A guide to new world of banking and finance – direct banks, international transfers, mobile wallets, crypto exchanges, and other online investing platforms
I often grumble about the high fees associated with international banking when travelling abroad (especially with Australian banks), so I’ve been looking around at banking alternatives.
Changing bank accounts is not something do very often – once every few years on average. Having researched what is now available I’ve got to say I’m excited about the digital banking revolution that is sweeping the financial sector.
No doubt the incumbent banks have relied on the inertia of customers like me to not bother moving accounts. I’ve had an account of one variety or another with the same Australian bank I had at high school, mainly because the alternatives weren’t much better. With new banking alternatives available, I’m ready for change.
Every traveller, digital nomad, expat – anyone who travels – should also be reassessing their current banking set up.
One of the most promising developments for frequent travellers is the the rise of direct banks.
A direct bank (AKA virtual banks, digital banks, mobile banks, or internet-only banks) is a bank without any branch network. Instead, account applications and transactions are done online. Many of these banks only operate on mobile, so a smart phone is required.
These “challenger banks” are disrupting the mainstream financial world, providing a genuine alternative to banking as we know it. They are differentiating themselves by offering no ATM fees abroad, real exchange rates, and lower international fees on transfers and purchases.
And to make things more interesting, some of these direct banks are now offering accounts that hold fiat and cryptocurrency. We are living in a time which is seeing a transformation of how we bank.
This article is focussing on what are the best direct banks, mobile wallets, and other innovative finance products beyond the familiar accounts. I’ve left out traditional banks, even though there are some with great banking products. For example Schwab is a popular bank among US nomads, and I use a Citibank Australia debit card which has no international transaction fees. I will continue to use this account as I am happy with it, while migrating my other accounts to the options presented below.
I was originally going to make a separate post for different countries, but as this is a blog post about international banking then it should all be represented together.
I’ve made this post as an informative list of alternative banking options. There is no one best bank account for travel as everyone will have different needs and uses.
I’ve also included some online finance and investment platforms that I use, and I will continue to expand and edit this post when I review more direct banking and finance options.
Initially when I started compiling this list I was sorting banks into categories: Traditional Banks, Virtual Banks, Digital Wallets, and Crypto Banks. It became apparent that these banks are becoming a hybrid bank that offer multiple services. After the crypto boom of 2017 some of the virtual/direct banks are now offering fiat and crypto currencies in the one account. I expect that more online banks will offer this as crypto becomes mainstream.
Some of these new banks are brands of established banks, while some are FinTech startups new to the banking and finance scene. With that in mind a factor to consider is if the bank has a government-backed deposit insurance. For example Nemea Bank was an online bank from Malta that went under administration in 2017, which was covered by a Depositor Compensation Scheme.
I’ve listed global and regional banks first, and then country-specific accounts. None of these are sponsored links, some have affiliate links, and I will indicate which ones I have an account with or have applied to.
N26 is a German direct bank that offers its services to select Eurozone countries (and soon the US). I’ve also read about people opening accounts by having a postal address in Europe (ie sending it to a friends place). The N26 bank account and Mastercard is a bank account for your phone. You get an IBAN and can do everything you can do with a traditional bank.
Revolut is an online bank that offers a free UK current account and free Euro IBAN account. Get interbank FX rates and free bank transfers in 25 currencies. The account also lets you buy and exchange cryptocurrency instantly (Bitcoin, Ether and Litecoin) at competitive exchange rates.
I’ve applied for this under my Australian number and I’m on the waiting list.
Monaco is a crypto bank based in Zug, Switzerland (known as Crypto Valley). Monaco has issued its own token (MCO) which is based on Ethereum, and your account is issued with a free visa card which offers real exchange rates on purchases.
Depending on what card option you pick, you can earn cashback in MCO on every transaction, which can be converted to BTC/ETH or fiat currencies.
I’ve applied for this but there were over 30,000 applications in the queue when I joined, so I will report back when I have an account. You need to sign up via the mobile app and have an associated phone number. Use my signup code and get $10 on your account. Sign up here.
Bankera is a digital bank with traditional banking services that will support cryptocurrencies and fiat currencies. It bills itself as “banking for the blockchain era”. In addition to being a cryptocurrency exchange it will offer familiar banking products, such as IBAN accounts, payment cards and payment processing.
This is one of the new wave of virtual banks that is positioning itself as a crypto bank that also holds currency. Bankera has issued tokens by initial coin offering called Bankers (BNK).
Change is a blockchain-based mobile finance app. This virtual/hybrid bank plans to aggregate financial services on one platform, enabling payments, transfers, and investments worldwide. In 2017 the CAG token was released, and traditional currencies such as USD, EUR, and GBP will be added in 2018.
Change has offices in Estonia and Singapore, and has partnered with the e-Residency initiative by the government of Estonia.
TenX is a crypto startup based in Singapore that makes virtual currencies spendable anywhere as you travel using the TenX wallet, app, and debit card. A banking licence is forthcoming so sign up for updates.
If you want to see the future of mobile payments, go to China. It’s not an exaggeration to say that cash is becoming extinct in China. Even humble street food carts have a scan code for paying by mobile, and WeChat Pay has become one of the digital wallets of choice.
If you are travelling to China then get the WeChat messaging app set up before you go. It’s also the messaging and social network app of choice (Facebook and Twitter are blocked in China). You also get the bonus of being spied on by the Chinese government.
Neat is a virtual bank based in Hong Kong, denominated in Hong Kong Dollars. Opening a Hong Kong bank account used to be a simple affair that practically anyone could do. Now with more stringent Know Your Customer (KYC) rules, opening a Hong Kong bank account as a foreigner is much harder.
If you are moving to Hong Kong and need an account set up quickly, or if you just want an account for HKD then this is a simple solution. And even Americans can apply for this account (as opposed to some HK banks which are not accepting American applicants).
I applied via the mobile app and I got a notification that my card was being sent the next day. My Neat MasterCard arrived in Australia a week later.
Coins.ph is a mobile wallet from the Philippines which stores Philippine peso and bitcoin. With this app you can pay bills, receive payments, withdraw from ATM’s, and buy and sell bitcoin.
I work with outsourcers based in the Philippines so I would like to see this become a popular alternative to Paypal.
coins.co.th is the Thai version of Coins.ph. If you are planing to spend an extended time in Thailand it maybe worth getting this to save on bank fees. ATM fees are quite high (180 Baht on average) which soon adds up if you are living there. You can also buy and sell bitcoin with your account.
Monzo is a UK-based online bank which is accessed via your smartphone app. Monzo received their full UK banking licence from the FCA and PRA in April 2017, and so far over 400,000 customers have signed up.
Simple is a US-based mobile banking service (for U.S. citizens over 18 years of age, with a Social Security number). Banking is done via mobile only, and a Simple Visa Card is issued for free.
Zero is mobile banking that combines debit-style functionality with the rewards of a credit card. Earn 3% cash back on purchases, and zero of the fees traditional banks charge.
TransferWise allows you to transfer money between countries with the real exchange rate, with a small transfer fee. TransferWise also have a borderless account, which is a multi-currency account that lets you keep money in 28 currencies, and convert between them at the real exchange rate whenever you need. You also get your own personal account numbers and bank codes for USD, GBP, EUR and AUD.
I have an account with TransferWise, and now that the borderless accounts have been added I will be promoting this to clients as a preferred payment method over Paypal.
Payoneer provides online money transfer and digital payment services. This service is popular with freelancers and affiliate marketers that don’t have a US bank account. You can withdraw funds to your local bank or at ATMs worldwide with your Payoneer card.
Payeer is an online e-wallet where you can send instant electronic transfer e-mail address or registered Payeer accounts. Payeer also have a Prepaid Debit Card.
I have signed up for this but I haven’t been verified yet. They wanted a photo of a paper statement of proof of residency. As I no longer have paper statements I will have to wait to reapply. For an online payment service, relying on paper for proof of address seems against the spirit of modern banking.
I’ve included cryptocurrency on this roundup as it is a useful form of payment and transferring for international travellers. As we have seen in the virtual banks section, cryptocurrency is seeping into mainstream acceptance as a form of payment and store of value.
Even if you think that the Bitcoin price is a bubble, cryptocurrency and blockchain technology is here to stay. You don’t want to be that guy who said that the internet will fail. Rather than dismissing cryptocurrency completely, it’s worth becoming crypto literate. This is a large topic that goes beyond the scope of this post, so spend some time to research if you are not up to speed with the crypto world.
Cryptocurrency as it stands now is like being back at the early days of the internet. The leading cryptocurrencies now might be like the Netscape of the early nineties and replaced completely in a few years by something else.
Continuing with the mid-nineties analogy, the cryptocurrency exchange market resembles the early internet in that there is no dominant brand like Google or Amazon yet, which is probably a good thing.
There there are hundreds of exchanges operating so the best thing to do is to open a few different accounts and see which one works for you. Some accounts take weeks to verify and some altcoins are only available on selected exchanges, so you will end up with several different accounts.
This section is a list of some prominent cryptocurrency exchanges. Recommended crypto currencies and how to store crypto offline is another story beyond the purpose of this post.
Binance is a centralised crypto exchange based in Hong Kong that offers coin to coin exchange. It has a wide range of alt-coins, and they have their own token token (BNC) which can be used for discounted trading fees.
SpectroCoin offers a fiat and virtual currency exchange with more than 20 currency options and multiple ways to make a deposit. SpectroCoin also offer a prepaid cards, which can be used at ATMs or as a debit card. Cards can be denominated in dollars (USD), euros (EUR), or pounds (GBP).
While we’re on the analogy of Crypto as being in the mid-90’s, Coinbase is like the AOL of the early internet. They have made buying Bitcoin easy to understand for the general non-techie public, just as AOL made getting email easy in the early days. If you haven’t got an account you can get $10 added to your account with your first trade of $100 or more with this referral link: Join Coinbase here.
For Australian and UK residents, CoinJar is a simple way to buy, sell and spend bitcoin. I signed up and it is indeed very simple compared to other crypto exchanges.
Changelly is a cryptocurrency exchange that facilitates exchanges between digital currencies. It has a decent list of alt coins where you can convert Bitcoin. It doesn’t provide conversion to or from traditional currencies so you need to buy BTC/ETH somewhere else first then transfer it over.
LocalBitcoins.com facilitates the locating of other Bitcoin holders to buy and sell from. This is a more private way of trading if you prefer not to register your personal details at an exchange.
BullionVault is the world’s largest online investment gold service. Bars are stored in recognised bullion storage facilities in Zurich, London, New York, Toronto, and Singapore (you choose where to store). You can buy and sell any amount from 1 gram with low transaction commissions and storage fees. Gold bought at BullionVault is vaulted gold (also called allocated gold), so the gold is 100% outright owned by the gold investor. I have had an account with BullionVault since 2006.
Vaultoro is a vaulted gold service where you can buy and sell gold with bitcoin. The bullion is 100% allocated gold secured under your name, as your property, held off Vaultoro’s balance sheet. I have also opened an account here.
I’ve left credit cards out of this list as that is a post in itself and cards varies by country. If you are from the US then playing the travel hacking game with credit cards is a worthy pursuit, but not so much for everyone else.
I’m reassessing my credit card situation from my Australian banks. Credit cards are useful as an instant line of credit for emergencies or a tight cash flow situation, but they are expensive if you don’t manage them right.
I have a Westpac Qantas card which costs $150 a year to keep, plus it charges 3% surcharge on international purchases. For every $1000 I spend overseas I incur $30 in charges, and those purchases earn between 500 to 1000 points. A one way flight from Melbourne to Sydney is 8000 points, and a flight on Qantas can be found for under $100. If I am only earning points on international spends then it doesn’t work out in my favour.
Most people get value from these cards from the signup bonuses, which offer a lump of points (for example 50,000 points after spending $2000 in 3 months) and no sign up fee for a year. After the first year you then cancel the card move on to the next one.
Once I get some of the new credit cards from the direct/crypto banks I will make a comparison.
The Future of digital banking and finance
While I was compiling this report I opened several bank accounts to test out the process. One of the biggest stumbling blocks is continually having to prove your identity, often with archaic identification methods (like paper statements).
This is a problem that might be solved by blockchain technology. One startup looking into solving this problem is SelfKey, which is a blockchain based digital identity system that allows you own and manage your digital identity and instantly apply for services. (I bought SelfKey tokens).
I’m adding an extra disclosure here because no doubt I will be getting plenty of link requests for this one.
The products listed are presented as an informative directory and not an editorial endorsement. I am not paid for reviews and I don’t accept paid link placements. I don’t have any involvement with the companies listed. I’m not a financial advisor so do your own research before making investments. Some of these links include affiliate links, which may earn me a commission at no extra cost to you.