Banking in America

The 1990s called and asked for their banking system back

I’m here! I’m in America and about to sign a lease on an apartment! Before that though, I want to talk about banking, and how it sucks in America.

A caveat: I have never tried to open a bank account in the UK as a non-UK citizen (shocking). For all I know, people there face the same issues getting an account setup as they do here. I have a twinge of doubt though, given that the rest of the experience is so shoddy.

I chose HSBC as my Preferred Banking Partner for this endeavor. Why? Because they allowed me to ‘pre-stage’ my application (sending my information across early from the UK), open an account without a Social Security Number (SSN), and give me a credit card.

Despite all of that, the process to setup my account involved a ninety minute meeting at the branch. My contact there was very lovely and super helpful, and also apologetic for the amount of time it took. However … ninety minutes. Nine-zero. An hour and a half.

Once that was over, I still had to apply for my savings account and credit card. I applied for one that night, and the other the night we got back from our cruise. So far, I can see my credit card account on my online banking site, but still not the savings account. It’s been almost three weeks now since that first appointment.

Once my account was open, my debit card had arrived, and so on, I got to work. Logging in was not a simple task – I had to apply for a temporary ID due to my lack of SSN, which involved an ID given over the phone and then a password that took over a day to be texted to me. A Day. To Text. A day to text a password. I’ll just leave that with you.

At that point, I was overdue to pay my AirBnB host his rent. So I set up a wire transfer, and got an error. Tried again, error. Went home and tried on a different machine, and got the same error.

So I called them. Despite having done the above, I still had to try a different browser and clear my cache and cookies and try again. This is tedious, right? It would have been less tedious if, like the UK, I could pop in name, sort-code, and account number and hit enter. But no. The process goes thusly:

  1. Make a new payment
  2. Choose Wired Payment
  3. Open the HSBC app on your phone to generate a secure code
  4. Enter the code, choose Wired payment
  5. Enter the recipients’ account number (twice) and routing number. Confirm the address of the bank from the routing number.
  6. Enter the recipients’ name, and home address (???)
  7. Finally enter the value of the transaction and give it three references.
  8. Hit Continue
  9. Get the error again

Despite it being an error code (the same each time) there’s apparently no lookup for said code, because the agent had to log a ticket and promised me I would get a response the next day. Grand.

The next day I got a call, and was told that my Wire functionality hadn’t been fully setup. So what was all the ‘tech support’ for?? Are you telling me there’s no simple way to ascertain whether an account is setup for wiring money – a simple requirement of any bank account? Apparently not. I had to answer a series of security questions which essentially amounted to everything I’d put on every form I’d signed to apply for this fucking account.

But I got setup for my wire transfer! Hooray! HSBC duly obliged, paying my host $450 as requested, and charging me $30 for the privilege.


Wait. What?


Oh yes ladies and gentlemen. Your bank will CHARGE YOU MONEY to send money to someone else, if they’re not a member of your bank (some banks waive this fee, stepping into the brave new world of 1995 as they do so).

Meanwhile, I’d paid the other $450 that I owed out of my UK account, paying a small fee for an international transaction and achieving the entire thing in about 60 seconds.

Oh yes I forgot to mention, my bank charges me transaction fees for receiving money that I’ve been sending myself from the UK as well.  America is truly the capitalist center of the world, a world where your bank charges you money for paying your rent.

Frustratingly, without my SSN I can’t open an account at a different bank. The receipt I received when I applied for the SSN said I should receive it within 2 weeks. When today I spoke to the most-bored-sounding women I’ve ever heard at the Social Security office, she told me flatly that it takes five weeks to receive the card. Totally contradicting what the piece of official paper I had said, and not giving a shit whilst doing it.

Simultaneously, my UK credit card has been getting bounced around a bit because (in the words of Halifax when I called them up) European cards get blocked sometimes in the US. I guess it’s the equivalent of someone from the year 2017 arriving in 1992 with an iPhone. Either way, I decided it was easier to ditch my previous plan (of spending everything in UK money) and transfer my money to my US account.

I ended up using Transferwise, which charged me less money to move £6000 overseas than HSBC charged me to move $450 to Brooklyn, and did it with significantly less fuss.

Go figure.

3 thoughts on “Banking in America”

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