One American’s Search for a Bank Account Abroad

Accountant-HeadGoblin-at-Gringotts

Opening a bank account in London has been my Everest.

In September I moved from Washington DC to London for a new job. In preparation for The Big Move, I talked to a bunch of friends who had moved under similar circumstances, all of whom had fairly simple stories about how they opened their bank accounts, purchased mobile phones and were able to survive. Numerous people told me: walk into a bank branch, bring your passport, sit down and open an account. It sounded simple enough.

On the day that I arrived in London, jet-lagged but ready to go, I walked to my local bank branch, which we will call Schmarclays. I was armed with my passport, the lease to my apartment, and the naivete of starting my new life.

Me: “I’d like to open a bank account please.”
Bank teller: “We open accounts on an appointment basis. Our next appointment is in November. You should try a bigger Schmarclays branch.”

Not a problem! Later that day, at a bigger branch:

Me: “I’d like to open a bank account please.”
Bank teller: “Our next appointment is in December. You should try a smaller branch that’s less busy.”

What.

In the meantime, not to be discouraged from doing something productive on my first day and because I was beginning to feel the physical effects of not being online for 12+ hours, I strolled into a mobile phone store to open a phone contract. Contracts are so much cheaper here! (My  friends were actually right about that…)

As luck would have it, though, one cannot sign up for a cell phone plan without a UK bank account and credit history, neither of which I had. Who knew I would simply lose 26 years of credit history? At this point I would have signed up for Boost Mobile if given the chance, and that is precisely what I did. Out of sheer embarrassment, I won’t mention the UK pay-as-you-go network that I am currently using. All you need to know is that people give away this company’s SIM cards for free on the street.

For the next week I proceeded to try a few more Schmarclays branches, as well as every storefront I passed by that looked like a bank. Gilded front doors? Surely this is a bank. Even Scotland’s impending vote for independence was not enough to stop me from trying to open an account at a Scottish bank. However, the Scots lost their bid, and I still remained account-less. At one helpful bank, I found someone willing to take a look at my papers to verify if I was worthy of being a part of this elite group. Of course, I wasn’t.

My lease apparently didn’t count as proper proof of address. I needed a utility bill that would not be arriving to my new apartment for at least a month. This would mean I wouldn’t have an account to get my first paycheck deposited into. *Cue uncontrollable panic*

Meanwhile, for day-to-day activities, including furnishing a new apartment, eating and public transportation, I was left to use my US debit and credit card. Years of traveling meant I was prepared with cards with no international fees, which was a godsend. Stocking up on GBP became my new hobby. In the week leading up to the Scottish referendum,  the value of the pound dropped and I went wild at the ATM. I was a woman possessed. I needed to take out enough to pay my rent in cash to my roommate, who would graciously pay rent in its entirety from her magical UK bank account. The amount of money I lost on this exchange during those three weeks still haunts me.

One day, at the flagship Schmarclays in Piccadilly Circus, I caught my first big break. Walking into the massive bank, I was determined to speak with someone with authority; no teller would do. Waiting in line, I met some American girls who were also having issues opening accounts. They informed me that word on the street was that Lloyd’s Bank was a little more lax when it came it came to proof of address. I jumped out of line and high-tailed it over. When I arrived I informed them I would gladly wait for an appointment. If I needed to I would sleep there and live off the two pieces of gum in my purse.

If Lloyd’s were a restaurant, my experience there would’ve have resulted in a raving Yelp review. No less than five stars. Recently split from another bank, I got the feeling that Lloyd’s was desperate to move on with new customers. I opened a checking account and savings account and received a free subscription to Elle UK. Finally, I had arrived. The ordeal was over! I still can’t get a credit card, because I have to build up my credit history. Either way, there I was, feeling on par with a teen opening their First Ever Bank Account.

About a week later, I received an email from Lloyd’s asking me to fill in a survey about my experience. I usually never fill out these surveys but could not have clicked fast enough to begin this one. How was my experience with Lloyd’s? Perfect. Would I recommend it to a friend? Absolutely. But maybe I would send them to Schmarclays first. You know, for the experience.

Maeve Atkins is an expat living with her debit card in London. Follow her at @maeveatkins

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