Are the days of free ATMs numbered?

Sarah Coles
Will all cashpoints charge a fee?
Will all cashpoints charge a fee?

The supermarkets are warning that the days of free ATMs could soon be over - especially for those in rural areas. People living in less densely populated places tend to rely on free ATMs in shops, supermarkets or petrol stations - as the last bank in town is long gone. It means that if the retailers lose an appeal against the government, they could lose their fee-free access to cash.

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The problem is that shops make money from their cash machines - even when they are free to use - and in 2013, the government decided it wanted a piece of the action. It issued a huge tax bill, and put the future of the network in jeopardy.


Retailers don't run these cash machines out of the goodness of their hearts - they actually make money from them. They haven't gone public with exactly what they make from their machines, but we know that the ATM operator will pay them either by paying rental on the space, paying a flat fee, paying a percentage of each transaction - or a combination of all three.

In 2013, the government noted that the network had grown dramatically and presented them with a new way to make money, so it started to charge business rates on cash machines attached to shops. It sent bills to the supermarkets that were backdated to April 2010. The cost for each machine comes to an estimated £2,800, so the total bill for Sainsbury's, Tesco and Co-operative group runs to hundreds of millions of pounds.

To make matters worse, the recent revaluation of business rates has pushed the cost of operating ATMs even higher, so they will have to pay £206 million for the next five years.

The supermarkets didn't take this lying down, and took the government to court in order to claw back the tax they had been forced to pay out on their cash machines. Unfortunately in April the courts decided in favour of the government - so the bills will have to be paid. They have now filed an appeal.

The impact

If this appeal fails, ATMs will become much less lucrative for the supermarkets, and for any petrol station or shop that currently offers a free ATM. It may put them off operating them altogether, and where they decide to continue providing the machines, it could mean they start charging a fee in order to cover their tax bills.

For many people, who have seen the last bank leave town, this could mean that aside from getting cashback in stores, they have no alternative to an ATM that charges a fee.

We will have to see whether the appeal succeeds, or whether for this group of people, the days of free ATMs are over forever.