You’ll have to believe me when I say I never imagined I would be writing about banking and Brexit, but as these things seem to have dominated the last few months for me, well here we are. The Oliebollen are thrown in for good measure, a bit of playful alliteration and a reminder of a Dutch tradition that re-appears every autumn.
When I first started visiting the Netherlands, everyone seemed to want to ask me about Brexit. By the time I had moved here, in the final months of the negotiations towards a deal/no deal, I was regularly quizzed on the latest events in the ever-changing saga.
A few times I was tempted to say, hold on, I’ll just ring my hot-line to Boris and ask him what’s happening. The truth was I was glad to leave behind something that had dominated the national psyche for so long. I was genuinely surprised, however, just how much of the daily developments and political wrangling was followed closely along by our European neighbours. They were well aware of every detail, and its potential impact. It was only then, that I began to understand how as a British person, I had viewed Brexit as something that affects the UK, something we have done to ourselves. Understanding the impacts from a European neighbours point of view is another thing entirely, and while the UK is still going around in circles supposedly negotiating on a deal at the 11th hour, the rest of Europe has moved on and made their plans without us factored into them.
So far, I personally have only had two instances when the looming No Deal has affected me. This summer my son and I were invited to apply for our Residency cards. This was a fairly simple process, with an online application. It seemed all the Dutch government were interested in was the fact that we already resided here, and did we have sufficient financial means to stay. With the application submitted, it was a case of waiting for an invitation to have our biometric data taken. We had to travel to Amsterdam for this, as all the centres near to us were fully booked. Still things seemed to have been arranged with usual Dutch efficiency. We turned up at our allotted time, had our fingerprints, signatures and photographs taken, and a few weeks later a signed for delivery gave me my permit, with the inscription ‘Residence Document Withdrawal Agreement’.
Banking and Brexit
Things were not quite so smooth from the British side, however. On the 28 August I received a letter from my UK bank, Lloyds, stating that as a result of the UK leaving the EU, some bank accounts (for people that didn’t reside in the UK) would have to close.
This opened up a whole rabbit-hole of research into banking options for those that want to keep a UK bank account, in sterling, for whatever reason, but reside elsewhere.
A newly-found Facebook group entitled ‘British expats in the Netherlands’ revealed that in terms of high street banks, the only option was HSBC. As an international bank, they allow UK accounts with EU addresses. Others were offering this but are closing down this offer to new accounts. I got straight onto it and started the application process.
Here I am, 10 weeks later, with no account open. HSBC’s service to open an account online, seems to stop once you fill in the initial online form. In that 10 weeks, aside from taking a screen-shot of the original ‘your application has been successful’ information, I have had no letters, emails or any other contact from HSBC. All contact has been from me, calling repeatedly. I have posted through the proof of identification and address required, witnessed by a solicitor (called a ‘notary’ here). This wasn’t accepted, as my notary used a company stamp and signature rather than hand-writing the exact words. My mistake, so I tried again. This time I thought I’d take no chances – I hopped on a plane, armed with ID and 4 examples of proof of address (I only needed one), and visited a branch.
I was told they couldn’t help me. They weren’t allowed to open accounts in branch due to Covid-19. I was a bit upset having travelled a long way and having called the previous week and being assured I could go into any branch, without an appointment and open an account. All they could do, was to take my documents and scan them through to the team handling my original account request.
The cashier took a look at my documents and discounted all of them. They wouldn’t accept a bank statement from my Dutch bank, as it was in Dutch. I’d figured a document that was mostly numbers didn’t need translating anyway. Just in case, I’d brought along a letter in English from my Dutch bank. That was discounted too, as it had a disclaimer at the bottom of it. My other documents were discounted as well. I mentioned why I was there, as my Lloyds account was closing, and the cashier suggested I go to Lloyds and get a statement from them. I did, and thought I was clear. The following week, when chasing up on the phone, I was told they did not accept statements that had been printed out in branch (or at home). Others in the Facebook group had had similar experiences, one lady’s bank statement as proof of address was rejected because her notary had not signed each of the ten additional pages.
Back to square one.
Can the internet-only banks save the day?
I looked at the option of using an internet-only bank account. These operate using a banking app, making the experience truly mobile. There seemed to be lots of options, but because I had particular requirements, I had to really drill down into the detail of what each one offered. Overall these digital banks are like a breath of fresh air, with what they offer displayed clearly, and where I had questions, I was able to message and get answers within a couple of hours. In total I looked at 5 different internet-only banks that operate for EU customers. These were Monese, Revolut, Bunq, Starling and N26. Each had a different emphasis. For example Bunq is aimed at British travellers in the EU, rather than those residing in an EU country. Starling launched EU accounts in 2019, but you first have to have opened a UK account, so I missed the boat on that one. Revolut had no guarantee on funds, and Monese aren’t opening accounts for Netherlands based customers at the moment. I settled on opening an account with N26, although it only holds euros rather than sterling, so it does not meet my main requirement. They do however, have a great package for freelancers and the self-employed, so I will be keeping my eye on that.
Overall however, the difference of experience dealing with an internet-only bank and a traditional one was startling. With N26 I had opened my account in minutes. Literally all I did was take a picture of my passport and a photo of myself, within 20 minutes I was up and running. My card arrived in the post a few days later.
The internet-only banks seem to be more responsive to what customers actually need and give more flexibility and reduced fees for those that want to bank across borders. I do wonder how the traditional banks are going to fare in the longer term if they cannot get their act together.
Banking in the Netherlands
Coming to the Netherlands and experiencing a different banking system has been interesting. When you only know one way of doing things it takes a while to get used to a different way. I opened my accounts with ING, one of the country’s main banks. The setup seemed similar to the UK. ING is a traditional bricks and mortar bank, but with a banking app which is easy to use.
The Dutch seem to have a love affair with QR codes, and anything that requires security usually has a ‘scan from your phone’ stage to log on via a pc. This isn’t just true for banking, but also for accessing your Digi ID – which is the gateway for any dealings that come from central and local government, such as taxation, educational institutions and healthcare.
Sadly, my ING bank account does not let me purchase anything online that is outside of the Dutch market, there is no VISA or Mastercard element for this. In the Netherlands they have their own system, called iDEAL. This works fine and to me it just appears as an extra secure interface between a customer’s bank and the third party they are paying.
For all my international purchases however, many of which are for my business, I have had to use my credit card as my ING card will not work for these. I have, however, just been notified that my Nationwide credit card account will also be closing due to Brexit, hence the advantage in opening an account with N26.
The Dutch however have some handy features with their systems. In my Dutch language class I was due a refund and the teacher asked me to send her a ‘tikkie’. I had to ask my husband what that was as I had no clue! Apparently, from your bank, you can send a request to someone in a text message or email for a specific amount of money. For them to pay they just need to click on the link. No more dishing out your sort code and account number and people having to ‘set you up’ as a new payee. A few days after this I encountered another ‘tikkie’ – the small business that made my curtains sent me an invoice with an accompanying email link I could click through to make the payment easily. This can be used in the same way to split a bill easily between friends – something that I’ve seen some of the internet banks offer. I do like this system as a way of collecting payments as a business and am keen to use it for my customers, although I’m not sure how easy it will be to have a system that works for both UK and Dutch clients.
Let’s not forget the Oliebollen
Well if you’ve read this far – you deserve a prize! For the Dutch, they love their Oliebollen – basically freshly fried round donuts that appear in special vans at this time of year. They’re a traditional New Year’s Eve treat, and can come filled with chocolate chips, sultanas or apple sauce, or with just a dusting of icing sugar. So go and grab yourself a sugary snack, and the next time you’re here, make sure you try one!
My main thought in writing this piece, was to share my thoughts from ‘the other side’ now I’m no longer living in the UK, but in the EU watching as ‘Brexit’ unfolds. I’m sure the ‘expat banking’ experience is a tiny ripple in a pool of many greater impacts. I hope the UK is ready.