In which I get hands-on experience with Transferwise’s new Borderless account and its accompanying Mastercard debit card, spending less money for more value when traveling abroad.

Beating the Bullies of Banking

1094 words about technology — 07:00 · 17th Jun 2018

A few years ago I needed to send some money (GBP to EURO) to a friend in Finland.

Because I bank with Barclays, I walked into a branch and said, “Hello, I’d like to send €50 to a friend.”

“We’d be happy to transfer €50 for you. That’ll be an additional £25 in transaction fees,” they said with no sene of shame.

“Go fuck yourselves,” I replied and stormed out, stealing as many ballpoint pens as I could in the process.

Thieving bastards.

Unhappy with the extortionate fees Barclays wanted to charge I decided to look for alternatives.

TransferWise is an Estonian developed and UK-based money transfer service, developed by friends Taavet and Kristo who were tired of paying banks just to convert their money.

Disclaimer: I’m not sponsored by TransferWise to write this entry. I’m just quite impressed by their service.

Transferwise display their fee upfront and deducts it before conversion, making sure you know exactly how much you’re paying and how much your recipient gets.

I signed up, told them how much money I wanted to send to my friend—I only needed to provide an email for the recipient, leaving him to choose where he wanted to money to go.

At an exchange rate of 1.35690, it cost me £39.10 to send him €50.

Whereas with Barclays it would have cost me £62.73, despite a better exchange rate of 1.32521 at the time.

Now, normally, the story would finish here.

Fast-forward to a month ago.

Having just booked a trip to Finland to visit friends and family I decided to get a hands-on experience with Transferwise’s new Borderless account and its accompanying Mastercard debit card.

I already knew the thieving fees Barclays likes to charge and I figured this couldn’t be much worse than that, right?

Not only that, until recently all banks—now all but one—in the UK use their own exchange rates to hide the cost of the transactions, instead of the mid-market exchange rate.

The mid-market rate is the exchange rate you get from Google and XE.

Becoming a Borderless boss

First launched in May 2017, Transferwise’s Borderless account is a new online banking account aimed at people who need to conduct business across borders and in multiple currencies, and not lose money in bad exchange rates.

They launched a Mastercard debit card in January 2018 to use their Borderless account in 28 currencies.

Ordering my card was a case of choosing what currency to activate—you get EUR, GBP, US, AUD for free. Adding 20 EUR to my account—this is done to verify your identity. And requesting my card.

Transferwise and their Borderless Mastercard debit card.
Card number redacted because, well, I’m not that naive.

Transferwise claims to be 8 times cheaper than traditional banks and will even recommend when you’d be better off using another provider.

Is it cheaper and easier than traditional banking?

I’ve inherited my mom’s tendency to always think, “If it sounds too good to be true, you’re probably getting fucked.”

I’m paraphrasing here but you get the idea.

As much as I sometimes think she takes this too far, even becoming a Luddite in the process, I can see where she’s coming from.

And being skeptical is a sensible trait to have.

So I did what any sensible person would; kept all my receipts, put them in a spreadsheet and cross-referenced all my transactions with Barclays and Visa Europe when I got back home.


The fees

Banking with Barclays—or any other UK bank—is confusing as hell, and they try to fuck you over every step of the way.

So let’s break it down as simple as possible.

Let’s say that—

I arrive in Finland on the 25th of May and having thought about how much money I’m going to spend during my trip—as the smart and well-planning traveler that I am—I go to the nearest ATM to withdraw €200, that’s €50 per night—a modest but fairly decent amount.

The mid-market exchange rate on that day is 1.1416, so €200 would cost me £175.19.

But wait. Barclays doesn’t use the mid-market rate. Their rate comes from Visa Europe who has decided that the rate is 1.13910, so €200 costs me £175.58.

Oh, well, but that’s only a £0.39 increase, that’s not so—

—But wait, there’s more. Barclays also charges a 2.75% non-sterling transaction fee. So €200 costs me £180.41.

Oh, well, but maybe they—

—Hold on to your butthole, there’s more. Barclays also charges a £1.50 non-sterling cash fee. So €200 costs me £181.72.

Wait, I’m confused, they charge you a non-sterling cash fee but set the price in pounds?

Yeah, fun isn’t it!

All in all, Barclays, with Visa Europe makes my €200 withdrawal cost £181.72, which includes a £6.15 additional cost to me, through a bad exchange rate and two separate transaction fees.


If I had sent €200 to my Borderless account, I would have gotten the mid-market rate of 1.1416. Their GBP-to-EUR fee is 0.35%, so my €200 transaction costs me an additional £0.61—which is clearly stated on their website—and that’s it. I pay £175.81 instead of £181.72.

Now you’re probably smart but I’m not.

I’m not a well-planning traveler either.

And even with the best-laid plans, sometimes shit just happens and you’re faced with holiday costs you weren’t expecting.

I like to prepare for the unexpected by being woefully unprepared to begin with.

So let’s say—

I arrive in Finland on the 25th of May and instead of withdrawing €200 from an ATM, like a smart traveler, I use my card for all my purchases.

Barclays with Visa Europe is still thieving bastards but at least this time they’re only charging me a 2.75% non-sterling transaction fee. During my trip, I spend a total of €220 using my card.

Through Barclays these 16 card payments would have cost me £198.48, which includes an additional £5.31 cost–so actually cheaper than using an ATM but still a ripoff as far as I’m concerned.

By using my Borderless card instead it actually costs me £193.42, which includes an additional £0.67 cost—and that’s it.

In summary

Overall, I’m really impressed by Transferwise and their Borderless account. I really like its ease of use, transparent fees and fair exchange rates.

And I don’t know about you but I’d rather not pay Barclays an additional 2 to 5 percent—depending on ATM or card use—for doing absolutely nothing.

I work hard for my money, and so do you, don’t let your bank rip you off—regardless of what service you use.

You’ve just read Beating the Bullies of Banking.

In which, 2 years ago, I wrote 1094 words about technology and I covered topics, such as: finance, barclays, and transferwise.