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3 Dec 2020

British expats left with few options as more UK banks confirm Brexit account closures

Brits in the EU are finding it hard to know which banks will continue to operate in which countries

An increasing number of British citizens living in EU countries are being told their UK bank accounts will be closed after the Brexit withdrawal period ends on 31 December 2020.

We last covered this topic at the beginning of October, when the majority of UK banks we spoke to said they were not planning to close any accounts - however, this situation seems to have changed.

Here, we reveal the experiences some British expats have had with their banks, and explore what the alternatives are if UK banking providers can no longer operate in your country of residence.

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'I need my UK account to pay for my elderly mother's shopping'

The first, Fiona, a 49-year-old skipper living in the Netherlands, heard of the forthcoming Brexit banking changes was when she received a letter from The Co-operative Bank saying her account - which she's held for more than 30 years - was being closed at the end of the year.

'I got it on 10 November, though it's dated in October,' she says.

The letter states: 'We've recently been advised by the Dutch National Bank that we'll no longer be permitted to provide cross border deposit accounts for Dutch retail customers from 31 December. As our records show that you currently reside in the Netherlands, we'll no longer be permitted to provide you with current or savings account products or services.'

This comes as a blow to Fiona, who hasn't lived in the UK for more than 20 years and has held the same bank account since she was a teenager.

'It's the only UK bank account I've ever had,' she told Which?. 'I've had it since I was at school when I got my first Saturday job. And it's followed me through Germany; it's followed me here to the Netherlands.'

Fiona had previously heard about Lloyds Banking Group closing accounts for some of its EU customers, and checked her bank's website in early October. 'At the time I looked, the Co-op Bank said they had no plans to change anything. I read it was to do with the different license that banks have - and me, you know, not knowing anything about how banks are set up across different countries, I thought, OK, the Co-op bank has something set up in the Netherlands and we'll be covered by the Dutch license.

'And then you get a letter like this five or six weeks before the end of the year.'

Fiona says it's been difficult to find advice for alternative banking options: 'I only know one other English person in the Netherlands, that's it,' she says. 'I have Dutch friends, and I work in Dutch - I don't hang out with other British people so I have no idea what's going on. So I'm now spending my time looking on a Facebook group for expats, and everyone's having the same problem.'

It's particularly worrying for Fiona as she currently uses her UK bank account to buy groceries for her elderly mother, who still lives in the UK. 'She doesn't go to the shops any more as she has to get the bus, so I do her shopping for her,' she explains. 'I get her Sainsbury's shopping delivered - anything she needs I pay for with my UK bank account.'

Without it, Fiona is looking at a u20ac6 charge each time she pays someone in the UK from her Dutch bank account.

'Lack of time to make the switch'

We also heard from a Which? member who has been living in France for around 25 years has also seen his bank account closed.

He didn't want us to name his provider, but he has held an account with them for the past 33 years and received a letter dated 27 October 2020 to say his account would be closed on 31 December.

The reason behind the bank's decision to close the account was stated: 'The UK's withdrawal from the EU has led to prevailing uncertainty around whether UK banks are permitted to offer banking services in your current country of residence.

'This means that, regrettably, the accounts will be closed after the end of the transition period, on 31 December 2020.'

He's kept his UK account open to use when he visits his home country, and as an option in case he chooses to move back to the UK in future. He's in the process of finding an alternative banking provider, but told Which? he feels 'a little pushed respecting the lack of appropriate time to do so'.

Which UK banks are closing accounts?

When we asked the biggest UK providers at the beginning of October whether they had any plans to close accounts for customers living in the EU, the vast majority said they didn't, but that the situation was being 'monitored'.

Here's the latest from the major providers:

  • Barclays is closing accounts for customers in Belgium, Estonia, Italy and Slovakia who don't have a UK address.
  • Barclaycard customers in all European Economic Area (EEA) countries will have their cards cancelled if they haven't linked their accounts to a UK address.
  • Danske Bank customers in the EU will all see their bank accounts closed - with the exception of those in Republic of Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden.
  • Lloyds Banking Group, including Bank of Scotland, Halifax and Lloyds Bank, has confirmed it is closing accounts for customers based in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Republic of Ireland and Slovenia.
  • Nationwide is closing accounts in the Netherlands and Italy.
  • Santander isn't closing accounts at this time, but non-UK residents can no longer open accounts with the bank, and existing customers won't be granted new requests for new or increased overdraft limits, credit card limits or additional cardholders.
  • The Co-operative Bank is closing accounts in the Netherlands.

If you're concerned about whether or not your UK provider will continue to operate in the country you're living in, it's best to check its website regularly for any updates.

Why are some bank accounts being closed?

Closing customers' accounts is usually a last resort for banks, but it has become necessary in some cases due to Brexit and the fact that the UK will no longer be part of the European Economic Area (EEA) after 31 December.

Where UK banks had been able to use the same regulatory framework for all EEA companies under an arrangement known as 'passporting', this will no longer be possible after the Brexit transition period is over without a specific arrangement as part of a withdrawal deal.

This means UK banks have to make sure they operate within the various regulatory frameworks of each EU country in order to continue to serve any customers living there; being able to do so is very complicated, and depends on the types of products on offer, the bank's business model and the regulator's rules in each country.

It's regulatory rules that have seen The Co-operative Bank write to around 600 of its customers living in the Netherlands to say their bank accounts would be closing after 31 December 2020.

It said the closures were a direct result of an announcement made by the Dutch Central Bank on 6 October 2020, which said: 'UK credit institutions can no longer provide cross-border deposit-taking services to Dutch retail customers after the Brexit transition period.'

What help or support is available if your account is closed?

The stories we've heard paint an understandably worrying picture for UK expats in the EU, but according to advice from banking body UK Finance, the majority of people living in EEA countries should not be affected by bank account closures. However, it does also note that this is an evolving situation and is subject to change.

If you're living in the EU and have your bank account closed by your UK provider, there are a number of options that might suit you - but it depends on your circumstances and what kind of financial ties you have in the UK.

  • Try a different UK bank or provider: just because your bank can no longer provide its services where you live, that doesn't necessarily mean others can't. It's best to go for providers where you can apply and have your identity verified online.
  • Consider an electronic account or prepaid card: providers such as TransferWise offer options if you need to spend cash in multiple currencies - but, be aware, it's not a bank, and therefore doesn't offer services like overdrafts, and your money won't be protected by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS).
  • Get a local account: if you are a legal resident in the EU country you live in, you're entitled to open a basic bank account. However, it's unlikely these kinds of accounts will be able to deal with regular Sterling transactions, and they may charge fees and conversion charges for transactions made between an account in the UK and another in the EEA.