Foreigners find banking a hassle


  • Letters
  • Sunday, 14 Nov 2004

By Choi Tuck Wo

Tales of customers’ horrific experience at the hands of snobbish banks and financial institutions in Britain know no bounds.  

Just the other day, a couple ended up owing a staggering £384,000 (RM2.68mil) after borrowing merely £5,750 (RM40,250) to renovate their house.  

Thankfully, the judge threw out the loan company’s crippling 34.9% interest debt – which had spiralled to 67 times the original amount – as “extortionate”, ruling that the couple need not pay a single pence!  

Another amazing case concerned a pensioner who was slapped with more than £100 (RM700) compound interest, just because his bank took six days to clear his electronic payment for a utility bill within the same bank.  

The two are just classic examples of the unpleasant experiences faced by customers of Britain’s highly lucrative banking industry.  

Granted, banks and financial institutions have to exercise economic prudence and tighten monetary controls as part of the Government’s efforts to curb fraud and money-laundering activities.  

After all, they have to remain vigilant in the wake of reports that nearly one million immigrants have poured into the country since 1997, with over 150,000 foreigners making Britain their home every year for the past five years.  

Thus, it is not surprising that professional credit reference and fraud prevention agencies provide hawk-eyed service to banks and shops scrutinising the background and financial status of those opening accounts or applying for loans, credit cards, mobile phones and even shoppers’ discount cards.  

That’s security-conscious Britain, you may say. You’re being “watched” everywhere by closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras – in public transport, shops and even residential areas – in what even locals have protested as the nanny state culture.  

Even garages, newsagent stores and construction sites are protected by security cameras. At times, you get the feeling you’ve no privacy at all.  

Hassle banking  

However, it is ironic that many banks still maintain the traditional practice of sending cheque books and credit cards by post to new account holders.  

No wonder the procedure came under fire recently following the arrest of several suspected syndicate members and the recovery of hundreds of credit cards.  

The case only served to highlight the precarious nature of posting important documents to customers, unlike in countries like Malaysia where the public have to collect them personally from banks.  

And for foreign residents, particularly Malaysians studying in UK universities, opening a simple savings account can be a truly exasperating experience.  

Given the vast promotional efforts undertaken to attract student customers, it seems amazing that banks then go on to make it extremely difficult for students to open an account.  

Unlike in Malaysia where one can simply stroll into any bank to open an account within an hour or so, you’ll be lucky if you can do it in one week!  

The documents required to prove one’s identity can be staggering. Apart from the mandatory passport and identity card, you may also need to provide utility bills bearing your name and current address, proof of UK and home country address, UK driving licence and tenancy agreement, among others.  

For many Malaysian students who had just arrived in the UK the past two months to pursue their courses, the task of producing documents such as utility bills and tenancy agreements can be daunting.  

Sisters Natasha and Natali Abdul Aziz, for instance, were horrified to learn that even their Malaysian MyKad identity cards were “not good enough” as documentary proof to open their savings accounts in HSBC Bank’s Grosvenor Place branch in London.  

“I cannot understand why my IC cannot be accepted,” lamented Natasha, who is pursuing her Masters degree in Communications at the University of Westminster.  

Rejected ICs  

The Kuala Lumpur lass and her sister, who are daughters of Malaysian High Commissioner Datuk Abdul Aziz Mohamed, have both received letters from HSBC “rejecting” their identity cards and requiring further proof before their accounts can be approved.  

Ironically, the siblings deposited their savings with the bank last month but only received the letters recently.  

“The bank should not have accepted our deposits if it had yet to confirm the approval of our accounts,” said Natasha.  

“ We just need a bank to place our money and we cannot understand why HSBC is making it difficult for us.”  

Natasha added that they chose HSBC because of its vast network of branches in the UK as well as its good reputation and long-standing existence in Malaysia.  

Given Malaysia’s close historical ties with Britain and the fact that the identification card was first introduced by the then colonial rulers, it is ironic the official document cannot be accepted as proof to open a bank account.  

Another Malaysian facing difficulty in opening an account was the high commission’s education attaché Hashim Abu Hussain, whose applications were rejected by HSBC’s branches in Park Lane and Edgware Road as he could not furnish his utility bills and tenancy agreements.  

“Even my diplomatic passport and HSBC Visa Card issued by Kuala Lumpur’s Damansara branch which I produced were of little help,” he said.  

Hashim said the bank officer even wanted to charge him £14 (RM98) just to verify his status with their branch in Kuala Lumpur, which he described as ridiculous.  

He finally opened an account with Barclays bank and was even offered a Visa Gold Card within two days.  

Mohd Nor Azizi, a first-year law student with University of Manchester, said the banks didn’t seem to have a consistent policy with regards to opening of accounts.  

“I get the impression that some counter staff are over-zealous in demanding for certain documents from foreign students,” he said.  

Imperial College student Wan Nazroof Luqman Mohammed Noor, 19, said his current account with NatWest Bank was only approved three weeks later.  

Two other Malaysian students, Azlan Nazam and Azni Zulkharnain, both from University College London, also had their accounts opened one week later.  

A HSBC official advised anyone with problems to bring their documents and resolve the matter amicably.  

Whether it’s HSBC, NatWest or Barclays, all banks should be customer-friendly and provide hassle-free service to everyone, irrespective of whether they are locals or foreigners.  

  • Choi Tuck Wo is Editor, European Union Bureau, based in London (e-mail: twchoi@thestar.com.my )

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