With our upcoming move to China, we figured we would take a look back at our first expat experience, and revisit a few learning curves that had to endure as we settled into a new country. Hopefully, we can take what we learned from our time in London to make our transfer to Shenzhen, China a little smoother. In theory.

Frankly, we had no idea what we were doing.

Our first expat experience came to us rather quickly, as Julie was offered an opportunity in her company’s Oxford (UK) office, a position that needed to be filled immediately. Within a few months, we were apartment hunting in London, trying to navigate the healthcare system, and desperately Googling the ‘TV license fee’.

One of our biggest issues, though, was money. Like many US expats living abroad, Julie was paid in US dollars. Into our US checking (current) account. Opening and maintaining a bank account in London was a weird challenge, especially since I was initially unemployed.

We needed to fund our London bank account, and we couldn’t just write a check from our US account, since no UK bank would accept a personal check from an overseas bank.

What to Love About Life in London: Lots of old stuff

International Bank Accounts

After we made the decision to move to London, we asked a few money-savvy friends in NYC what we should do. They mentioned that a few of the larger international banks, like HSBC and Citi, had the option of opening an international account.

These special accounts allow customers to have one account that can accept multiple currencies, meaning you do not have to wire money from one account to another, and get charged exorbitant fees for doing so. In our case, we could receive a paycheck into our US dollar account, and be able to move the money seamlessly into English pounds through a single account. We could pay our UK bills online without transaction fees and withdraw money with ease.

‘Sounds great’ I thought, as I confidently strode into a HSBC branch conveniently located next to our NYC apartment building.

After a rather brief discussion with a bank teller, I exited the HSBC branch dejected. HSBC requires you to deposit and maintain a minimum of $100,000 to be eligible to open an international account. And the other bank options like Citi are not much different. Those balances need to be kept in cash, not in investment accounts. Yikes. Onto Plan B.

We had no plan B.

We arrived in London still unsure about how to solve this problem. Utility bills and apartment deposits had to be paid by check or electronically through a local bank, so we had to figure out a way to get more money into our UK account quickly, before our first round of bills was due.

One-Time Transfers

Another tool many expats use are one-time currency transfers. For example, before we flew from the US to the UK, we could have ordered a bunch of British pounds (in cash) and brought those with us to open up our British checking account. Or, a company like Western Union can help facilitate a one-time transfer, distributing the funds in cash or local check.

The huge drawback of this type of money maneuver is the cost. Traditional bank transfers, depending on the bank, can charge a fee upwards of 10% of the total transfer amount, or a set (high) fee per transaction. If the transfer fee is low, the exchange rate is usually updated to favor the institution, dramatically reducing the amount of cash you get at the end.


Our Bizarre Hack

I eventually stumbled upon a bizarre, but effective technique. Our US account does not charge for international cash withdrawals, so there was no financial penalty for us using our US bank card in London. Every day, for about a week after opening our account in London, I went to the ATM machine, withdrew the maximum daily allowance from our US account, and then immediately redeposited the money into our UK account at the same ATM machine.

I felt some prying eyes gaze upon me during a few of these transactions, as people waiting patiently in line behind me, watched as I took money out of an ATM, then immediately put it right back. I knew what they were thinking.

‘What an idiot.’

I figured we must be the only people dealing with this issue. After meeting other US expats in London though, I realized we weren’t alone in our frustration. Others, also put off by the high price of setting up an international account in the US, resorted to various maneuvers to shift money around, including absorbing huge fees for international money transfers.

Eventually we learned that there is another way.

Quick and Cheap International Money Transfers

There are now multiple companies that allow for easy and cheap international money transfers with just a few clicks on the ‘ole computer. I first learned about these companies while arranging the details around a stag party (or bachelor party for the US crowd) for a friend in Finland about a year after moving to London.

I had to wire money to the people who had prepaid for hotel rooms, meals, and activities. Initially, I had no idea how the process would work, but a friend mentioned TransferWise as a good, low cost option. It is an online money transfer company that allows people to swiftly shift money from one account to another, no matter the currency.

The fees are minimal, and they perform transfers to different currencies with the up-to-date exchange rate. Frankly, this seemed too good to be true, so I even double checked the real exchange rate online prior to transferring my money. It matched exactly. In a matter of a few clicks, I was able to wire the guys in Finland money directly from my UK bank account, and the transfer happened instantly.

Just like that, I converted British pounds into Euros and sent them to a Finnish bank account, with the transfer costing just £2 in fees and with an accurate exchange rate. Not so shabby and it took minutes.

With the rise of cheap international transfers, wiring money from one account to another, across multiple currencies, has never been easier and more affordable.

No strange ATM trips and no need to pay huge fees. Simply follow a few simple instructions online, and you’re done.


Will China Be Different?

With our move to China on the horizon, I know with confidence that transferring money won’t be an issue, even to a country with strict banking laws. We’ve already checked. Luckily, in this case, Julie will be a local employee, so she will be paid in Chinese Yuan.

However, for bigger ticket items that we need to arrange immediately, like putting a deposit down on a new apartment, we will have to move cash into the country quickly and easily. This time around, we feel like seasoned professionals. We know that there is a better way to move money, without the hassle of awkward ATM trips or the expense of old fashioned bank transfers.

Now, we just have to learn Mandarin. That should be simple.

  • April 8, 2017

    Your post reminded me when I moved to the Uk and how long it took me to open a bank account there. Transferwise seems like a very good option. Thanks for mentioning.
    Chrysoula recently posted…Street Art Tour with Alternative AthensMy Profile

  • April 8, 2017

    I’m sure it’s always a hurdle to move to a new country and understand all the planning and operational requirements in this stressful move. I’m sure it’s easy to make a lot of mistakes especially when it takes a lot of planning and research. Good for you to share your mistakes as a learning experience.
    Noel recently posted…Places to visit OxfordMy Profile

  • April 8, 2017

    Come on guys, you don’t have $100,000 in cash sitting around? Good article with some solid advice. We keep learning as we go which countries take American plastic. Our travel card theoretically offers no foreign transaction fees but I think it works dramatically better in the UK than it did in Thailand. We are seriously flirting with the idea of taking an international assignment so this information could come in extremely handy indeed.
    Jenn and Ed Coleman recently posted…Photographic Tour of California’s Wildflower BloomMy Profile

    • April 10, 2017

      Go for it!

  • April 8, 2017

    These are the things you don’t think about as you dream of finding the perfect apartment in your favorite international city. So glad you were able to eventually find a solution. Good luck on the move to China!
    Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie recently posted…Why I Always Have the Chase Freedom Credit Card in my WalletMy Profile

  • April 10, 2017

    $100,000? Yikes! I do love the idea of an international account though, I’d never even heard of one. Now if you could just get one that requires$1,000. Good luck in China!!! What an adventure.

  • April 10, 2017

    This is great! We are so fortunate when we were living overseas because we actually had military ties and could therefore use military accounts where it was a cinch to transfer money. However, my sister-in-law lived in Prague and had a hell of a time (not to mention all the fees she had to pay!)
    LeAnna Brown recently posted…Esso Fuel Cards in Germany: Everything You Need To KnowMy Profile

    • April 12, 2017

      One of those things that we never really thought about until we had to do it. Now we know better!

  • April 11, 2017

    Wow China sounds like an amazing adventure! I was lucky to spend a week there and managed to learn to count to 5! good luck with the Mandarin and as i navigate a possible long term stay in the Middle East I hope I can use some of these tips!

    • April 12, 2017

      Good luck with your potential move! That should be exciting. We are actively working on our mandarin, but it will be a long, long road before we feel even moderately comfortable!

  • April 12, 2017

    This is a lesson we learned as well when we first moved to France. In our case we were lucky because we had French jobs which paid us in Euros. Since then, we have used Tranferwise more than a few times and it works. Love your hack…gotta do what you gotta do!
    Rosemary recently posted…Top 10 Authentic Vietnamese Food You Must Eat in HanoiMy Profile

    • April 15, 2017

      We’ll be interested to see if the Chinese banking system is as easy to maneuver as the UK. From what we read, it is okay (at least getting cash in), but we’ll know soon enough!

  • April 12, 2017

    Thanks for sharing this. I am surprised that HSBC and Citi require a minimum 100,000 – that amount is prohibitive for many. It sounds like you will have an easier transition in China. Good luck with the Mandarin!
    Nancy recently posted…Stay at MGallery La Residence Hue Hotel and Experience Hue’s Rich HistoryMy Profile

    • April 15, 2017

      We were shocked by those minimums…particularly because people who DO have that kind of money, probably don’t want it sitting in a savings account…as opposed to investing it. Weird for sure!

  • April 13, 2017
    Megan Jerrard

    Thanks for sharing your experiences – it’s a frustrating situation to be in for sure! We live permanently in Australia, though have accounts in the US also, and since I work online and am paid via PayPal I’m lucky that I can divert my pay into whichever paypal account needs to cash influx at the time. But we’ve recently needed to do a one off transfer from the States to Australia and have gone with USForex – will definitely also look into TransferWise 🙂

    • April 15, 2017

      ooh, thanks for the alternative transfer service. We’ve only had friends use a few, and we’re pretty hesitant to use services when we don’t know anyone who has experienced it. We will add USForex to our list too!