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Challenger and mobile banks

Find out how the new wave of digital banks, such as Monzo, Starling and Revolut, are aiming to shake up the banking sector.

In this article
What is a challenger bank or mobile bank? Challenger banks and mobile banks: the benefits Starling Bank review Monzo Bank review Atom Bank review
Revolut review Loot review Monese review Nimbl review

What is a challenger bank or mobile bank?

The new wave of startup companies on the banking scene can't be found on the high-street – they're in your pocket. 

Buoyed by relaxed regulation and the growing shift of people using their phones to do their banking business, branchless, mobile-only banks are seeking to win customers from their more established rivals.

The term challenger bank is used to describe any bank that’s looking to challenge the big four in Britain – Barclays, Lloyds Banking Group (which includes Halifax, Lloyds Bank and Bank of Scotland), HSBC and RBS (which includes NatWest and Ulster Bank).

Established players, such as TSB, Virgin Money and Metro Bank, fall into this bracket, but for the purposes of this guide we’ll be looking to shine a light on the upstarts that offer mobile-only, branchless banking. 

 

 

 

Challenger banks and mobile banks: the benefits

The new banks we've analysed focus on modern design, personalisation, low fees and snappy customer service to tempt people in. 

They also feature real-time payment notifications, meaning you receive an alert every time there is some activity on your account. This not only make it easier to keep track of your spending, but you can also immediately spot if someone's using your account fraudulently. 

Most shy away from offering significant interest on current account balances or up-front switch incentives to make the likes of Tesco Bank or Santander sweat.

Their future will lie in your willingness to share your spending data with businesses that have partnered with these new banks, receiving deals based on your spending patterns and behaviour.

Find out more: Open banking – how to share your data with third parties securely

Starling Bank review

Starling Bank received a banking licence in July 2016, and launched the UK's first app-only current account in March 2017. Over 100,000 customers have signed up so far. 

The London-based firm has built its IT systems from the ground up, raising £48m to-date. 

It says that it has a strong focus on data and transparency and aims to woo people who are used to seeing their life in a dataset, similar to users of health-tracking watches Fitbit and Apple Watch.

Starling Bank offers a full current account, managed via its app, allowing you to set up direct debits and standing orders. 

You get instant notifications to your phone when you spend, and there are no fees for overseas spending or cash withdrawals.

The app also automatically categorises spending so you can see how much you’re spending on food, travel, coffee, beer, entertainment and bills, and tells you which retailers you've been spending. Its debit card is compatible with Apple and Android Pay

Starling is the only branchless bank to offer interest on current account balances, albeit a very modest 0.5% AER on balances up to £2,000 and 0.25% AER on balances above £2,000. 

The bank has also partnered up with peer-to-peer money transfer firm TransferWise, to enable you to send money overseas.

An overdraft of up to £5,000 is available, charged at 15% EAR. The app features a handy overdraft sliding scale tool, and explains how much it would cost to use your entire overdraft per day. 

Starling has also created a useful overdraft calculator comparing different banks' overdraft rates over seven, 30, 60 and 90 days. 

Starling Bank Marketplace allows you to sync up your bank account with third party services so that you can manage all of your financial products in one place:

  • Flux - digitises your receipts (at participating retailers) and allows you to access them through your Starling Bank app.
  • Habito - a digital mortgage broker.
  • Kasko - travel insurance in partnership with AXA.
  • Moneybox - rounds up your debit card spending to the nearest £1 and adds the change to a stocks and shares Isa, or Junior Isa.
  • PensionBee - a digital pension provider.
  • Tail - offers cashback and rewards from retailers local to you when you buy using your Starling account.
  • WealthSimple - an online investment company.
  • Yolt - see all your bank accounts in one place, using open banking.
  • Yoyo Wallet - collect points and rewards when you shop at participating retailers using your Starling account.

There's no waiting list anymore. Once you've downloaded the Starling app from the official Android or iPhone app store to your smartphone, setting up an account will take less than five minutes.  

You'll be asked to pop in a one-time verification code (sent by text to your phone) and tell the bank your name, date of birth, email address and current home addres. 

Next, you'll be asked to record a short video of yourself saying a simple phrase and supply a photo of your passport or driving licence.

Starling will then send your new debit card through the post within 2-3 business days.

You can chat to the bank on its app, via email, desktop live chat or on Twitter.

As with Monzo, instant notifications make it easier to notice fraudulent transactions and you can lock your card instantly within the app if it's missing. 

Android users can switch location-based protection on (to prevent fraudulent payments where the location of the card and the app don't match). 

Starling has also gone a step further than its rival, allowing users to toggle on and off in-store contactless or chip and Pin payments, ATM withdrawals, online payments and mobile wallet payments. 

If you lose your phone, Starling says it can block the app on that specific device. You can then use a new phone to download the app and log in to your account.  

Starling Bank is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) and authorised by Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) so up to £85,000 of your money is protected by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme.

Monzo Bank review

East London-based Monzo Bank got the word out through hackathons and asking tech ‘influencers’ to share its app via word of mouth and Twitter. 

It says more than 500,000 people are registered for its current account and using its 'hot coral' debit cards. 

Originally, Monzo offered a contactless prepaid Mastercard linked to its smartphone app but existing users are steadily being upgraded to a Monzo current account.

As a current account customer you get a Monzo debit card as well as an account number and sort code so that they can have their salary paid in and set up direct debits, standing orders and any other bill payments. 

You can also move money into your account using another debit card; by making a bank transfer; or through Apple Pay and Android Pay. All Monzo users can send money instantly to other Monzo customers in their phone contacts list.

The app provides a 'spending report' every month showing you where you've spent your money. And you get an instant notification every time you use your card, as payments clear much faster compared to traditional banks.

There are no fees to pay with your card abroad or make online transactions in a foreign currency. 

ATM withdrawals are also fee-free anywhere in the world up to a limit of £200 per month – on 18 December 2017 the bank introduced a 3% fee if you take out more than this in any given month. 

Like Starling, Monzo collaborates with other tech firms to offer additional services through its app. We explain how sharing your data works in our open banking guide. 

Goals for the Marketplace include energy switching, cashback, savings accounts, peer-to-peer investments, and mortgages. Two partnerships already in place are: 

  • Emma – a money-management app that helps you avoid overdraft fees, find and cancel subscriptions, and save money.
  • Moneybox – an investment app that rounds up your purchases to the nearest £1 and invests that spare change into one of three tracker funds in a stocks and shares Isa, or Junior Isa.

If you've never used Monzo before, you'll need to download the app and join a waiting list of up to two weeks. 

Once you're invited to sign-up, setting up the account should only take a few minutes – you'll be asked for a copy of photo ID (passport or driving licence) and a five second video of yourself to verify your identity.

Existing prepaid card users have all been invited to upgrade (check the app for the invitation), which should only take a few minutes. Your accounts will be merged so that your spending data and balance moves across seamlessly. 

You don't have to do this immediately, although Monzo is planning to close all prepaid accounts by 4th April 2018 so your card will stop working then.

Instant notifications help you respond to unauthorised payments quickly, and you can temporarily freeze your card via the app (if you've lost it) to prevent anyone else from using it. 

As with other banks, Monzo must refund unauthorised transactions if you’ve been the victim of a genuine fraud, as long as you haven't been careless. 

Turning the location-based security feature on (iPhone only) adds another layer of security. For instance, if your phone is at home and someone tries to pay using your account abroad, the payment should be blocked. 

By default, magstripe ATM withdrawals are disabled to prevent ‘skimming’ (details can be copied from the black stripe on the back of your card using devices attached to legitimate machines), though it can be temporarily enabled. 

Almost all UK cash machines use chip and Pin to validate your identity, but in other countries they use the magnetic stripe to authorise withdrawals.

For lost or stolen phones, Monzo has told Which? it's planning to create an online portal for emergency payments and transfers. 

In the meantime, we would recommend that you maintain an alternative current account so that you can still access money if something goes wrong with your phone, the Monzo app, or your Monzo card. 

Monzo current accounts are protected by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) up to the sum of £85,000. 

Monzo prepaid cards don't qualify for FSCS-protection, although your money is ringfenced and backed by Wirecard, so if Monzo goes bankrupt your money is protected.

Atom Bank review

The Durham-based online bank is co-founded by the former chairman of Metro Bank and the former CEO of First Direct. 

For now, it only offers fixed-rate savings accounts and a digital mortgage broker service. 

It's raised almost £400m from investors, backed by Spanish Bank BBVA (with a 39% stake), Woodford Investment Management and Toscafund.

Atom Bank offers savings accounts and mortgages.

It's fixed-rate accounts range from one to five years, with rates regularly appearing at the top of the Which? Money Compare savings tables. And you don’t need much to get going as all accounts require a deposit of £50 with a maximum of £100,000 allowed. You can also decide if you want to be paid the interest monthly or annually. 

Atom also offers mortgages through its broker service, which you can access via its app. 

A current account is also on the cards, but not until 2019. Once that hits the market, you’ll be able to set up direct debits, use an overdraft and have your salary paid into the account.

The bank told Which? it has no plans to offer instant-access savings, although it hasn't ruled this out in the future.

Once you've downloaded the app, it takes about 5 minutes to set up an account. To start, you’ll need to verify your identity via the app with a selfie and by repeating a simple phrase into your phone’s microphone. You don’t need to supply any paper documents such as a passport or proof or address.

You can talk to Atom via its Live Chat function on the app, on the phone, via email or through Twitter.

Once you’ve paid money into your Atom savings account, you can’t withdraw it until the end of your product term, except in cases of financial hardship, so it's highly unlikely that anyone could make a fraudulent withdrawal.

It's important that Atom protects your identity though – and it does this by registering the devices you use (so that it recognises your phone or tablet) and using biometric technology (your voice and face) to secure the app. 

All money stored in an Atom Bank savings accounts is protected by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, up to £85,000.

Revolut review

Set up by a Credit Suisse equity analyst and a former Deutsche bank app developer in July 2015, Revolut is aiming to shake up the travel exchange market.

Revolut claims its rates save customers 3% to 5% because it uses the 'Spot Interbank' exchange rate, the wholesale exchange rate. The firm is thought to be worth £300m and claims over 500,000 UK users (over a million across Europe). 

You have two options: the basic Revolut card or Premium, both of which are prepaid debit cards:

Revolut's basic card

Hold and exchange up to 26 currencies in the app and spend on your Revolut card in 120 currencies.

Baisc cardholders can spend, transfer and exchange up to £5,000/€6,000 in total every month (a 0.5% fee applies after this) and ATM withdrawals are free up to £200 a month, then 2%.

As with Monzo and Starling, app features include bill splitting functionality; a spending summary; and real-time notifications of transactions. 

To load your account with money, you can set up auto top-ups from your current account. You can also have your salary paid in, using your 

But, you can’t set up direct debits or standing orders via Revolut, so this has less functionality that Starling and Monzo Bank, which offer a full current account. 

Revolut's Premium card

For those who send and transfer money abroad more frequently than most people, you can sign up to Revolut Premium which costs £6.99 a month, or £72 a year. 

This allows for unlimited spending, a more generous £400 cash withdrawal limit and overseas medical insurance thrown in.

It’s worth knowing that Revolut applies a minor mark up on its rates at the weekend of 0.5%- 1.5% as the markets are closed.

Additional Revolut products

Revolut has been developing its products and features quickly, largely through partnerships with other firms:

  • Lending Works peer-to-peer loans ranging from £500 up to £25,000 repaid over 12 to 60 months.
  • Simplesurance phone or device cover from 90p per week;
  • Thomas Cook Group pay-per-day medical and dental travel insurance from £1 per day or fixed at £30 for an annual policy; 
  • Hold, exchange and transfer in cryptocurrency via the Bitstamp cryptocurrency exchange (Premium only for now) with a 1.5% fee.

Future plans include an integrated investment platform that will allow customers to invest large sums or their spare change into stocks and bonds. 

To sign up, you don't need to supply proof of address, go through a credit check or pay a trip to a high street bank branch. But it will cost you £5 to order a card to a UK address (£12 for express delivery). 

The Premium card comes with free express delivery. Once you have the card you can start using it in 30 seconds.

Revolut has a 'chatbot' called Rita to answer commonly asked questions, as well as live-chat on the app and via Twitter. If the chatbot can’t help, you'll be transferred to a Revolut customer service 

The tech firm is planning to expand Rita’s capabilities so you can get useful answers to more specific questions such as ‘How much did I spend on beer last month?’ or ‘How much do I spend on Uber?’. 

If your card is lost or stolen, you can block the card via in-app support, or over the phone.

Revolut users can opt-in to location-based security to prevent fraudulent transactions e.g. if you and your phone are in Germany and a transaction is attempted in Hong Kong with your card details, it should stop this payment from going through.

You can also enable or disable your physical Revolut card in a single tap if it's lost or stolen. Other features that can be instantly turned on and off in-app include ATM withdrawals, online payments, contactless and magstripe payments.

Unlike Atom, Monzo and Starling, Revolut isn't a bank, so your money isn't protected by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme but all customer money is held in ring-fenced client accounts with Barclays or Lloyds which means your money can’t be lent out by the bank. 

In the event of an insolvency, you would be able to claim your funds from this segregated account. 

Revolut applied for a European banking licence in 2017, so once this is in place (expected in the first half of 2018) funds will be protected up to €100,000 under the European Deposit Protection Scheme.

Loot review

Not to be confused with the popular classified magazine of the 90's, Loot was set up by 22-year-old Ollie Purdoe and was originally geared towards students who wanted to know how long their loan would last them.

It reportedly has over 50,000 users. 

Loot isn't a bank, but its prepaid Mastercard does come with a sort code and account number, which allows you to make and receive payments, including your salary. 

There is no overdraft facility and Loot doesn't yet support direct debits. Loot is planning to group spending into categories, in a similar way to Starling and Monzo, and offer cashback at various retailers. It's also creating a feature which allows you to compare your spending against other users so you can see if you’re spending more on coffee than the average person.

The app takes five minutes to set up and you need to send a photo of yourself, your ID/Passport and your proof of address. You can message Loot using the in app-chat. 

Real-time notifications help you track your spending and spot fraudulent or unauthorised payments. 

If you spot a transaction you don't recognise, you can freeze your card in the app. You can also block and unblock your card if it’s lost or stolen.

The account isn't covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme, but your money is ring-fenced and backed up by Wirecard. 

You would be able to claim your funds from this segregated account if Loot were to go bust. 

Monese review

Dubbed 'banking for migrants,' Monese was founded by Nunis Keppel after he realised he couldn’t get a bank account as an Estonian immigrant. The bank is on a mission to remove as many hurdles as possible from setting up a bank account in the UK.

Monese isn’t technically a bank so it can’t make loans, invest money or provide interest. But, it does let you open a bank account without a UK address, providing you with a sort code and account number so that you can set-up direct debits and make or receive payments.

Different benefits and fees apply depending on whether you choose the 'Starter' or 'Plus' account: 

Monese Starter

If you want a Monese debit card you'll be charged a one-off fee of £4.95/€4.95 (depending on whether you choose to run a UK or a Euro account as your primary account). 

You can also pay in cash via the Post Office, which costs 2%  per transaction with a £2 minimum, or at Paypoint locations, which costs 3.5% with a £3 minimum. In both cases, you can only deposit £500 per day.

ATM cash withdrawals are £1/1€ each. When you make international bank transfers, card transactions or withdrawals, your money is converted at the Mastercard wholesale exchange rate plus 2% of the transaction value (minimum £2/€2 at an ATM). 

Monese Plus

For a monthly fee of £4.95, you benefit from a free Monese debit card; 10 free ATM cash withdrawals every month (then £1/1€ each) and cheaper cash deposits (£1 at the Post Office and 2.5% with no minimum at Paypoint locations). 

Monese also reduces currency exchange fees to 0.5% (minimum fee £2/€2) for international bank transfers and 0.5%-0.75% for card spending and ATM usage abroad, with no minimum. 

It takes around 5 minutes to set up the mobile app via IOS or Android, but Windows phones aren’t supported). You take a video ‘selfie’, say a short sentence, take a photo of your passport and fill in a few basic details. To set up an account, you don’t need a fixed income, proof of address or a good credit history. Mind you, it says over 50,000 people are on its waiting list so you’ll have to wait a couple of weeks to be approved.

You can chat to Monese via its Estonia-based customer support line (this is routed through a Manchester number so you don’t pay anything), on the app itself, via email and its Twitter page. If you call up, there's usually a waiting time of around 4-5 minutes.

Real-time notifications are sent to your smartphone app when you spend. You can block your card in-app if you notice an unusual transaction or lose your card. 

Monese is licensed as an Electronic Money Institution, not a bank, so you can't claim from the Financial Services Compensation Scheme. But, Monese must keep all customer money separate to its own finances, so if it goes bust, you should get your money back.

Nimbl review

Available for 8-18 year olds, Nimbl allows parents to track their child’s spending, while incentivising small savings each month, all in the name of a healthy financial future.

Nimbl’s prepaid card, linked to an app, allows parents to track their children’s spending and set spending limits through its app. It claims that using its app will promote financial responsibility among children. 

The card costs £15 a year (you get one month free for up to four Nimbl cards). To replace a lost or stolen card it costs £5. Cash withdrawals cost 49p each in the UK (the first withdrawal is free).

To sign up and receive a contactless prepaid card, you fill in some basic contact details online and your child’s name, which takes up to 10 working days to arrive. 

You can call Nimbl from 8am-8pm weekly and Saturdays, or email/Tweet them with any issues.

Payments to registered age-inappropriate bookmakers, casinos and off-licences are blocked, although Nimbl can't prevent payments at permitted retailers such as supermarkets. 

Parents get real-time notifications to their phone to see how much the child is spending, where they’re spending and where they are. If the card goes missing, it can be locked remotely through the app.

As with the other non-banks in our list, Nimbl can't lend your money out and isn't covered by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme

Instead, all of the money stored in your account is backed by e-money regulations and ring-fenced in a Barclays account.