Best app-based bank accounts
The future of banking is here and it's on your mobile – we've got the lowdown on the best app-based banks and how they work...
App-based banking, digital banking, challenger banks – whatever you want to call them, a new breed of banking has arrived.
These new banking products – which range from current accounts to cryptocurrencies – exist purely on your smartphone. Best of all, many services they offer are far cheaper than mainstream banks, especially currency exchange.
We've reviewed the best apps on the market, weighing up their pros and cons, so you know which one suits your needs best when it comes to saving, budgeting and even stock market trading!
What’s in this guide?
What are app-based banks?
As the name suggests, app-based banks exist purely in app form – meaning they don't have any physical branches that you can pop into like traditional banks, but you'll still have access to support and advice, usually in the form of a live chat feature in-app or a phone line.
They're all free to join, although you might come across some costs for premium products (all explained below).
If you go for a current account, you'll be able to order a debit card in the post with a sort code and account number, just as you would when opening a current account with any other bank. You'll be able to set up direct debits, transfer money and pay bills just the same.
The explosion of app-only banking is a result of the UK government introducing reforms to create 'open banking'. This basically means that your everyday bank must allow you to share your financial data (such as spending habits, regular payments, bank statements etc.) with budgeting apps or other banks.
Why choose an app-based bank over a traditional bank?
More and more people are turning to app-based banks because they give you greater control over your finances.
So far it seems most adopters are using them in conjunction with a 'traditional' account. There are no rules on how many current accounts you can have, so you don't have to make a full switch.
Typically people will keep their normal current account for things like their salary and rent payments, and transfer a set amount of spending money into an app account each month to keep track of day-to-day spending.
These app-based banks boast brand new banking technology and offer things you probably won't get at your typical bank.
Benefits of app-based banking
- Real-time notifications direct to your phone each time you spend money
- Budgeting tools that help you to set spending goals and over-spending alerts
- Fee-free overseas spending
- Auto-saving features which regularly set aside money in separate pots
- Fast in-app card cancellation
- In-credit interest (in some cases)
- They make banking easier, more transparent and fun!
All banking apps are positioned slightly differently and each excels in specific areas, which we explore in our reviews below.
Is your money safe in an app-only bank?
Plenty of people are still wary about storing their money in an app-only bank. What happens if the company goes bust? Will you lose all your money?
App-based banks that are fully licensed banks (that includes Starling Bank, Monzo, N26 and Atom Bank) are all protected by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) meaning that your money (up to £85,000) is protected should the bank go bust.
Meanwhile, Revolut and Monese don't currently hold banking licences (so aren't covered by FSCS) but are covered by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). Effectively your funds are stored completely separately in a licensed bank that the app company partners with.
This means if one of these apps goes bust, you'll get 100% of your money back. However, if the bigger bank used to store your money happens to go bust, your money might not be protected.
App-based bank reviews
Current account features
For a well-rounded current account, Starling Bank is your best option. Their accounts offer a wide range of features, including in-credit interest, overdrafts, savings goals and fee-free spending abroad.
Here’s a quick rundown of the main features:
- Real-time notifications on your phone as you spend
- Insights into your spending habits
- Set and monitor savings goals
- Personal loan service (watch out for interest rates!)
- Lock and unlock your card in-app
- Turn off certain spending functions e.g. online spending or contactless payments
- Free cash deposits via any Post Office
- 24/7 in-app customer support
- ‘Settle Up’ allows you to get paid back or split the bill in seconds
- No fees for spending abroad
- 0.25% – 0.5% in-credit interest
- Allow joint accounts.
Things to watch out for:
- You’ll be charged for using an overdraft (fees are made clear)
- Maximum three cash withdrawals a day, up to £300.
A major thing that puts Starling Bank ahead of the pack is the interest paid on balances held with them.
Most current accounts don’t offer interest at all, so this is still a pretty sweet deal. You’ll get a decent 0.5% AER on anything up to £2,000 and then 0.25% AER on balances up to £85,000.
Behind all the banking jargon, this basically means that, unlike most other banking apps, you’ll actually be making money when you use Starling – bonus!
Starling Bank does have an overdraft facility (subject to approval) but you will be charged 15% (EAR variable). Whilst students can apply, there is no student-specific overdraft at this time, so it’s better to get a 0% interest overdraft from one of the best student bank accounts (which you can transfer across).
You can apply for an overdraft as soon as you open the app. If you’re approved, you can choose the overdraft amount (up to £1,000), and usefully select how much overdraft you actually need within that maximum amount (to stop yourself from spending the full overdraft just because it’s there).
Interest is accrued daily and then charged to your account on the 15th of the following month, but this will all be clearly laid out in the app. For example, if you borrowed £105 for 30 days, it would cost you £1.22.
The same 15% fee applies on unarranged overdrafts, with charges being capped at a maximum £2 per month.
Starling Bank will conduct a credit check before giving you an overdraft (but they won’t if you’re just opening an account).
You can also apply for a personal loan worth between £500 and £5,000. The interest rate is fixed and will be tailored to your personal circumstances. However, this should not be used as a top-up for Student Loans as interest rates will be considerably higher (it is a commercial loan after all!). We’ve got some great long-term solutions to help you out which won’t come back to haunt you if you run out of money.
Starling Bank offers one of the best options for spending abroad, as it charges literally zero fees. You won’t be charged for using your debit card abroad or for taking out cash at ATMs (although remember that individual ATMs might have their own charges).
It uses Mastercard’s exchange rates (with no extra fees), and you won’t be charged for the card or for topping it up. Make sure to check out our other top tips for saving on travel money.
Starling is currently one of the few digital baking apps which allows anyone to set up a joint account.
These are great if you’ve got a partner or friend who you share financial commitments with – perhaps you live together and want a joint account for paying the bills.
Once you’re both on Starling it takes just minutes to set up. Then you’ll both be able to add and spend money. Starling joint accounts are for a maximum of two people, so won’t work if you’re wanting to split the bills between more than a couple of people in a house share.
Current account features
Revolut is pretty similar to Starling, but it’s currently not an officially licensed bank – which means it can’t offer overdrafts, direct debits or FSCS protection. However, Revolut is regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), and your money is protected within segregated accounts with licensed banks (Lloyds or Barclays).
Some of Revolut’s best features:
- Real-time notifications
- Simple analytics to track spending habits
- Instantly freeze/unfreeze cards
- Turn off online, ATM and contactless payments
- Spend and send money abroad with no fees
- Use the app to buy and exchange cryptocurrency (Revolut Premium)
- Split the bill function (even if they don’t have the app)
- Set up recurring payments
- Free debit card with this special link
- Revolut Premium unlocks higher withdrawal limit, free withdrawals overseas, trading and cryptocurrencies.
Things to watch out for:
- Revolut are covered by the FCA but not the FSCS
- You can only withdraw £200 cash for free each month.
Buy and exchange cryptocurrency
One of Revolut’s big selling points is how it makes it super easy to trade cryptocurrencies.
If you’re new to this world, check out our Bitcoin guide for all the basics, including how to get started and calculate risk.
Revolut allows you to exchange any of its 25 featured fiat currencies (e.g. Pound Sterling, Euros, Dollars) into Bitcoin, Ether, Litecoin, Bitcoin Cash and Ripple. It charges a small 1.5% markup on the current exchange rate and nothing else.
You can also use the app to follow real-time cryptocurrency rates and receive price alerts straight to your phone.
But be aware, the cryptocurrency feature is not protected by the FSCS and is not regulated by the FCA, so if you do incur a loss, it’s on you!
Revolut’s Vaults work in a very similar way to Starling’s Goals or Monzo’s Pots – you can set them up in seconds, and use them as a way to quickly and easily save up cash.
You can round up purchases to the nearest pound and save the difference, or set up weekly or monthly recurring payments. You can also invest the difference in cryptocurrencies – so if you buy a £2.25 coffee, you could automatically invest 75p in Bitcoin which will be stored in your Vault.
Send money abroad for free
Unlike many banks which will add on hefty charges, Revolut uses the wholesale Interbank Exchange Rate (which banks use to trade between themselves), allowing you to access up to 30 currencies using the app for free.
Transfers take up to two working days, but you can pay a small fee for a turbo boost which will get your money there quicker.
The same benefits extend to spending abroad on holidays by using your Revolut debit card.
Current account features
Monzo is incredibly similar to Starling Bank in terms of how it’s structured and the features offered to keep track of your money.
It used to be a prepaid card. But following its transformation into a fully licensed bank in 2017, users now have their own current accounts, with sort codes and account numbers.
The app and card work in essentially the same way as before, except now you can set up direct debits and apply for an overdraft.
Here are some of Monzo’s main features:
- Real-time notifications whenever you spend
- Savings ‘Pots’ that set money aside (by rounding up every purchase you make)
- ‘Fixed Savings Pots’ accounts for long-term savings with an interest rate of up to 1.54% AER
- ‘Easy Access Savings Pots’ accounts for short-term savings with an interest rate up to 1.15% AER
- Set spending targets for everything from groceries to eating out (and notifications if you’re heading over budget)
- The ‘Bill Tracker’ will let you know if one of your regular direct debits is higher or lower than usual
- The ‘Get Paid Early’ salary advance feature
- ‘Committed Spending’ shows all your bills in one place
- Spending abroad free (plus up to £200 cash withdrawals a month)
- Monzo does Joint Accounts too (but you both have to have your own separate account to apply)!
Things to watch out for:
- You can only withdraw £400 a day, up to £5,500 a month
- There are some charges for spending abroad (see below)
- You’ll be charged 50p a day for using an overdraft.
Monzo Pots are designed to help customers set aside and save money. Creating a new pot takes seconds and you can add a custom image. For example, if you’re saving up for a holiday, you could create a pot called ‘Trip to Spain’ and upload a picture of a nice sunny beach.
Money that’s in a pot can’t be spent and won’t appear in your available balance. However, if you run out of money, you can easily transfer funds out of your savings pots and back into your current account to use it again.
If you create a new pot and call it ‘Coin Jar’, Monzo will automatically round up any purchases over £1 and add the difference to the pot. So, if you buy lunch for £4.25, Monzo will round it up to a fiver and add 75p to your Coin Jar pot.
Monzo has also entered the savings accounts game. The ‘Fixed Savings Pots’ can be used for long-term savings of £500 or more with a variable interest rate of up to 1.54% AER. For short-term savings goals, you can opt for the ‘Easy Access Savings Pots’ (which include a Cash ISA option) with a variable interest rate of up to 1.15% AER.
Both these options are provided in partnership with other UK banks and are actual savings accounts, unlike regular ‘pots’ which allow you to put money aside without earning interest.
Up until recently, Monzo did have completely free spending abroad. However, the app was paying a hefty amount to cover ATM withdrawal charges abroad, so following a vote among its customers, Monzo has introduced some fees.
You can withdraw up to £200 abroad over a 30 day period. However, any withdrawals over that amount will incur a 3% charge.
Regardless of whether you have an overdraft or not, Monzo offers all customers a £20 buffer – meaning you’ll only start being charged when you’re overdrawn by more than £20.
After that you’ll be charged 50p a day when you’re overdrawn (again, regardless of whether you have an overdraft or not), up to a maximum of £15.50 a month. Monzo will send you a notification before they charge you anything, giving you plenty of notice to transfer funds from elsewhere.
If you don’t have an overdraft, Monzo will simply decline any payments which take you over your limit, but this won’t work for ‘offline’ payments like those through TfL or on aeroplanes – in which case you’ll go into the red and start incurring the 50p daily charge.
Get Paid Early
Fancy an early payday? Well, now there’s a feature that can make that dream come true!
If you currently have a job and arrange for your salary to be paid into your Monzo account, Monzo can advance you your wages at 4pm the day before the money is due to leave your employer’s account. Okay, it’s only 24 hours earlier, but time is money, right?!
Current account features
Like Revolut, Monese isn’t a fully licensed bank but a registered Electronic Money Institution (ECA) monitored by the FCA – so your money is kept separate from the company’s finances and will be protected if the app goes bust.
They offer all the usual perks, and are especially useful for international students – but unlike some of the other apps, there are quite a few fees to be aware of with Monese.
If you sign up with the code SVSTUD18 you’ll get a £15 bonus when you make your first transaction with your debit card.
Here’s a rundown of the main features:
- No proof-of-address, credit history or regular income needed to open an account
- Free Classic account for students for 12 months
- Real-time notifications to keep track of spending
- Lock and unlock your card instantly in the app
- A balance graph creates a handy visualisation of your ingoings and outgoings
- Deposit cash into your account at the Post Office or a PayPoint shop
- Transfer money abroad into 14 currencies using real wholesale exchange rates
- Transfer money to your account from outside the UK using their European IBAN
- Open both a UK and Eurozone current account, allowing you to spend in both GBP and Euros
- Receive £15 for referring a friend who then deposits at least £15 in their account.
Things to watch out for:
- After your initial free 12 months, the Classic account, which comes with £800 worth of free ATM withdrawals a month, has a monthly fee of £4.95 (the Premium account has unlimited free withdrawals and costs £14.95/month)
- With the free Simple account, you get up to £200 of ATM withdrawals a month and are charged 2% after that
- There is a 2% exchange fee for international bank transfers, card spend and ATM usage (this reduces to 0.5% with a Classic account, and is free with a Premium account)
- There’s no overdraft facility – if you do end up with a negative balance, you won’t be charged but your account will be locked until you top up.
Anyone can open an account
One of Monese’s biggest selling points is that virtually anyone can open an account with them, regardless of how long you’ve been in the UK for.
Unlike pretty much all other banks, you don’t need to provide proof-of-address – so if you’ve just arrived in the UK from abroad, you can still get a current account set up straight away.
You’ll just need to take a selfie and a photo of your ID (preferably a passport or ID card), and you’re set! You’ll have an account number and sort code in minutes. Plus, there’s no minimum balance requirement, so you don’t need to deposit cash straight away.
Once your account is open, you can receive and make payments, and set up direct debits, just like you would with any other current account.
Since app-based banks don’t have any physical branches, it’s normally not possible to deposit cash into your account.
However, Monese has paired up with the Post Office and PayPoint so you can deposit cash that way. Simply head along to any Post Office branch, or a shop with a PayPoint sign, hand over your Monese card and the cash you want to deposit, and the money will appear in your account the next business day.
However, you will be charged for this service. With a free Simple account, you’ll be charged 3.5% at a PayPoint (min. £3), and 2% at the Post Office (min. £2). With the Classic account, you’ll only be charged 2.5% at a PayPoint and £1 at the Post Office (both are free on the Premium account).
There are also caps on how much you can deposit – £500 a day at the Post Office, and £249 per transaction/£500 per day at a PayPoint.
It’s a useful service to have access to, but the hefty charges arguably make it pretty worthless – you’d be better off depositing cash at a traditional bank and transferring it across to your Monese account.
Other ways to deposit
As well as depositing money in cash form, you can also top up your account by standard bank transfers, IBAN transfers or instant debit card top-ups.
If you’re abroad, you can transfer money into your account via the Monese European IBAN (International Bank Account Number). Simply use the IBAN details provided and include your Monese ID in the reference. Euros will then be converted into GBP and added to your account, or if you have a Eurozone account, they’ll be directed straight there.
You can also instantly top up your account using a debit card that is also in your name. Good news, this service is now free!
Atom Bank is a fully licensed bank, but it doesn’t offer current accounts like Starling and Monzo. Instead, it specialises in savings accounts and mortgages.
Although the bank has plans to introduce current accounts, debit cards and instant access savings accounts in the future, you can’t currently use Atom for day-to-day spending.
One unique feature of Atom is its use of biometric security. This means that unlike most other apps which use touch ID, the Atom app uses face and voice recognition instead (along with a passcode).
To access the app you might need to take a selfie or read a phrase out loud – which is arguably much easier than trying to remember complicated passcodes or security questions.
Another unique aspect of the app is the level of personalisation it allows.
When you join you’ll be given the opportunity to create your own brand – you get to name your bank, create a logo and choose your own colour palette.
Atom’s main product is its fixed savings accounts. You can open an account in minutes, and start saving with anything from £50 – £100,000.
For each savings account, you can choose between monthly or annual interest (you’ll likely get a slightly better deal if you go for annual interest).
Interest rates range from 0.75% to 1.5% AER – some of the best saving’s rates on the market. The longer you choose to invest your money for, the higher your interest rate will be.
However, remember that just like most fixed-rate savings accounts, you can’t withdraw your money until it reaches maturity. Make sure you’re definitely not going to need the money before you squirrel it away in a fixed rate account!
It might be a bit too soon to start thinking about these just yet as a student, but Atom’s other main product is its mortgages. It has a network of brokers who can advise you on your situation and your best option.
Once you’ve applied, you can track your application in-app and continue to manage it from there when it’s accepted – simple!
N26, Starling and Revolut’s Berlin-based rival, is also a fully licenced bank and is very similar in terms of what it has to offer.
It was launched in the UK at the end of 2018 so is relatively new, but with over two million users worldwide it’s already giving its competitors a run for their money!
Current account features
Some of N26’s best features include:
- Free money transfers at home and abroad via MoneyBeam
- Domestic money transfers completed within one working day
- Compatible with Google Pay and Apple Pay
- Tracks spending habits
- Real-time notifications.
Things to watch out for:
- 1.7% surcharge on foreign currency withdrawals
- You only withdraw cash in the UK five times a month with the free account
N26 provides clear breakdowns of exactly where your money is going every month. The app tracks your spending and provides you with clear statistics on how much you’re spending on food shopping, going out, petrol etc. Great for breaking bad spending habits!
You can set yourself savings goals or ‘Spaces’ (very similar to Monzo’s ‘Pots’), if you’ve got, say, a trip coming up or are saving up for a car. This feature’ll allow you to allocate money to mini-savings accounts (which don’t come with interest) and tracks your progress.
With that in mind, you can also set daily payment and cash withdrawal limits to avoid overspending and immediately lock your card if it gets lost (and unlock it again if you find it). A godsend when your card accidentally makes its way down the back of your sofa!
MoneyBeam free bank transfers
You can send money for free with N26 via the MoneyBeam app. It’s super handy because you don’t need to know the receiver’s bank details, you just need to have their email or phone number and they also need to be a MoneyBeam user. Same goes for receiving money via the app and all transfers are instant. We’re here for it!