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Unbanked in the Sixth-Largest Economy of the World

Categories : Cash does not require a technology infrastructure, Cash is available to all users, Cash is the first step of financial inclusion
July 20, 2023
Tags : Commercial bank, Digital payments, Financial inclusion, Unbanked, United Kingdom
The proliferation of digital payments assumes everyone has a bank account. As it turns out, I was unbanked for over two months in the United Kingdom
Manuel A. Bautista-González

Ph.D. in U.S. History, Columbia University in the City of New York

Post-Doctoral Researcher in Global Correspondent Banking, 1870-2000 – Mexico and South America, University of Oxford

This post is also available in: Spanish

I started working for Oxford remotely in October. That month, the sterling pound crashed after the short-lived Truss cabinet announced it would increase government spending without raising revenues. Delays in international wire transfers to the United States and an unfavorable sterling pound/U.S. dollar exchange rate made it imperative to find an alternative.

Wise’s multicurrency account allowed me to get my paycheck in pounds. However, Wise and Revolut are not banks, and I strongly prefer having a bank account in my country of residence. As the Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse reminded us, banks fail. Customer’s savings must be deposited in banks protected by schemes such as the U.S. Federal Deposit and Insurance Company (FDIC), the U.K. Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS), and Mexico’s Bank Savings Protection Institute (Instituto para la Protección del Ahorro Bancario, IPAB).

In the United Kingdom, know-your-customer (KYC) regulations and local idiosyncrasies made opening a bank account rather cumbersome. Oxford University Welcome Service’s website says, “it can take up to two weeks before a new bank account can be opened.” I might be a documented worker with a U.K. global talent visa, but it took me over two months to become banked. In principle, the university’s Treasury contacts the local Barclays branch for international staff members to open bank accounts, but I never heard back from either.

Mobile Banking: Locked in the Apple App Store

A colleague suggested I open an account directly from the banks’ websites or apps. As a rule, most customers cannot download banking apps unless they belong to the banks’ jurisdictions. Mobile banking might work seamlessly within a given country. Still, if you must move abroad, Apple’s App Store might prevent you from updating your banking and payments apps, as I learned when I moved from New York City to Mexico City in December 2020.

I did not want to go through that ordeal again, partly because I still use my bank accounts in Mexico. I ran an experiment and tried opening a bank account with three banks: Barclays, HSBC, and Santander. These priors informed my selection. I once had a Barclays credit card in the United States to pay for an Apple Macbook in installments before Apple Card’s launch in 2019. I knew HSBC from Mexico and am a Santander customer there, too. They all have branches in Oxford’s High Street.

Arrested Onboarding

I could download HSBC and Santander’s apps to my phone (despite it being in the Apple App Store in Mexico), and I applied directly from my phone. I had to apply for Barclays through its website. In general, the three banks asked for the same information and documents. However, new customers must carry their ID and supporting documentation to a branch for identity verification and background checks.

Newly-banked customers in the United States and Mexico can get a functioning debit card with a PIN of their choice and enable mobile banking on their phones the same day they open an account. However, British clients face a long delay. After I opened my bank accounts, Barclays and HSBC mailed debit cards and PINs separately to my house and my friends’ home address. I am still waiting for Barclays’ PIN to activate my debit card.

Financially Excluded No More

Ultimately, I deposited most of my cash reserves to HSBC’s branch in Cornmarket Street. Carrying sterling pound banknotes from Mexico and using multicurrency accounts were supposed to be a short-term solution while I got a bank account. I never thought they would be a lifeline to conduct transactions in Oxford, pay rent to my landlady via Wise, and use Revolut in cashless venues.

The ordeal might sound like a developing-nation citizen’s first-world problem, but I find this episode very instructive. I am a documented worker and financially literate; I specialize in financial history and keep apprised of trends in retail payments, having written for CashEssentials since February 2021. What happens to others? What happens to people with fewer resources and backup plans?

This post is also available in: Spanish