How do you bank in England?
December 29, 2016 7:40 PM   Subscribe

My daughter will be studying abroad in England in the Spring. We are confused about how she banks for the 5 months she is a student in the UK. Her Midwest US bank has no options for her. Wells Fargo, my bank, has no options. We've heard BOA does, so we are going to talk to them. And we've been told that she should just open an account when she gets there and then wire her funds from her US bank. If you've done this, what worked for you?
posted by COD to Work & Money (25 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What kind of banking does she need? Will she be depositing a paycheck? During (shorter) periods spent abroad, I've had my parents or husband make deposits for me (when not automatic) in my local us bank (chase or td bank or whatever credit union I was a member of at the time) and then used my credit card and atm to get money out at the other end. I would think a wells Fargo atm card would work worldwide but if not, you can open a checking account at td and get an atm card the same day. For some time studying in Germany I did need a local bank account (whose sole purpose was to pay my health insurance out of) - the school I was attending helped me with the particulars.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 7:51 PM on December 29, 2016

It was a pain to establish a NatWest account in the UK during a sabbatical. If I had to do it all over again I would see if an account at HSBC or ING can be opened in the US and the option for a functioning account in UK using the local branches. Unless it has changed from my years there, chip card was pretty prevalent so get that established, if you can in the US so it is seamless in the UK

Others, I am sure, will have better info.
posted by jadepearl at 7:52 PM on December 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

When I was a student in the U.K., I did open an account there and wire money from my US account, but I think I also used my US bank card to withdraw money directly sometimes despite the extra fees... This was in the late '90s, but when I moved to England again several years ago I did much the same thing.

Nowadays I'd recommend something like Transferwise instead of a direct bank transfer, because the fees are so much lower. But it's worth asking the study abroad team at your daughter's university for advice if you haven't already -- I am a little surprised they don't have any guidance on this as a matter of course, as it's something pretty much every student will need to deal with.
posted by diffuse at 7:52 PM on December 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Try Zenbanx - you can add USDs and convert them to GBPs, then use them at ATMs all over London or Europe.
posted by metaseeker at 7:54 PM on December 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

As long as she has a debit card on the Visa or MasterCard networks, she should be able to just withdraw money as normal from UK ATMs, at a pretty decent exchange rate (although with a foreign ATM fee, so when I was a student we tried to withdraw at least 50 pounds at a time to make it worth the fee).

Make sure she knows the daily withdrawal limit, and call the bank/card network in advance and have them note on the account that she'll be in Europe from X date to Y date -- that will prevent the card from being frozen when she's suddenly using it all over the UK.

What banking will she need beyond available cash money?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:54 PM on December 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

The school apparently gives her all her housing allowance as a check when she gets there, then she pays her rent back to them monthly. Which seems incredibly inefficient, but that is how it works. Now that I think about it, that might require a local bank account to write checks back to the school. Also, she will get a three week holiday at Easter (yay UK!) and I've told her I expect Facebook updates from at least 5 or 6 countries over that 3 weeks. Don't know if that makes any difference on the banking issue or not.
posted by COD at 8:00 PM on December 29, 2016

She should try and open a Charles Schwab Investor Checking Account, which will not charge her fees to use any ATM ever anywhere in the world. Then she can open an account in person on arrival, and deposit her housing check to it. If she wants to use a UK account for anything else, she can withdraw cash from her Charles Schwab account in person and deposit it immediately - much faster than a wire, unless she suddenly needs $1000 for some reason.
If she doesn't yet have a credit card, it would be worth having her open an American one before she leaves for travel purchases like a rental car, hotel etc that like to be able to take a hold on your card (so she doesn't need $500 frozen on her debit card).
posted by the agents of KAOS at 8:09 PM on December 29, 2016 [6 favorites]

I would count on it taking 30 days to get a bank account in the UK. They are very strict about security and money smuggling and they will do things like mail her her confirmation codes etc. So make sure she's not stuck the first month.
posted by fshgrl at 8:12 PM on December 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

Instead of speculating, you (or rather, SHE) should contact the school directly and ask exactly what they advise. If they recommend that short-term students have bank accounts (which shouldn't be a foregone conclusion, but with your update about the allowance check, maybe) then they should also have a list of banks with nearby branches which cater to foreign students. I googled a handful of UK universities and they all had extensive banking information for foreign students.

Whether she gets a UK account or not, she should definitely get travel-friendly credit/debit cards if she doesn't have them already, to use either as a first option or as a backup.
posted by acidic at 8:14 PM on December 29, 2016 [11 favorites]

For transitional stuff: BoA has an arrangement with Barclays for ATM use without the fixed international transaction fee, though it does charge a 3% commission; you don't need to be a Barclays customer to use a BoA card at its ATMs. If you or she is eligible for USAA membership, then its banking is pretty good for international ATM usage without fees.

Now that I think about it, that might require a local bank account to write checks back to the school.

The UK really doesn't do cheques much any more: a sort code and account number for direct transfers is more common. But acidic's right: any institution offering study abroad programmes will have an international student office to provide all the pertinent information, including the banks (and specific branches) they recommend.
posted by holgate at 8:17 PM on December 29, 2016 [3 favorites]

I opened an account at Santander when I spent a semester in London in 2011 and I ran into trouble with depositing money and then not being able to access it for a few weeks- I'd been using my American account via credit card and ATM withdrawals, but wanted a local account I think because I got some money refunded from my university and wanted to avoid fees. I distinctly remember being in Dublin and trying to access the money that had been deposited and not being able to- I had to jump through some hoops to make it happen eventually.
posted by MadamM at 8:51 PM on December 29, 2016

I second Charles Schwab—I've traveled around the world with it. For what it's worth, when I was a student from the US studying in England for an entire school year a long time ago I didn't bother to open a UK account. I used a combination of US credit cards and my Schwab checking account.
posted by Bunglegirl at 9:30 PM on December 29, 2016

USAA is excellent about overseas stuff, since they focus on serving US military folk. I think you have to be a member (military or family member who is a member) to get their car insurance, but I'm pretty sure anyone can open a checking account. Worth a try.
posted by cnidaria at 9:34 PM on December 29, 2016 [5 favorites]

If you have the cash on hand, HSBC do an 'international expat' account which lets you issue checks in currencies of your choice, bank abroad etc etc. Minimum balance is $10,000 though, which may be a bit of a sticking point.
posted by pharm at 3:39 AM on December 30, 2016

If she is not going to receive and write paper cheques (checks), she can probably get away without opening a UK current (checking) account. Just make sure she has a US credit card with no currency fees (most banks have one or several options), and a US checking account with no cash ATM fees (e.g. Charles Schwab). Her primitive pin-less credit card will be an irritant (the UK is chip-and-pin and increasingly contactless payment these days), but

If, however, she will be receiving and writing cheques then I'm afraid the best thing to do is to open a UK current account. The UK government makes this extremely hard from outside the country, but if you have a branch of HSBC or Citibank near you then they may be able to help you. Both have retail operations in both countries, and the UK operation will give you a UK account that can receive and issue cheques, and a quick and easy way to wire dollars if you or your daughter have a US checking account with HSBC or Citi too. I know people who use both banks for this. Their customer service is awful, but it will at least give her a checking account in the UK. Otherwise she'll need to physically go to a bank when she arrives with as much ID paperwork as she can muster and try to open one there.

Transferring money to the UK is easy: If you have a UK and US Citibank or HSBC account then it's instant. I don't so I use Transferwise for large amounts (you need a bank account in both countries for this option), and simply withdraw pounds from a UK ATM using a US Schwab card for smaller amounts.
posted by caek at 3:39 AM on December 30, 2016

(HSBC will also let you open an account with them in the UK if you already have one elsewhere IIRC, which costs money but doesn't require you to have $10,000 on hand.)
posted by pharm at 3:42 AM on December 30, 2016

If you go the BoA route, their Travel Rewards VISA card does not charge the 3% commission on international transactions.
posted by mr vino at 4:36 AM on December 30, 2016

She might want to get a Revolut card. It's a prepaid Mastercard that allows you to load it with dollars, pounds or euros from your local bank account, US or UK from what I can tell, and convert currency between the three with no fees. It can then also be used to take out cash with no international fee. Might be useful for her if she's planning to travel in Europe.
posted by corvine at 4:50 AM on December 30, 2016

It's worth it to spend the time to get her set up with a US debit and credit card that don't charge foreign transaction fees so she's set while setting up a UK account. (Also, the university should know this, but if they have very few people coming from the US, they may not realise that while they can transfer money to/from her US account, it'll cost her an arm and a leg.)

CapitalOne360 does not charge for overseas ATM withdrawals. It's easy to find an ATM with free withdrawals for non-customers. (My grandad admittedly lives in a town that subsists on (British) daytrippers, but every bank has a sign about free ATM withdrawals.) If you phone to say you're going to the UK, they'll eagerly tell you have they actually have ATMs in the UK, which is true... in London and there aren't many. But there's no reason to seek one out anyway. Wells Fargo charges outrageous fees--it was something like $5 plus 5% the last time I checked.

Having no foreign transaction fees on credit cards is becoming a selling point (remember when every card had no foreign transaction fees?), but chip-and-PIN support remains weak, even on those cards. The Delta Amex has no foreign transaction fees and will fall back to chip-and-PIN if chip-and-signature isn't supported. Penfed's credit cards are the same--no fees and fallback. (Their membership class is mostly military, but also has a "donate to some random military charity and we'll let you in" option.) Neither my boyfriend nor I actually found anywhere that used the fall-back, though. I actually tried a self-checkout thinking "surely this'll ask for a PIN". Nope, it stops dead and I had to fetch a bloke to fiddle with it to get it to ask for a signature. Ticket machines on the Underground don't ask for a PIN (at least not for £20 or so transactions).

Anyway, if she doesn't have a credit card or doesn't have one without foreign transaction fees, it's worth going out of your way to get one that claims it'll fall back to chip and PIN. On a previous AskMe, someone said that the UN credit union actual does chip and PIN for real. I can tell you that Wells Fargo had no idea what I was even asking about when I enquired if they supported chip-and-PIN.
posted by hoyland at 5:15 AM on December 30, 2016

acidic wrote: Instead of speculating, you (or rather, SHE) should contact the school directly and ask exactly what they advise.

Also acidic's other suggestion about "travel-friendly credit/debit cards".
posted by Mister Bijou at 6:31 AM on December 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

Assuming she gets some kind of account in the UK, by far the easiest and cheapest way of transferring money is two paypal accounts - one hers in the UK, one hers (or yours) in the US. It just needs an address in each country (which I assume she will have as soon as she gets there). Then link the UK paypal to the UK bank and money can be transferred easily and you only lose on the exchange (which will happen anyway) and not the actual transfer.
posted by Brockles at 8:23 AM on December 30, 2016

Thirding the suggestion to contact the school and ask for their advice. It has been a long time since I opened a student bank account (NatWest), but it was much easier as a student than it would have been otherwise. In addition, this pamphlet from the British Bankers' Association is useful.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:27 AM on December 30, 2016

If her financial aid is going straight to the uni and they'll give her the leftover funds via cheque, she'll need a UK account. She can easily get an international student account with the big banks after getting a letter from her uni. She should contact their financial aid office and ask them what she needs to open an account.

As people above have stated, the easiest way to send money back and forth is PayPal. PayPal to the UK works in a matter of minutes. Wire transfer between international banks is a huge pain and can often go wrong.

Source: Grew up in the US, have lived in the UK for a decade.
posted by toerinishuman at 1:26 PM on December 30, 2016

Most UK universities have on campus bank branches of one or more of the large national banks who will be happy to open a student bank account even for international students. Normally these are free to open and run bar any penalties for unauthorised overdrafts etc. But some have more hoops to jump through than others. Back when I was an international student in the UK HSBC seemed to be easiest for international students but that was 18 years ago. In any case she'll need her enrolment form and such so she'll need to wait until she's there. It should not take anything like a month to get her fully set up and going. Nthing that her international students office will be able to advise.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:10 PM on December 30, 2016

Back when i was an exchange student, both Barclays and NatWest had promotions for student accounts, and these had less stringent requirements than other types of accounts. I just needed to show my university ID card to open the account. If I recall (this was back in the day) I brought about $500 in travellers checks to open an account and have some emergency/spending money. I'm sure today it's easier to set up an electronic transfer from the US.
posted by amusebuche at 2:03 PM on December 31, 2016

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