Spending abroad can result in lots of charges on ‘normal’ UK bank accounts, especially getting cash out. There’s got to be an easier way than having to join the CIA and stash wads in various currencies in a safety deposit bank in a Swiss bank, à la Jason Bourne. I thought our main bank, HSBC, might offer something like a Euro bank account but that didn’t seem to be the case. In the rush to get set off, I didn’t find an alternative but after getting stung for a cash withdrawal fee on the HSBC credit card, I started to explore.
The Wise multi-currency account (formerly known as Transferwise borderless account) seemed to fit the bill. I downloaded the app, signed up and uploaded photos of the front and back of my driving license as an identity check. This gives you a UK/GBP account that you can transfer money into, for free from your normal bank. A little wary at first, I put a token £25 in, just over the minimum to get a cash card sent out.
Minor drama here of course, because we were now on the move with no fixed address and it can take 10-15 days for the card to arrive. We explored ‘poste restante’ services – where you can have things sent to a post office near you for collection. Turns out Italy had the best option – they’ll keep a letter for 30 days (France and Slovenia were just 14 days I think) and it costs just 3 euro to collect. So, we ordered the card using a FERMAPOSTA address for a post office outside Venice and carried on with our travels. Collecting the card was easy, once I’d worked out how to get into the Post Office (through automated airlock doors) and worked out how to get a numbered ticket to be served. I showed my ID and the assistant got the letter – didn’t even get charged the 3 euro.
Then, all in the app, I transferred a bit more money in GBP and created a euro account. The conversion was instant, the rate was better than most and the fee was incredibly cheap – £1.69 to convert £500 to euro. So, now I had a contactless card I could use for purchases and cash withdrawal in Europe and many other countries. No more Non Stirling Transaction Fees for me! No more being stuck with odd notes and change in non-euro countries like Croatia and Switzerland.
If you want to give it a try, this invite link will give you one free currency exchange up to £500 i.e. without the conversion fee:
2021 Update after using the app for a few years now…
Still really pleased with Wise! Perfect for our nomadic van life! It works well and gets better with each update. It covers a lot of currencies, many of which allow you to create a ‘local’ bank account – which can be handy for example for setting up direct debits. Or, where some sites (like Etsy) only pay you in US dollars, or charge a further conversion fee. With Wise, you can create an account in US dollars and receive payment there.
The security is good. I’m occasionally asked to verify a transaction – real time in the app – if it’s an unusual amount or a new recipient. And though there are protections and safeguards, I don’t put all my cash there, just ‘spending money’, topped up when I need it.
There are other features now – like holding money as stocks, and setting up savings ‘jars’ – but I haven’t tried them.