Finally, you secure a paid internship or job in the UK.
But somehow, the problem is still getting paid.
Like most things about moving abroad, opening a bank account isn’t simple. In fact, I think there’s even more red tape around opening one than there is around getting the right to work in the first place.
Options I tried that aren’t a bank account
Initially, you may try to get by using Paypal.
While it seems like Paypal saves the hassle of opening a proper account, if you do the math, this proves worse for your finances.
Paypal actually charges you to receive money, so every time you get paid, 5% of it goes straight to Paypal.
Even if you choose to sacrifice 5% of your earnings to the Paypal overlord, you’ll still be losing money.
Exchange rates. Paypal’s exchange rate is horrible. Like .1% to .2% different than the exchange rate a bank would give you between dollars and pounds, and Paypal keeps the difference.
In the end, Paypal is a great way to buy items off Amazon. It is not a great system for getting paid OR running freelance payments.
Getting paid into a UK partner or friend’s account
With Paypal out, you could ask your employer to pay into a partner’s or friend’s UK account to avoid the fee. While this is better, and it saves you 5% of your monthly salary plus the exchange rate difference, the money will only be accessible to you once it’s withdrawn as cash.
That works for petty cash spending, but of course, if you’re getting paid £800 per month, and only spending £250, the savings stay somewhere, and it won’t be somewhere accessible to you.
- You need to fully trust the person holding your money not to spend it
- You’ll have to keep very detailed records of what is actually your money and what is theirs
- You won’t have a debit or credit card to use for UK purchases
Payment into your US bank account
Getting paid into a US bank account tends to also be a no, because employers need various allowances to pay into a US account, and a change fee still applies.
You could opt for a service like Transferwise, to help you lower the fees of changing currencies and transferring between countries. While better than Paypal, it still charges a small percentage off every transfer.
This also requires your employer to pay directly to Transferwise, which they won’t be keen to do, as it messes up their HR records.
Opening a UK bank account
If you’re like me and plan to spend at least six months in the UK being paid, opening a bank account does make sense.
If you’re shorter term, it will be very hard to get a bank to agree to open an account for you, and you may want to consider one of the options listed above.
What you need to open a bank account:
Your passport works best for this. If you have a Biometric Residence Permit, bring that as well, because they will want to make copies of both the visa in your passport and the BRP.
Proof of Address
This could be a bill, a rental agreement with your UK address on it, or a bank statement from your home bank with your new UK address on it.
While this bit should be simple, it can lead to complications (more on that in the next section, ‘How to provide Proof of Address’).
Other possible requirements
Some banks need extra proof that you’re staying in the UK long-term.
- National Insurance number: you can apply for this through the UK’s Job Centre (job services) and it will be mailed to you within three weeks. Because that puts a delay on when you can open the account, you should apply for the NI number as soon as you arrive in the UK.
- Letter from your employer: Some banks may also want a letter from your employer stating that you are employed and will be paid into that account.
- Proof of funds: Alternatively, they could require a minimum amount for the account, in which case you’ll need cash in hand to get the account open.
How to provide Proof of Address:
Proving you live in the UK is the hardest part of opening an account.
For starters, if you’ve just moved into a place, it takes at least a month to get your first utility bill (the preferred form of proof). But check with the bank – they may accept a rental agreement as proof, so long as it has your address on it.
What they will accept as Proof of Address
- A household utility bill (i.e. electricity or water bill) that contains either your full name or your initials and your UK address somewhere on it
- A printed version of your most recent bank statement from your home bank in the US, containing your UK address
- Possibly, a rental agreement with your address and full name on it
What they won’t accept as Proof of Address
- Letters from the National Health Service (NHS) sent to your UK address
- Your letter containing your National insurance number
- Any other mail that has been sent to your UK address
- Word-of-mouth or letters from a landlord or employer about your address
Issues with providing Proof of Address (and overcoming them):
If you’re living with friends, your flatmate has their name on the bills, your landlord doesn’t have official documents with your address on them, or you’re not paying rent or bills because you’re living with family or staying at a dorm or hostel, things get complicated.
In this case, you need to have a bank statement from your home bank that has your new UK address on it.
Even if you don’t think this will be your situation, I’d recommend changing your address before you leave and getting an official, printed bank statement from your bank and packing it with you for the move.
Seriously, the headaches* you’ll save yourself are worth this small effort.
Which bank should you open an account with?
BUNAC gave me plenty of tips on opening a UK bank account.
They actually work with a few branches of Barclays bank in London that they recommend, but I also did my own research.
Below are the banks I dealt with, as well as the pros and cons of opening an account with each of them.
Because of BUNAC’s recommendation, I went to the Barclays bank in my town. But pretty much from the moment I entered, I encountered issues, mostly due to the statement sent by US Bank to me.
Barclays only needs identification and proof of address to open an account, but are very strict on their proof of address. While they’ll accept bloody INITIALS on a water or electric bill, they will not accept a bank statement from your home bank with a c/o address or any anomalies.
I was staying with family friends, so when my mom changed my address at home, she had added a c/o line, and Barclays was not having it.
Pros of banking with Barclays
- Only required identification and proof of address
- Well-known bank with decent reputation
- UK-wide bank, so can find them on most high streets
Cons of banking with Barclays
- Only exist in the UK, which makes handling money globally an issue
- Poor customer service; you can never call your branch directly because all calls are routed to a main call centre
- To make an appointment with them, you must go in and set it up face-to-face or call the aforementioned service centre – you can’t get in touch with your local branch over the phone
Metro Bank was recommended to me by my boss, as she’d dealt with them and said they were easygoing.
They still required identification and proof of address (which I was struggling to prove), plus a National Insurance number, so they actually needed more information to open an account for me. Though I doubt the c/o thing would’ve been an issue, I decided to look elsewhere.
Pros of banking with Metro Bank
- New age bank who bucks the outdated banking traditions
- Great customer service
Cons of banking with Metro Bank
- Outside of London, there are very few branches, making access harder
- Not as well known or established
Finally, I went to HSBC.
I set up an appointment over the phone and had an account 2 hours after my meeting with the lovely man at my local branch.
He needed the same things as Barclays, but didn’t kick up a fuss about the ‘c/o’ or the fact that my zip code wasn’t formatted perfectly.
Pros of banking with HSBC
- Global bank, which means ATMs (aka free withdrawals) and branches all over the world (yay!)
- An easy-to-use banking app that complements their online platform
- So far, they’ve had great customer service
- If you eventually make a ton of money, they have global accounts where you can transfer between currencies without fees
- CONTACTLESS DEBIT CARD (Finally! Yes! Hallelujah! Whoopie!)
Cons of banking with HSBC
- Their website isn’t the most user-friendly, but it gets the job done
- Still a classic bank with some slow-moving processes
- Their debit card does charge international transaction fees
In the end, I’m glad I chose HSBC over Barclays.
Since writing this post, I’ve moved back to the United States and use a combination of US Bank, Transferwise, and HSBC to manage my finances. I did my first Transferwise transfer a few weeks back and had zero issues.
I also have money sitting in two accounts and two currencies, so when the pound is strong, I can transfer it to dollars, and when dollars are strong, I can spend from my UK account.
When I travel, I use my CapitalOne Venture credit card to avoid fees, and can transfer pounds to dollars using Transferwise to pay it off. It’s glorious.
It takes a significant time commitment and dedication to reading the fine print to make sure you’re getting an account you want.
But, once you’ve got it, you can rest easy that you can actually work for pay in the UK.
*The headaches I encountered trying to open a UK bank account (aka an ‘account’ of how crappy US Bank is for overseas travel)
- US Bank had no idea how to call me back on a UK number with the answers to my thousand questions, despite me clearly giving them the number with the country code
- US Bank’s systems wouldn’t allow the UK’s zip code format (AB1 2CD, is an example UK zip code)… understandable but also completely frustrating, as it’s the UK’s main source of verifying your address
- My mom changed my address for me the first time (which was so nice of her) but then found it too confusing and frustrating to try and remove the ‘c/o’ field when it became a problem
- It’s overall a pain to try to liase with my home bank through a third party. I do not recommend it.
- My UK phone plan didn’t allow me to call US numbers. Nice.
- US Bank sent me two bank statements with the new address that were printed in black & white ink, with part of the logo CUT OFF (!). What bank would accept that, US Bank?! Let me answer that for you: none.
- They made me pay $6 to have each of these horrible, obviously sketchy statements sent to me
- I wound up having to print the one HSBC finally accepted off in color from my home printer (shhhh, don’t tell them), and it looked so much better than US Bank’s ‘official’ version
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