issue some Filipino friends of his were going through. They were too poor to pay their hospital bills so my friend was taking up a collection—but he was having some trouble figuring out how to get cash to them. I immediately thought “this sounds like a job for bitcoin” and went about researching the various options, none of which were eventually used for reasons of practicality. (Trying to explain magic internet money to people who live in a slum was too much of a stretch.) And so when I arrived a few days ago I thought “perhaps I should look into one of those bitcoin ATMs” for reasons of convenience and curiosity. ↩
- Sorry, I’m a bit lazy when it comes to keep track of exact numbers. From my perspective, merely being able to withdraw some money from the ecosystem is worth doing, and whatever fees involved aren’t that important as long as they aren’t exorbitant. ↩
- There is a tendency in the Bitcoin community to come down rather harshly on anyone who isn’t “doing it right”. But doing it right often involves spending a lot of time and effort to get up to speed with the weird new world of cryptocurrencies—and some of us just wanna use the stuff already. Responsibility for less-than-perfect user experiences should be shared, not dumped entirely on the at-times lazy or misinformed user (me, in this case). ↩
- With apologies to William Gibson. ↩