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Ask an expert: Which are the best UK banks for Brits living in Italy?

An increasing number of British high street banks are closing the accounts of customers living in Europe - so what are the best options if you still need a UK account?

Ask an expert: Which are the best UK banks for Brits living in Italy?
Having a UK bank account is vital for many Brits in Italy, but is becoming increasingly complicated. Photo by rupixen.com on Unsplash

The great majority of Brits who live in Italy have an Italian bank account – but many also have accounts in the UK.

UK accounts are often still needed to receive pensions, income from property rental or work done in the UK, or to hold savings or pay bills in the UK.

READ ALSO: Banking giant Barclays to close accounts of Brits living in Italy

Many UK pension providers will only pay into a UK account, while direct debits including mortgage payments can often only be taken from a UK account.

Having a UK account is therefore vital to many, so we asked Ryan Frost, private client adviser at Harrison Brook, for advice.

UK high street banks

Most Brits who move to Italy will have an account with a UK high street bank, and in many cases have had the same account for decades. But increasingly British high street banks are telling their customers living in the EU that they will no longer serve them.

The latest bank to do this is Barclays, which has announced that it will close all current and savings accounts of its customers who live in an EU or EEA country.

Most other high street banks will not allow you to open a new account without being resident in the UK.

For those who already have an account with a bank other than Barclays, the picture is mixed.

Some banks have already asked customers to close their accounts while others say they have no such plans at present – but account closures is a pattern that has been seen across the EU since Brexit, when British banks began to need separate banking licences for each EU country they operate in.

Ryan said: “Many people have had accounts with, for example, Barclays for 50 or 60 years so are very loyal to their account and used to it, and it’s a surprise to be suddenly told your account is being shut down.

“But since Brexit banks need extra licences to operate in EU countries and many of them are just deciding that it’s not worth it.”

Expat/international accounts

Many UK high street banks offer ‘expat accounts’ or ‘international accounts’ aimed at UK nationals who live outside the UK.

The major drawback is the cost; many accounts have a minimum deposit level – £20,000 to £40,000 is common – or stipulate a minimum annual income, so they may not be suitable for pensioners, people on a low income or people who just want to use their account for a few basic functions while keeping most of their income/assets in their Italian account.

Most expat/international accounts also charge a monthly fee and some charge transfer fees on top of that. 

Ryan said: “These are often operated by the bank’s international arm eg HSBC International which is based in Jersey, and they’re really aimed at high-value, working, transient expat types, so they’re not really designed for UK pensioners who are living in Italy, for instance.

“They will give you a UK account number that you can use for pensions, direct debits etc but they often charge high fees.”

Internet banking

The last few years has seen a proliferation of new internet banks, which offer online-only services and operate across Europe.

The advantage of these is that you can sign up with an Italian address and then carry out transactions in the UK or Italy using either sterling or Euro.

Many people use internet bank accounts when they first move to Italy before they set up Italian accounts, but they’re also increasingly being used to carry out UK transactions as they can offer a UK account number and sort code – vital for certain types of transactions.

The disadvantage for some people is their lack of a physical presence so in case of a question or a problem contact can only be made by phone or – more usually – via email or chatbot. Most internet banks also do not issue chequebooks or accept queues, which can be a problem for some customers.

barclays closes accounts spain customers

Since Brexit, the UK banking sector no longer has access to the ‘passporting’ system which allows banks to operate in multiple EU countries without having to apply for a separate banking licence for each country. Photo by Tolga Akmen / AFP

Ryan said: “Digital banks are generally where we advise our clients to look, for example Wise (formerly the money-transfer service Transferwise, now set up as a bank), Revolut or Starling. 

“These are new challengers on the banking scene and the advantage for Brits living in Italy is that you can set up both a Pounds sterling and a Euro account and you will get both a GB sort code/IBAN – which will allow you to set up direct debits or receive a UK pension – and an EU account number and IBAN, usually through Belgium.

“It means you can use the account for business in the UK, but also transfer money quickly and easily to/from Italy. In fact for UK pensioners this might give them a better deal on exchange rates than receiving a pension into a UK account in pounds and then spending in Euros in Italy.”

There’s a tendency to assume that internet-only banks are less secure, which isn’t necessarily the case, but if there are problems it can be harder to get redress.

Ryan said: “The thing you need to look for is whether the bank has a UK banking licence. Some of them only have an e-money licence – you can still use these accounts but having the UK banking licence means you have the same level of security and fraud prevention as any UK high street bank.”

Italian banks

Most Brits living in Italy already have a Italian account for daily life, but can you use this for all your financial affairs?

It depends on your situation, but some UK-based transactions require a UK account.

For example many UK pension providers will only pay into a UK account and if you have property in the UK you will probably need to set up direct debits for mortgage payments, utilities, council tax etc and most of these can only be done with a UK account.

Keeping a UK address

Many UK residents in Italy get around the problem by using a ‘care of’ address in the UK in order to retain their British bank account – usually either the address of a property that they own or the home of a relative.

Whether this is allowed or not is a bit of a grey area.

Ryan said: “This is a bit complicated because there’s a big difference between having UK residency and using a UK address such as the address of property you own or a family member’s address.

“If you try to open a new account with a high street they will ask you whether you are a resident in the UK.

“For people with existing accounts it’s technically OK to use a UK address as a contact address, but as banks share more and more information sooner or later they will probably ask you whether you are a UK tax resident, at which point you will have to tell them that you are resident in Italy.”

Ryan Frost is a private client adviser at Harrison Brook, which offers financial and pensions advice to expats in Italy.

Member comments

  1. We are non-resident in Italy but have a house and so need to pay bills. We have just decided to close our Italy bank account and switch completely to using Revolut. We can pay our Italy bills and get worldwide travel insurance included.

  2. May be it would be a good idea to mention italian banks which are handling foreign accounts. I am an american citizen so I am the worst nightmare for banks as the usa has so many paper works requirements. But I opened successfully an foreign account at the Banca Intesa San Paolo. Try it. It works.

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MONEY

EXPLAINED: Why people in Italy might have to carry more cash from now on

Italian retailers will no longer face fines for refusing card payments on amounts lower than €60, after the government put the brakes on a recent push towards electronic payments.

EXPLAINED: Why people in Italy might have to carry more cash from now on

Italy’s new budget bill is set to add yet another controversial chapter to the country’s long and troubled history of card payment laws.

Under Italy’s new budget law, retailers will no longer be fined for refusing card payments for smaller amounts – a controversial move that is expected to have a knock-on effect for shoppers.

READ ALSO: Key points: What Italy’s new budget law means for you 

Fines for retailers refusing card payments on amounts lower than €60 will now be suspended until at least June 2023, according to a clause included in the text of the 2023 budget law published to media on Wednesday.

As set out by the bill, the six-month suspension will allow the newly created Ministry of Enterprises and Made in Italy to “establish new exemption criteria” and “guarantee the proportionality of the given penalties”.

And, though it isn’t yet clear what new exemptions the government is currently considering nor what exactly is meant by “proportionality”, what’s certain is that residents who had started to make more purchases by card will now have to repopulate their pockets with some good old banknotes because businesses – from taxi drivers to cafes and bars – might not accept card payments for small amounts.

Fines for businesses caught refusing card payments had been introduced by Draghi’s administration back in June 2022, with retailers liable to pay “a €30 administrative fee plus four percent of the value of the transaction previously denied”, regardless of the amount owed by the customer. 

Euro banknotes in a wallet

Under Italy’s new budget law, retailers will no longer be forced to accept card payments for transactions under €60. Photo by Ina FASSBENDER / AFP

The measure angered retailers who lamented having to pay hefty bank commissions on every electronic transaction – some business owners even went as far as openly defying the law and organised themselves into a protest group (Comitato No Pos, roughly meaning ‘Anti-point-of-sale committee’). 

Given the government’s new legislation, it seems like their efforts might just have paid off. 

But, while many business owners will no doubt be happy with the suspension, others have already raised doubts about the potential ripple effects of the government’s move.

Aside from shoppers having to carry more cash than they’re currently used to, many political commentators are warning that the suspension might be a “gift to tax dodgers” in a country where, according to the latest available estimates, tax evasion costs state coffers nearly €90 billion a year.

The same was said about another of the government’s recent changes: raising the cash payment limit from 2,000 to 5,000 euros.

READ ALSO: What’s changing under Italy’s post-pandemic recovery plan? 

A previous government led by Giuseppe Conte had introduced several measures aimed at encouraging the use of electronic payments, most of which have since ended or been rolled back.

The introduction of fines for businesses refusing card payments was one of the financial objectives set out within Italy’s Recovery Plan (PNRR), which expressly refers to the fight against tax evasion as one of the country’s most urgent priorities. 

It is therefore likely that the new cabinet will at some point have to explain the latest U-turn on Recovery Plan policies in front of the EU Commission.

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