First of all, it depends on why your card is retained. I can think of at least three common situations:
- You have entered a wrong PIN too many times.
- Your issuing bank has decided to cancel and retain your card, e.g. because you have exceeded your credit limit and they want to prevent you from charging the card at "offline merchants". This may of course be a mistake by your issuing bank.
- A failure (software or mechanical) in the ATM prevents it from returning your card.
In the first two situations, you are unlikely to get your card back.
The wrong PIN count is recorded on the card itself, so even if you got it back, it would be retained again the next time you are trying to use it. The wrong PIN counter on the magnetic strip can at least in theory be reset, so that the card itself is reactivated. This can however only be done by the issuing bank. If you are using a card with a chip, the chip may permanently deactivate if you exceed the number of allowed wrong PIN entries. In this case, you need a new physical card.
If the card is retained on request by your issuing bank, the cause is not specified through the ATM network, so the ATM operator would not know why your bank wants the card to be retained. Common practice is to not return such cards to the holder. After all, the operator must assume that your issuing bank requested the card to be retained for some reason. In this case, the card is not necessarily permanently deactivated, but can be reactivated if you are able to solve the issue with your bank. This may of course mean a lot of hassle for you and may require you to convince both your issuing bank and the ATM operator to get in touch with each other, so that you can get your card back.
In the third case, if the ATM swallows your card without obvious reason, you are likely to be able to get your card back. Even if it's not solved immediately, the ATM operator will have no reason to further retain your card, and return it to you. If the ATM is not located in a bank office or you are using the ATM outside the opening hours, there is of course no one immediately available to do this. In many cases, you can find a phone number for customer support located on the ATM. They may or may not be able to help you.
Unfortunately, it is not possible to reliably prevent any of these situations from happening. Even if your card is retained by mistake, do not expect too much effort from the ATM operator to help you with a swift solution.
There are however a few things you can do to mitigate the consequences of a retained card:
- Do not use ATMs outside regular bank offices. If they are malfunctioning and retaining your card by mistake, you are bound to spend much time resolving the issue.
- Try to use ATMs in actual banks during the opening hours or at least in a location you can stay until the bank opens again on the next working day. In this case, you have at least someone to talk to, who can actually get access to your card.
- Check with your bank or card issuer in advance which options you have if your card is lost or retained. Do they offer emergency cash on a short notice? Are they able at all to issue you a new card, which is delivered to you on short notice in or near the locations you are traveling to? If not, you should consider a travel insurance with such benefits.
- If possible, bring at least two ATM cards from different banks. If one of the issuing banks for some reason decides to bar your card, you can use the second card until the issue with the first card is solved.
- Do not be unreasonably afraid to carry enough cash. I guess this depends on where you are traveling, but my experience is that it is much more likely to run into problems when trying to pay with or withdraw cash from an ATM card than to be robbed.