Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Trials and Tribulations of Feeless International Banking

2007 will be remembered as the year I opened three bank accounts and closed one. My Deutsche Bank account, the one I opened as a student in Frankfurt/Oder in 2003, required that I submit my current student registration data in order to keep my free account. Well, the jig was up October 1, and to avoid their 7 euro/month banking fee (banking fees are sooooooooooooooooo 1980!), I had to open an account at a different bank and close the DB account. While most banks in Germany claim to have "free" accounts these days, they're only free to people with a high minimum balance or a monthly transfer from a job. The jobless and penniless among us? We have to PAY to bank. Reminds me of that Philadelphia study on the high costs of being poor . . .

So I finally found a bank in Hamburg that would give me a free account AND a free Mastercard. That is like gold over here, where you also have to pay a yearly fee to have a credit card (paying for credit cards is soooooooooooooooooooooo 1980!). I was happy to throw off the bonds of Deutsche Bank and run into the welcoming arms of Sparda Bank. I transfered all my payments and notified all companies about my new account information.

Meanwhile, I opened an account with Bank of America, which is a large bank partnered internationally with Deutsche Bank. Their agreement allows me to withdraw money from ATMs at Deutsche Banks for free with my BofA ATM card. Since I'm currently living off my American funds, this saves me $5 every time I withdraw. My plan was to withdraw funds at Deutsche Bank, walk down the street and deposit them in Sparda Bank. Couldn't be simpler.

Then I got to Berlin. I went to my nearest Sparda Bank branch, seeking to deposit those euros into my account. They didn't have an ATM machine that allowed me to make deposits. Weird, I thought. I stood in line for the teller and asked her what I was supposed to do. She said, no problem, deposits are free. Then she entered my card number into her computer. "Oh, you're from Hamburg? You're right, it's not free. It will cost you 8 euros." I threw a little fit right there about what it meant to be a chain -- it doesn't do your customers much good if your branches don't actually perform basic services like deposits interregionally. I mean, you have to be kidding me, right? On top of that, there are NO Sparda Bank ATMs that accept deposits, none in Berlin, none in Hamburg. How could this even be?

So this meant I had to open ANOTHER bank account. I figured I'd keep it all within Sparda Bank, but then those Berlin tellers were snippy with me again when I told them why I needed the account and they wanted proof of income. So, this time I chose a new bank, norisbank, that had recently been purchased by Deutsche Bank and was advertising free accounts, no ifs, ands or buts. The major benefit of the norisbank account is that I can withdraw AND deposit money at Deutsche Bank as well, meaning I can take my BofA money out and deposit it into norisbank all at the same Deutsche Bank location, without paying Deutsche Bank any fees. Now I really stuck it to them, right?

Well, today I went online to transfer money from my primary bank, Wells Fargo, to my new BofA account, so that I could take out money (again free at Barclays) on my coming trip to London. And what do I discover? U.S. banks do not allow you to do free electronic transfers between bank accounts at different institutions. Say what? That is how European banking works. Everything is paperless and has been for ages. Why is the U.S. still in the Middle Ages of banking? The only way for me to get money from one U.S. banking account to another for free is TO WRITE MYSELF A CHECK and mail it to the other bank.

Someday, someday a golden age will dawn, where capital movements are truly free and banks will facilitate rather than hinder those flows. Until that day, I will be mailing myself checks made out to, signed and endorsed by me so that I can deposit money from one account in Minnesota to another in "Minnesota" to a third in Berlin, so that I can transfer it into my fourth account in Hamburg so I can pay my rent and eat.

See, this is what you miss by staying home!


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