Top UK bank accounts for international students 2020
Whether you're an international student studying in the UK on a year abroad or for the long haul, knowing where to bury your treasure is a must!
Good news! Compared to many countries, banking in the UK as a foreign student is usually pretty easy and there's a good amount of choice.
That said, choosing the best bank account for you depends on your personal circumstances such as how long you are staying in the UK and whether or not you reside in an EU country.
First, we'll outline the most important things to consider, then list the best bank accounts for international students and suggest potential alternatives. 🙂
What’s in this guide?
Why open a British bank account?
Setting up a bank account may be another boring life admin task to deal with, but it's worth investing the time as it could save you a fair amount of cash and headaches!
Managing your finances from your home country account can be impractical and expensive for many reasons:
- You'll be charged currency conversion fees each time you use your debit card or withdraw cash in the UK
- Currency exchange rates fluctuate making budgeting difficult (convert currency using TransferWise for the best rates)
- If you're planning on working part-time, employers will want to pay your wages into a UK bank account
- Your accommodation provider will likely prefer payments from a UK account
- Setting up recurring payments (direct debits and standing orders) will be tricky or impossible. These are needed for paying mobile phone contracts, gym memberships and rent
- Paying back friends in the UK would be complicated
- In some countries, like France for example, banks require you to send them hand-written letters to set up Direct Debits to foreign accounts. Plus they'll charge you a fee for the transfer!
- If you get locked out of your account because you've forgotten your PIN code it's definitely easier to deal with it locally in a branch as opposed to over the phone to another country.
Things to consider when opening a bank account
Does your current bank operate in the UK?
Many banks are operated by global corporations. Some banks will reduce fees for international money transfers if both accounts are registered with them.
It could also be much easier to open an account abroad. So if you have an account with a bank that has branches in the UK, you might want to stick with the same one.
How much are international transfer fees?
This is an important one. If you're planning on sending or receiving money from home, make sure you find out exactly how much it costs to transfer money between countries.
Banks often take a commission fee of between four and six per cent for converting to your desired currency, on top of the fee they're already charging you to send your money!
To work out how much you'll be paying in total, compare the exchange rate your bank is offering with an online currency converter and add the difference onto their initial fee. We recommend using TransferWise to make larger conversions to £GBP.
We've got information on the fees for international accounts below.
How much do you value 'freebies'?
Some banks offer free items as incentives for you to trust them with your cash.
For example, NatWest offer 1/3 off coach fares with National Express for up to four years.
Lloyds and Barclays offer cashback when you shop using select offers they provide via loyalty programs.
Don't get sucked in by freebies alone – a bank account offering a £15 gift card won't be worth much if your transfer fees are through the roof.
Do you need an overdraft?
Your account may come with a small overdraft (under £100) but unfortunately, as an international student, you probably won't be able to apply for a big one.
Bank accounts aimed specifically at international students generally do not come with an overdraft as they do not consider you a long-term customer.
If you are planning on staying in the UK for more than a year, it might be worth looking at the overdrafts on offer on other accounts for when you do decide to switch.
Where is the bank branch located?
This might seem like an obvious one, but you might want to pick a bank that has a branch near your accommodation or university campus in case you have to make an emergency trip before or after class!
You can get cash out from any bank's ATM free of charge 24/7, but banks usually shut around 4pm on weekdays and are closed on Sundays.
How do you open a bank account in the UK?
Unless your bank states otherwise, or your bank account is exclusively available online (like the NatWest International Student Account), it's likely that you'll have to pop down to your local branch to set the account up.
What documentation will you need?
- Current passport
- Valid visa (for those from outside the European Union)
- Home bank statement from the past three months
- Proof of address in the UK or abroad (check with your bank)
- Student ID or acceptance letter from your university.
Can you open a UK bank account from abroad?
In some cases. If you're still in your home country while reading this, some UK banks will let you start setting up a bank account before you arrive ashore.
Get in touch with your current bank and check if they have links to UK banks. This will make the whole process a lot easier for you as you'll already be on their client database.
Some of the bank accounts in our table are open to EU residents living outside of the UK.
Below are the best international student bank accounts for this year, taking into account the fees and other considerations we've covered above.
International student account reviews
NatWest International Student Account
As the name suggests, this account is aimed specifically at international students. To be eligible for this one you need to have lived in the UK for less than three years.
A non-contactless debit card is included in this account but, unfortunately, an overdraft is not.
You’ll also get to choose between one of the following three options:
- One-year Amazon Prime Student membership and £10 Amazon gift card
- National Express Coachcard giving you 1/3 off coach travel (4 years)
- 50% off food in UK restaurants, cinemas and hostels (4 years)
But watch out! To get a freebie you need to take out the full account which comes with a £10 monthly fee and is only available online (you won’t be able to sign up for one of these at your local bank branch).
You can also open a free NatWest basic account but you won’t get a freebie and must be living in the UK already.
It might be worth opting for Natwest if you’re planning on sending back home regularly as they do a pretty good deal on international transfer fees…
How much are NatWest’s international transfer fees?
- Sending money in Euros to European countries: free
- Sending money in other currencies to European countries: Also free!
- Sending money to the rest of the world: Yep, also free!
- Receiving money from abroad: free for amounts equating to £100 or under and £7.50 for amounts over £100
This account is good for students studying in the UK for a year or so as you don’t have to have lived in the UK for very long and you don’t have to physically go to NatWest to open an account (i.e. you could open this one before you actually get here).
It does come with some fun freebies but the main drawback here is the monthly fee. However, it might be worth it if you’re planning on sending money to your home country often as the international transfer fees are virtually non-existent!
Barclays Student Additions Account (international)
The international student edition of its UK student account, Barclays also offers a product targeting students from overseas.
To be eligible for the account you must:
- Be living in the UK
- Be studying for an undergraduate qualification for at least two academic years full-time or for a postgraduate degree for one year or more
- Be over 18
- Plan to use the account as your main bank account.
There are no monthly fees to maintain this one!
How much are Barclays international transfer fees?
- Sending money abroad: free plus any charges added by the recipient bank
- Receiving money from abroad: £0 for amounts under and including £100 and £6 thereafter for transfers from bank accounts located outside the EU.
Pretty sweet! Free outgoing money transfers and fairly low recipient fees. We’re here for it.
However, this account isn’t meant for international students that are only here for a year, unless they’re enrolled in a master’s degree.
This one is aimed at international students who are planning on staying for a couple of years at least. Not for you? Read on!
HSBC Basic Account
This account isn’t designed specifically for international students but you won’t need to make any major financial commitments to open one. No fees attached. Hooray!
To open a HSBC Basic Account you’ll need to be 16 or over, have a residential address in an EU country and not hold already an account with another UK provider.
No overdraft with this one unfortunately. 🙁
How much are HSBC’s international transfer fees?
- Free when sending to another HSBC account
- Sending money abroad: £4 plus any correspondent bank fees
- Receiving money from abroad: £0 for amounts under £100 and £8 on transfers of £100 or more
A very basic account, but it does what it says on the tin and is also free to open.
At just £4, HSBC has some of the lowest transfer fees listed. Again no overdraft, but if you’re thinking of staying here for a while you could always consider applying for a regular current account a year or so down the line.
And, if you live in the EU, you could open it before you even arrive.
Lloyds Classic Account
You’ve got to be living in the UK to open this one, and be over 18 too!
An overdraft isn’t completely off the cards here, and you may be eligible for one after an assessment of your situation. It’s free to set up but does come with a daily fee if and when you use it.
How much are Lloyds international transfer fees?
- Sending money abroad: Lloyd’s won’t charge you a fee to send money through online banking but there will be correspondent bank fee which you can pay yourself or split with the recipient of £12 for accounts in Europe, the USA and Canada, or £20 for bank accounts located anywhere else in the world! Ouch!
- Receiving money from abroad: Free!
You won’t be able to open this one until you’re actually living in the UK but again, there are no fees attached.
This one doesn’t come with any frills, it’s simple and does what it says on the tin. We don’t like the correspondent bank fees, but overall it’s a yes from us!
Santander Basic Current Account
EU citizens rejoice! This one is open to UK and EU residents, so you could actually open this one before you even arrive.
You must also be 16 or over and not already be holding a Basic Current Account with Santander or any other UK provider.
How much are Santander’s international transfer fees?
- £15 for transfers within the EU and £25 for transfers towards the rest of the world.
- Receiving money from abroad: No charge! Hoorah!
This one is super practical for international students coming from Europe as you can open the account before you arrive in the UK. But Santander’s transfer fees are among the heftiest fees listed…
TSB Classic Account
This one is also open to UK and non-UK EU residents aged 18 or over and comes with an interest-free £35 overdraft!
TSB’s Classic Account also comes with the possibility of an overdraft of up to £1,200, but it does come with an interest rate of 19.84% and a monthly fee of £6.
How much are TBS’s international transfer fees?
- Sending money abroad: £10 for payments of less than £5,000 and £17.50 thereafter plus a correspondent bank fee of £6 for payments made to accounts outside the EU
- Receiving money from abroad: £2 for payments up to £100 and £7 thereafter.
We’re 50/50 on this one. TSB are flexible regarding your living situation and the account comes with a small overdraft which is great if you accidentally overspend at the pub or have an emergency bill to pay.
The fees are somewhere in the middle in comparison with the others, so it depends how much the overdraft is worth to you.
However, you might want to check whether there’s a TSB branch located near to where you live as there tends to be less of these around. Remember what we said about financial mishaps…
Nationwide Basic Current Account
This account is also open to those residing in the UK and EU alike.
It does not, unfortunately, come with an overdraft or a chequebook but you will be able to make payments using Apple Pay, Google Pay or Samsung Pay. You’ll get a contactless debit card too!
How much are Nationwide’s international transfer fees?
- Sending money abroad: £9 to EU countries and £20 to everywhere else
- Receiving money from abroad: free (although the bank sending you the money may charge you).
Again, the transfer fees aren’t the cheapest at Nationwide, but if you don’t plan on sending money abroad very often this account is one to consider as receiving money from overseas will cost you £0.
The Co-operative Bank Cashminder Account
Another EU resident-friendly account! You’ll need to be living in the UK or the EU when applying for this account and be aged 16 or over.
Again, no chequebook or overdraft here we’re afraid. But who uses cheques nowadays anyway?!
How much are the Co-operative Bank’s international money transfer fees?
- Sending money abroad: £8 to EU and US-based accounts and £20 for the rest of the world
- Receiving money from abroad: free for payments under £100 and £6 for payments over £100.
Good for flexibility if you want to open the account from another country in Europe and mostly intend on receiving small-ish amounts of money. But again, outgoing transfer fees aren’t the cheapest.
Al Rayan Current Account
For those looking for a Sharia-compliant current account, you’ve come to the right place.
This account does require some financial investment. You must commit to paying your salary into this account (which as a student you probably don’t have yet) or make an initial deposit of £500.
How much are Al Rayan’s international transfer fees?
You must be transferring at least £100 to gain access to Al Rayan’s international money transfer services.
- Sending money abroad: £25 for payments in GBP, £12 for payments under £10,000 in a foreign currency and zilch for payments of £10,000 or above
- Receiving money from abroad: free.
If it’s a Sharia-compliant current account you’re after, this one’s for you. Al Rayan also does Sharia-compliant savings accounts too if you’re thinking about staying in the UK on a long-term basis.
Just remember that opening an account at Al Rayan does require some financial commitment.
Alternatives to setting up a UK bank account
With the recent surge of digital app-based banks launching in the UK, there is even more choice than before.
Not all of these bank accounts are suitable for international students, nor are they regulated as strictly as mainstream banks.
However, there are plenty of benefits on offer, especially when it comes to making cheap international transfers and speed of account setup.
Using your overseas account
Of course, you could always stick with your bank account in your home country.
You might decide that all of the above is too much hassle after all, especially if you’re only in Britain for a couple of months.
But do make sure you doublecheck how much it’ll cost you to withdraw money and pay with your debit card in the UK.
If you do decide to go with this option, we highly recommend you combine it with one of the two app-based accounts mentioned above to avoid extortionate transfer fees.
Lastly, make sure you let your bank know that you’re coming to the UK or else they might think your card has been stolen and block your account on the grounds of suspicious activity. They’re not mind-readers after all!
Now you’ve got your bank account sorted, why not have a look at the funding available for international students to fill it with!