Best International Bank for Expats

Expat bank accounts, also known as international bank accounts, are accounts provided by banks (both legacy and challenger) for individuals who are frequently on the move or permanently living outside their home country. The best international bank for expats will  depend largely on what the expat is looking to achieve and their financial status. Some expat bank accounts are designed to provide a good interest rate on savings, whilst other providers are focused on reducing the foreign exchange costs associated with expat banking. By running through options provided by both major banks and challenger fintechs, this guide will serve two purposes – to determine the best banks for expats in the UK and the best UK bank account for British expats living overseas.

Which Expat Bank Account is for me?

Legacy banks tend to have high minimum deposit or salary requirements, whilst challenger banks tend to be open to all. Personally, we prefer the later approach – we believe financial services should be accessible to everyone – no matter their income. They also prove cheaper than traditional banks too.

When considering the best expat bank account for you, you’ll want to ask:

  • What currencies can I hold balances in?
  • What are the foreign exchange fees associated with the account?
  • Are there ATM withdrawals fees when using my debit card abroad?
  • Do I need traditional banking services, i.e. the ability to deposit cheques?
  • How easy is it to manage funds on the move, i.e. online and over the app?
  • Is customer support available in my timezone? Would I prefer online or telephone support?

If you require traditional banking services, such as paying in cheques and interest-bearing savings accounts, then it might be that a legacy bank provides the best expat bank account for you. Though it’s worth pointing out that even expat bank accounts provided by the likes of HSBC will not be eligible for overdrafts in foreign currencies, e.g. USD. And because the accounts are held in the UK it would not be possible to set up Direct Debits on currency accounts either, such as those processed via ACH in the US.

If you want to get the lowest foreign exchange and payment fees possible then a challenger bank/fintech (i.e. multi-currency account such as Wise Account) is almost certainly going to be your best option. For this reason, we divide the international bank accounts for expats into two categories – traditional banks and fintech challenger banks – with three expat bank accounts to choose from each.

Legacy Retail Banks (e.g. Lloyds/HSBC)

Fintechs (e.g. Wise/Revolut)

  • Can provide interest on foreign account balances.
  • Will accept cheques in major currencies like GBP, EUR & USD.
  • Aggregated balances are covered by FSCS up to £85,000
  • Can have high minimum balance requirements/account fees.
  • FX spreads applied to currency exchange usually moderate to high
  • ATM fees apply on all withdrawals and are usually high
  • Accounts held in the UK (often Jersey)
  • Low FX spreads for currency conversion (0.5% and below)
  • Free to open, no management fees or minimum balance requirements
  • Some currency accounts held local to the country, e.g. Wise USD account in New York comes with routing number and US account details
  • Monthly allowance for free ATM withdrawals or lower ATM fees than traditional banks
  • Does not accept cheques
  • Account balances not covered by FSCS*

*It’s worth discussing how your funds are protected in digital bank accounts with your provider. Depending on the bank that provider uses to open accounts and the country this is in, funds may be protected under other schemes. Money transfer providers are regulated too, in the UK by the FCA.

** It’s increasingly difficult to open a foreign bank account before you have a permanent address as you can see on our guide on how to open a US bank account without residency.

Expat Bank Accounts – Legacy Banks

HSBC Expat Bank Account

The HSBC Expat Bank Account is arguably the most well-known expat bank account to be provided by a legacy bank. Current accounts are available in GBP, EUR & USD, with all accounts being held in Jersey (Channel Islands). Savings accounts are available in a further 16 currencies. To open an HSBC Expat Bank Account, applicants are required to inject either a £50,000 deposit into their HSBC account, or show proof of a minimum £100,000 salary.

Perhaps the most enticing element is the 1% interest offer, available for 3-month deposits. There are no fees for withdrawing money at an international ATM but a 2.75% FX spread is applied – significantly higher than that of a fintech challenger bank! Payments fees also apply to international payments and the FX spread on these with HSBC is not clear.

Santander Expat Bank Account

Like HSBC, Santander offers expat bank accounts available in GBP, EUR & USD that are held in Jersey. The minimum account balance is £75,000 but customers are only eligible to earn interest when their balance exceeds £1,000,000.

FX fees can be as high as 3% when using a debit card abroad and SWIFT payments can incur a fee of £20 through online banking and £30 when arranged over the telephone.

Lloyds International Account

You guessed it – the Lloyds International Account allows customers to open current accounts in three currencies – GBP, EUR & USD held in Jersey. The qualification criteria is slightly more generous with Lloyds asking that an applicant’s salary is a minimum of £50,000 or that they have a minimum of £25,000 to deposit into the account. Customers are able to open an overdraft on their GBP accounts.

Lloyds international accounts incur a £7.50 monthly fee. To send a CHAPS payment in the UK a £30 fee is charged.

Legacy Bank Conclusion

Unless you have a specific requirement to open a Jersey based account, we can’t understand the benefits in selecting an expat bank account provided by traditional banks. The high minimum deposit seems unnecessary and some of the FX charges, whilst better than that on standard current accounts from traditional banks, are still higher than those provided by dedicated expat banking providers;

Expat Banking – Challenger / Fintech

Wise Multi-Currency Account

The Wise multi-currency account is specifically for frequent travellers, expats, and nomads. Allowing users to hold balances in 54 foreign currencies, with 10 of these actually local to the country they represent. A USD account for example is held in New York. This drastically improves the ease to which transfers can be made to and from friends and businesses in the country you live in and ensures payments remain local. The Wise debit card can be used in over 200 countries worldwide.

FX fees can be as low as 0.35% and generally hover around the 0.5% mark. The only downside is that the ATM withdrawal fee-free allowance is capped at £200 per month – beyond this ATM withdrawals incur a 1.75% fee. Though if you add their minimal FX fee to this it still works out better than the 2.75%+ charged by traditional banks.

Revolut

Before Revolut launched a whole bunch of alternative financial services, it shot to fame for its smart multi-currency account and international currency card. International payments from the UK are charged a 0.3% fee which is capped at £5. That means no matter how much you send internationally, the real exchange rate can be achieved and you won’t have to pay more than £5.

ATM withdrawals attract the real exchange rate but a 2% fee is charged above certain limits depending on your account. Standard plan users have a £200 fee-free limit per month, premium users a £400 fee-free limit and metal users a £800 fee-free limit per month. Users can spend abroad with their Revolut card in over 150 currencies and enjoy the real exchange rate.

Starling Bank

Starling Bank, particularly when compared to other traditional GBP current accounts, provides some of the most fair pricing for international card use. Unlike most UK debit cards, Starling won’t charge you for adding money to your card, withdrawing cash from an ATM or for making transactions on your card. Starling uses Mastercard’s exchange rate and doesn’t add anything on top.

The fact there is no cap on the fee-free allowance for international ATM withdrawals makes Starling a great choice for expats. We don’t know exactly what spread the Mastercard exchange rate is, though it is thought to be close to the real/interbank exchange rate at the time.

The issue with Starling bank is that Starling Bank’s international payments could be expensive.

Fintech Summary

Both Wise & Revolut provide extensive payment capabilities to hundreds of countries worldwide. Rather than having a traditionally domestic focus like most legacy banks, these firms were built with international customers in mind.

Bottom line: Best Expat Bank Account

Now that we’ve run through the options, let’s take a look at our reasoning and recommendation for the best bank for expats in the UK (i.e. expats arriving into the UK) and the best UK bank account for British expats (i.e. Brits emigrating abroad).

Best for Expats in UK Upon Arrival – Wise Multi-Currency Account

As the largest fintech provider of expat banking, Wise provides the most flexibility for expats to register for a Wise multi-currency account prior to arriving in the UK. The Wise multi-currency account is available to residents in the US, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Japan, Switzerland and EEA. Meaning individuals who plan on emigrating from these countries to the UK can already establish digital bank accounts in over 50 currencies and receive a corresponding debit card to spend their balances around the world. The Wise GBP account is based in London and has its own UK sort code, account number, and IBAN. Making it easy to make and receive payments within the UK. If you’re moving for work, for example, those first few salary payments can easily be paid into a Wise GBP account until you register for a standard UK currency account.

Best for Expats in UK Upon Living at a UK Address – HSBC

Not only is HSBC one of the big four UK banks (found on most UK high streets), it has branches in over 80 countries. So it’s a good choice for expats given its global reach, particularly expats arriving from Asia. HSBC will also allow part-opening of the account ahead of arriving in the UK. Simply supply your ID at a UK branch on arrival to complete the account opening. It’s easier if you’re an existing HSBC customer but new-to-bank customers can also apply if they have valid proof of residency, visa and identification documents.

MTC top tip – Opt for a standard current account with HSBC that you run alongside a specialist expat banking provider like Wise. HSBC will be best used for domestic purposes whilst Wise will almost certainly prove a cheaper option for holidays abroad and sending money home. Should you wish, you can always upgrade your HSBC account to an HSBC Expat Bank Account if you have a minimum £50,000 deposit or £100,000 salary.

UK Expats Emigrating to Europe – Starling Bank

Starling’s euro account is a full current account with its own unique IBAN, meaning total Starling deposits are covered up to £85,000 by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. It’s easy to convert euros into pounds and vice versa. Simply convert money between Starling accounts for a very reasonable 0.4% conversion fee. There are no hidden commissions or unknown extra charges. What’s more, Starling charges zero ATM fees, regardless of how much is withdrawn internationally. Through the app, users can easily switch between whether the debit card deducts from GBP balances or EUR balances.

UK Expats Emigrating to Rest of World – Wise Multi Currency Account

For the same reasons that Wise proves a great option for expats arriving into the UK, Wise is also the best bank for expats leaving the UK. Brits can easily register for a Wise multi-currency account ahead of emigration and will be able to open local bank accounts in 10 countries around the world including Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. Truth be told, Wise is also a brilliant option for UK expats emigrating to Europe too but the fact that Starling Bank provides a fully fledged euro bank account meant it just pipped Wise. Really, you couldn’t go wrong with either. Wise exchange rates and fees speak for themselves.

Final Words on Finding the Best Expat Bank Account

If you’re living and working abroad you’ll find that as well as retaining your bank account in your home country and perhaps opening a new account in the country you have settled, a digital bank account offered by the new breed of international challenger banks is more than likely going to have you well covered. Traditional expat bank accounts have expensive fees and high minimum deposit requirements, which is precisely why there was room for new fintechs to take the market by storm. The best international bank for expats will depend on each expat’s requirements, but for inclusivity and low fees we recommend giving these new fintechs a go. We think you’ll soon discover they can operate as your sole expat banking provider around the world, or at the very least run alongside your domestic bank account.