In Britain I thought of banking as pretty much a commodity; there was little to choose between the high street banks. When I worked in Japan a few years ago I was surprised to encounter cash machines which could receive deposits, handled coins as well as notes, and allowed one to pay one’s bills. Ah, the wily Japanese.
My first impression of banking in Thailand was that it was primitive. Most accounts are passbook based and there are no monthly statements. Few people have chequebooks. And for foreigners debit and credit cards are very difficult to obtain. Even then, banks often demand a deposit of 100% or 200% of the credit card limit as security. (In fairness to the banks, in the past they’ve been badly hit by foreigners running up large debts then leaving the country.)
Online banking is a mixed bag. I can’t have internet access to my Krung Thai bank accounts – only Thai nationals can have that. The Bank of Ayudhya system is badly designed and parts of it (such as “set up a favourite account for transfers” plain just don’t work. And the transaction retention period is poor (though not as pathetic as Barclays in the UK, which keeps only a month’s worth of transactions online). On the other hand, there’s no stupid electronic card reader required to access your account and make transfers. (How, exactly, is a card reader a great security device when all the card readers in the UK are functionally the same? If a criminal has your card and your PIN then his/her not having your card reader isn’t going to protect your hard earned cash.) Rather, the Thai banks rely on something much closer to Thai people’s heart: the mobile ‘phone. Every time I make a transfer a security code is sent to my mobile ‘phone which needs to be entered on the website within a few minutes to complete the transaction.
My main Thai bank shows no interest in me. Even though I maintain a high balance and have had a few very large transactions passing through (car, house) they have never tried to offer me any additional services. I don’t even get a free calendar at New Year, and have never been offered a free bank-branded umbrella or patriotic flags to put outside my abode. So, when I saw that Bangkok Bank on its website was offering accounts to foreigners – even those visiting on holiday – including a Visa debit card I thought I’d give it a shot.
At the branch, the first reaction was “can’t do”, followed by “come back with a Thai person” when I persisted. However, when I showed them some material printed from their website they eventually relented. In the end the process was fairly painless.
So far I’m pretty happy. It saves the hassle of finding an ATM and withdrawing cash – particularly for larger transactions. And there were a couple of nice surprises: transferring money from an existing account to my new account was instantaneous. (Is the delay in the UK still three working days?) And now, every time I log on to my new account or a transaction takes place I get an email and/or text message (user’s choice). I think the UK banking system could learn something from the Thai banks.
Something else the UK banks could learn about is “interest”. I was rather taken aback to see a line on my December statement of “Interest and Tax Deducted” – zero pounds zero pence. It seems that some time ago Nationwide stopped paying interest on its current accounts – not that they actually did anything to bring this to people’s attention as far as I know. In contrast my Thai accounts pay 0.625% per annum – hardly earth-shattering, but better than nothing.