I don’t like commercial banks. About six years ago I left big banks behind and moved all of my cash to a credit union. It was great decision, because it matched my political concerns about the role of major banks in the economic collapse of 2008, and it supported my community.
It also made the financial part of our move to London a giant, drawn-out pain in the ass.
One reason was that they weren’t great at handling international wire transfers requested in person (we later learned that if we called, they had specialists who are awesome). My husband did one and thankfully we didn’t lose the $5,000, but after two weeks we found out it hadn’t worked.
The other reason is that a wire transfer service like TransferWise will require you to transfer money from your US account to their US account before they convert the money. Not usually a problem, except for the fact that some credit unions have rules about how many accounts can be connected to the same outside account. In our case, we learned that our credit union only allowed two people to connect to the same outside account, and two people already were.
Cue sad trombone sound.
As I will mention multiple times throughout this site: getting a bank account in the UK is one of the most difficult financial things I’ve ever done. And I’ve bought a house.
They seemingly require just one simple thing: proof of address. But the rules around exactly what can count for proof of address are ever-changing and don’t make loads of sense.
With that in mind, there are a couple of things you can do to get a leg up on the process.
Open a New US Account with a Big Bank
You can open a US account at a major bank that has a heavy presence in London, and let them know that you plan to open a UK account as well once you move there. You’ll already be a client, so it should be much easier. Some options include HSBC, Barclay’s, and Lloyds.
If you have a strong financial tie to your local bank (say, your mortgage is through them, or you have other automatic payments that need a US bank account), that’s fine! Keep that! But take a little bit of money and open that other bank account so that you’re ready to hit the British ground running.
If you have credit cards, check to see if they charge a fee for foreign transactions. Even if you do everything right, it’ll still probably be awhile before you’re able to do everything in £, so if possible get a credit card that doesn’t charge anything for foreign currency transactions so you can save some money in the beginning. It’s still better to be able to pay directly in pounds, but that’s not going to be an option on day one for most people.
We used Chase Sapphire and Capital One cards, and it worked fine. We’ll talk more about this in the Settling In section, but be prepared to sign for every credit card transaction since the US system STILL doesn’t use Chip + PIN. And shop workers here actually care that your signature matches. One plus side of living here is that my signature actually looks like my name now, instead of just a squiggle, because it has to match what’s on the back of my card. Seriously, a woman at Sainsbury’s made me re-sign my receipt because it didn’t match the first time.
Also do some research to see if your bank or credit card will allow you to have a UK address. Chase does; that may be what ultimately helps me get my own bank account (because paper bank statements actually count as proof of address).
Another option is to open a UK account through an internet bank like Monese. They do charge a monthly fee, but they can help you do a few things in the beginning, like set up your internet (because internet companies all require a direct debit for the monthly payment, which seems shady as hell to me, but it’s their game).
You can also get a debit card through them so you can more easily pay for things and get money out of ATMs without a fee. Just be sure to move some money into this account before you move. It’s entirely possible that this will be all you need when you live in London, but if you want to, say, have a joint account with your partner, you’re going to need a brick and mortar bank, so consider the above advice.