Banking in Great Britain
You will soon become an expert at international banking transactions. Regardless of how much spending money you plan to bring, you will at some point want quick access to your funds. You will also want to protect your money against loss. This section covers your banking options.
There is no single, complete way to manage your money, but we find that a combination of services meets the needs of most students.
Contact Your Bank
The first thing to do before traveling to Great Britain is contact your bank and/or credit card company to let them know that you will be studying abroad. If your bank is not aware that you will be using your card(s) overseas, they may cancel your card(s) due to suspicious activity outside your normal spending patterns. Be sure to tell them where you are going (not just where you are studying - be sure to mention any other countries you are planning to visit) and the dates of your travel so that your card is not blocked.
When contacting your bank or credit card company, you should confirm that you will be able to use your card(s) overseas. You should also ask about their foreign withdrawal and foreign transaction fees. It is also a good idea to ask if your U.S. bank has a partnership with a bank in Great Britain that may allow you to withdraw money from your U.S. account without paying a withdrawal fee.
British money is on a decimal system in pounds sterling [£] and may be referred to as "sterling" (the British money standard) or "pounds" (the currency itself). Scottish notes vary in design from English notes but are worth exactly the same. You can check today's rate by visiting this exchange rate currency calculator: http://www.x-rates.com/calculator.html.
It's a good idea to arrive with at least the equivalent of $100 in your wallet. You can bring dollars and change them into pounds at the airport just before departure, or at the airport after your arrival (there will be hefty commission charges, though). Your American ATM card is also a very convenient way to access funds while overseas, and you should also be able to access an ATM at the British airport upon arrival.
Once you have arrived in Britain, you can change money at a local bank or building society (which will give you the best rate but will only be open from 9:00 to 4:30 or 5:00) or bureau de change (many have evening and weekend hours).
Cash Machines (ATMs)
The easiest way to handle your money is with an American ATM card. If it is linked to the Plus or Cirrus systems, your card will work in thousands of cash machines throughout the country. The advantage to using your American ATM card is that you will be assessed the wholesale exchange rate that applies to large foreign currency transactions. You should check with the issuer of your ATM card to make sure your NUMERICAL personal identification number (PIN) will work abroad. Also, ask if there are any fees or surcharges for withdrawing money overseas. You can only draw from a primary (usually checking) account.
The issuer should be able to provide you with a list of overseas outlets where your card is accepted. Students sometimes report having problems using their Cirrus cards, despite being told by the banks that they would work. The Plus system is usually a better bet.
Disadvantages Also Exist
American ATM cards are sometimes difficult to replace quickly if lost or stolen. Occasionally, students have told us that they had difficulty finding cash machines that would accept their American ATM cards. Take your American ATM card with you, but have other sources of money in case your ATM card does not work.
You can use credit cards in Europe for everything from drawing cash to buying dinner. Visa and MasterCard are more widely accepted than American Express for daily purchases. (Discover cards are not accepted in Britain.) All these organizations offer their card holders some very useful financial services. Check with each company for more information before you depart.
With an AmEx card and your passport, you can go into any American Express office and write a personal check (in $U.S.) using your checkbook from your checking account back home. You will receive a portion of your funds in local currency and can purchase travelers checks with the rest. Check with American Express to confirm whether these services are available to you. This is a simple way for your family to transfer money to you while abroad. Just leave deposit slips with your family and take your checkbook with you to Europe. Your family can also cable money to you through American Express. If you purchase American Express travelers checks, you can exchange them for free at AmEx offices throughout Britain.
You can go into any Visa-participating bank in Western Europe, present your Visa card, and draw immediate cash. The only snag is that you will incur interest charges from the first day.
MasterCard is readily accepted by almost all major banks across Western Europe and in tourist areas of the Eastern European countries. It may be used to draw either cash or MasterCard travelers checks. In addition, it is widely accepted by local merchants in Western Europe. You can request an International Directory outlining (by country) the scope of merchant acceptance, number of cash advance locations, and lists of banks which provide cash advance services from your service provider.
Credit card cash advances are considered loans, so interest is charged from the day the advance is made. If you are planning to take out cash advances with your credit cards while overseas, you may want to pay money into your account in advance to avoid finance charges which begin to accumulate as soon as the charge is reported to your card issuer.
Check with your credit card company about its policies on pre-payment and cash advances.
The drawbacks to credit cards
While you could certainly manage most of your financial affairs with an array of plastic, there are some very real drawbacks to total dependence on credit cards. Even with careful planning and strict adherence to a set budget plan, it is still frighteningly easy to overspend, and finance charges can add up quickly if you extend payment on goods or take out cash advances. Loss of the card causes severe inconvenience.
Obtaining a major credit card
The card you present overseas must be in your own name as given on your passport. At a cardholder's request (your family member), most major lenders will issue a dependent's card. Be sure that your family requests the additional card in time to have it come through before you leave and that it is ordered to be made out in your name as it appears on your passport.
Many lenders now issue credit cards to students whose families co-sign for the line of credit extended. These accounts usually have a limited line of credit. In any case, your family will have to pay your monthly bill while you are away. Many students report using an ATM for everyday cash and credit cards as backup.
Travelers checks can be helpful in case your wallet is lost or stolen, or for an initial monetary amount on opening a British bank account, but are not recommended for everyday use.
British Bank Accounts
Opening a bank account in Great Britain can be a lengthy and tedious process. Therefore, we recommend that students use their American account.
While it is possible to handle all of your money with an American ATM card or by the use of credit cards and travelers checks, some students (especially those who are in Britain for an entire academic year) opt to set up bank accounts. The one drawback to an account is that your deposits of anything other than travelers checks will take some time to clear, despite what your U.S. bank tells you. This should not be a problem as long as you allow ample time (4-6 weeks) for this process and have back-up resources in the form of travelers checks and/or a major credit card. There should be no waiting period if you use travelers checks to set up your account.
To open an account, you will have to provide a letter of reference from your home bank in the U.S., your Arcadia University certification of student status, your passport as adequate identification, a letter from your UK host institution, and proof of your UK residence.
Choosing a bank
We recommend that you wait until you are in Britain before opening an account. We advise students to open an account with a bank on campus or nearby that has an agreement with the university to handle overseas student accounts. It is extremely difficult for overseas students to open regular bank accounts unless they are dealing with branch offices that are experienced in providing bank services to this special clientele.
You can open a bank account with travelers checks, but for future transatlantic deposits, you may want to consider other options. Transferring money does take some time, but this delay can be shortened if your transfer is made in pounds sterling and if the draft (or cable) can be made out to include your account number at a specific bank, the complete bank branch address, and the bank's 6-digit sort code number.
One way to transfer funds is to purchase a bank draft (inter-bank check) made out in pounds sterling drawn on one of the major London banks. You should be able to obtain a sterling draft from any U.S. Federal Reserve Member Bank. If your own commercial bank at home does not issue sterling drafts, they ought to be able to arrange the purchase through a larger bank with whom they are linked to provide specialized services. The draft should be made "for deposit to the account of –(your name)–." The funds should clear and be credited to your account in about 3-4 weeks (or less). Once you are overseas and your account has been opened, the bank manager can tell you the best way to transfer additional funds from home.
Other kinds of checks
If you deposit any other kind of check (a $U.S. cashier's check or even a sterling draft drawn on an American bank in Britain), it could take as long as three to six weeks to clear and have the money credited to your account. This is because Bank of England regulations require that all signatures on foreign checks be validated prior to the release of the funds. A sterling draft drawn on a London bank can sometimes be negotiated more quickly because the reserves are in escrow and the signatories are known. Any other kind of check must be sent back to the U.S. for signature verification.
After you have established a bank account, funds can be cabled to you by your home bank. This method is fast (usually overnight), but carries a high service charge. In order to send money by wire transfer, your home bank will need the name and address of your UK bank branch, the sort code of the bank (6 digits), and your account number.
In an Emergency
When the program is in session, our London office makes emergency loans to students. Students must sign a promissory note and repay the loan as soon as they receive money from home. If you find yourself in dire financial straits while traveling, the State Department can help your family transfer money to you (provided you are a U.S. citizen). To do this, your family must wire money through Western Union or their bank, or send a cashier's check or money order to the State Department in Washington, DC. A trust account is established and a telegram is sent to the appropriate U.S. embassy or consulate abroad authorizing next workday disbursement to you.