Written by the Great British Mag content team on 20 July 2019
The GB Mag team suspects opening a bank account in the UK is at the top of your priority list! But we know the UK banking system is all very new to you, and you probably have loads of questions like, “What bank account is best for me?”
We’ve answered some all-important questions to make life a little easier for you. If you’re still unsure after reading this, we recommend you visit the local branch of the bank of your choice or Student Services at your university for further help.
Why should I open a UK bank account?
There are many benefits to opening a UK bank account, including:
- You won’t be charged currency conversion fees every time you withdraw money
- You’ll be issued with a debit card, which you can use everywhere instead of cash
- You can withdraw money 24/7 from any ATM machine in the UK
- You’ll be able to set up direct debits and standing orders
- You can register for telephone and internet banking
- If you need help – for example, if you forget your PIN – it will be far easier to sort things out with a local bank
- If you work part-time your employer will probably want to pay your wages into a UK bank account
- A bank statement is commonly accepted as proof of address, which you often need in order to start a job
How much does a UK bank account cost?
The major UK bank accounts offer a free basic current account, which should be more than enough for your daily needs.
Although UK banks offer a variety of premium accounts with benefits such as insurance and in-credit interest, you will likely have no need for these things as an international student.
What are the major UK banks?
The biggest four UK banks are Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC and NatWest. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses and you should make your choice based on what feels right for you. You should also consider smaller banks such as Santander, TSB or Al Rayan.
It is usually easier for international students to open accounts with big banks like Barclays, Lloyds, HSBC and NatWest. These banks are financially strong and are accustomed to working with foreigners, so they will be more understanding of your situation – for example, they will understand why you do not have a long credit history in the UK. However you should still make sure that your bank is aware of your unique circumstances and needs. It is a good idea to talk to a bank’s customer service team before opening an account.
If your current bank operates in the UK then talk to them about opening a UK bank account. They should be able to help you set one up, or at least get the process started, before you leave.
Do UK banks offer accounts specifically for international students?
When you are choosing a bank you should pay attention to international transfer fees – the cost of sending and receiving money from your home country is a major consideration! Save the Student has a useful table where you can compare these fees.
Good customer service is also an important consideration when you are choosing a bank. If you are wondering which banks rated well for customer service recently you can check out this survey by Which.
How do I open a UK bank account?
Opening a bank account in the UK is usually quite simple. All you have to do is visit the local branch of your chosen bank and tell an employee that you would like to open an account; they will help you through the process. You can also sign up to an online bank such as UniZest or Monese.
In order to open a bank account you will need:
- Your passport with student visa (if you are from outside the EU) or your national photo ID card (if you’re from an EU country)
- A letter from your university/college/school called ‘Letter of Introduction for UK Banking Facilities’ to show your UK study details
- A letter with your UK address on it
The UK is home to loads of banks and some of them have a specific account for overseas students, such as the Unizest Aspire International Student bank account – which is the only account that you can set up and start using before arriving in the UK and has an easy online application process.
Can I set up a UK bank account before I arrive in the UK?
Yes, you can. There are two ways in which you can open a UK bank account before you arrive in the UK.
If your home bank has a correspondent banking relationship with a British bank, they may be able to set up an account for you. A correspondant bank is a bank that provides services on behalf of another bank.
Another solution is digital banking. UniZest and Monese both allow you to set up UK banking services before you arrive in the UK. Both provide you with a UK debit card and allow for international transfers. This ensures that you will have access to your money during your first few weeks in the UK.
Whilst many major UK banks have “international accounts” that are designed specifically for non-UK residents, this may not be the right choice for you. These international accounts often require you to make a big initial desposit and/or depost a minimum amount of money each month. Some banks also charge monthly fees on top of all this. These requirements can make international accounts expensive to open and maintain.
UK banking terms explained
Automated credit transfer
This is a direct payment made to your account from another account. If the payment is from a UK bank account, the money should appear in your account on the same day. However if the payment is from an overseas account it can take up to five days.
Be aware that sending and receiving money from overseas incurs a charge. Some banks and banking products are more competitive than others, so do your research.
A direct debit (often referred to as D/D) is a payment from your bank account to an organisation or company to pay a regular bill such as a mobile phone bill. Normally the D/D is set up when you enter into a contract with a service provider. The amount taken from your account can vary each month depending on your bill.
A standing order, or banker’s order as it’s sometimes called, is when the account holder instructs their bank to pay a fixed amount of money at regular intervals into another account. It’s popular for paying things like rent.
This is short for ‘identity’, referring to something like a passport. You will need to take some form of identity along with you when you go to open an account. Check with your chosen bank what form of ID they require to save yourself a wasted journey.
A debit card, or bank card as it’s sometimes called, is a shiny plastic card which gives you access to your bank account(s). It’s different from a credit card because you can only spend what you have in your bank account. The amount is deducted from your account straight away, rather than allowing you to pay it back at a later date.
ATM/cash point/cash machine
ATMs are also called cash points and cash machines. You may even hear them referred to as “a hole in the wall.” ATMs are everywhere so you can access to your money, check your bank balance and even deposit money 24/7.
Most cash points are free to use but keep an eye open for those that charge. They will clearly state that they are going to charge you and will give you the option to cancel your transaction.
If there is no way for you to avoid using an ATM that charges a fee, choose to be charged in the local currency. This will help you save some money.
Remember to keep your PIN number secret. Don’t write it down; instead, try to memorise it as soon as possible. Anyone can take money out of your account if they get hold of your debit card and know your PIN, so be really careful with it.
If you withdraw more money than you have in your account, you will likely be charged what is called an overdraft fee. These fees can be very large so you should be careful not to withdraw money that you do not have. You can speak with your bank about setting up overdraft protection, which will prevent you from withdrawing too much money.
What’s the best way to bring money into the UK?
A really convenient way to bring money into the UK with you is to ask your bank at home to give you a cheque in pounds sterling (£) drawn on a UK bank. Remember that cheques take approximately 3-5 working days to clear.
You should also get some British pounds before you leave so that you can cover immediate expenses and emergencies. £250 should be enough. Keep this money in your hand luggage just in case your checked luggage gets lost.
It is unwise to carry large amounts of money into the UK from outside the EU. Notes, coins, bankers’ drafts, and cheques of any kind (including travellers’ cheques) that add up to the equivalent of €10,000 or more have to be declared at the border. If you do not declare this money, you could face a penalty of up to £5,000; but even if you do declare it, customs officers can seize it if they have reasonable grounds to suspect a crime.
If you wish to move large amounts of money from your home country to the UK it is best to make a direct bank transfer.
Do any UK banks observe Sharia law?
Many banks in the UK have recognised that some of their Muslim customers want to bank according to Sharia principles. Check your preferred bank’s website or visit in person to see if they offer this service.
How to keep track of your UK bank account
We know you’ve probably got thousands of things to think about, but managing your money can be done really easily in a couple of different ways.
Most banks allow you to set up telephone and online banking, so you can do your banking 24/7. Your bank will also send you statements regularly, either by post or email. You can even use cash machines to check your balance and in most cases get a printout of your most recent transactions.
Help is always at hand, as most banks have a 24-hour helpline or a customer service line which you can ring if you’ve lost your card or had it stolen. There’s also a number at the back of most debit cards if you have any serious questions.