Since I moved to England in April, I have had more problems with banks than in the nearly three decades I was in France. I’m constantly astounded by the complications of opening, maintaining and accessing bank accounts in this country. I’ve come to the conclusion that all banks in the UK must suck, and people are so used to this, they simply accept it and don’t demand better service.
Granted, when I first got here, I found the service – in one bank at least – to be much better than what I got from my bank in France, but that was the human side of the service. When you need something that involves “the system,” all bets are off.
From the very beginning, it was obvious that the banking system here is overly paranoid. Simply opening a bank account was an obstacle course. Since I was coming from outside the UK, the strict (and counter-productive) money laundering rules in the country make it very difficult to even open a personal bank account, let alone a business account. If you don’t have an address in the UK, you’re considered to be a possible criminal, and the only way I could get an account here was to open an account with HSBC France, which then sent a “letter of recommendation” to HSBC in the UK.
But then I needed a business account. That was even harder. As much as one very friendly person at HSBC wanted to open one, “the system” prevented him from doing so. Since I don’t have a credit rating in the UK, and credit ratings don’t exist in France, he had to admit defeat. I fell back on another bank, NatWest, which required the same information, but seemed a bit cavalier about my proof of address: a statement from HSBC was all they needed.
NatWest has terrible customer service; I only chose them because I had to have a business account, and I couldn’t get one from any other bank. It’s hard to contact the person who manages my account; I don’t have a direct email address (as I do at HSBC), and the only phone number I have goes to a call center, and is charged a premium rate. And I had to request a debit card three times before I finally got one.
So I figured that was going to be the hardest part of the process; that things would get better after the accounts were up and running. Nope. HBSC’s internet banking is down often – both the UK and the French sites, but never both at the same time. Today, I went to the HSBC branch to see an advisor with some questions about savings accounts and interest rates. I was told by the greeter that “the system is down,” so they couldn’t access any information about my account. Since the internet banking was down yesterday, I’m beginning to wonder what their uptime is.
The worst problem was with NatWest today. Banks in the UK have very convoluted security systems. (I’m used to France, where you have an account number and a password to access online banking; nothing more.) You start by answering a half-dozen security questions, then choose “memorable words,” then you get PIN numbers; several. For my NatWest account, I have three: one for my debit card, one for a card reader (a device which generates one-time codes that I need to carry out certain online operations), and on online banking PIN. I also have an online banking password, and a couple of other passwords.
People who work in computer security know that too much security leads to lax security. When you force users to have multiple PINs and passwords, they tend to choose ones that are easy to remember. I use 1Password on my Mac and iPhone, so I can record all of these passwords, but it’s still complicated.
When I went to log into my NatWest internet banking, I got locked out. I entered the information requested (1st number of your PIN; 4th number of your PIN; 7th character of your password; etc.), but the server didn’t like it. Since I’ve logged into this site many times, I highly doubt that the mistake was on my end, but with all the different PINs and passwords, it’s possible. No matter; I got locked out. I had to re-register for internet banking, which I can’t use until I get an activation code. By mail. Which will take about ten days.
So, for now, the only way I can access my business account information is by walking 20 minutes to the branch. As it’s in the center of York, there’s no parking anywhere nearby. (In the UK, it seems that banks are always in the centers of cities this size, with no branches on the outskirts where you might be able to park. It makes you wonder who they’re really serving…)
So, today, I got locked out of my business at one bank. I found that my other bank couldn’t answer my questions because their computer system was down. Yesterday, the online banking for the same bank was down. I sense a trend here.
As I ask in the title of this article, is there a bank in this country that doesn’t suck?