March 10, 2009

Long Live the Queen, and Barclays

I never thought I would miss Barclays. These days, I am considering voting them best bank of the century. That’s since I (re-)discovered the French banking system.

It started as soon as we arrived in Annecy last year. Trying to set up a bank account, we got a very simple answer to our very basic request: NO. As to why, the bank manager was not short of answers. For instance, we did not have any tax return to show. No, she did not know why on earth this may be required, and no, a British one would not suffice. Martin not having pay slips to present was also an irrefutable argument for the refusal. And here again, she did not seem to worry about providing an answer to the catch 22 that this created: how to get paid, and therefore have a pay slip, if one cannot open an account on which to transfer the said salary?

Six months later, having gathered some courage again, we are back in the office of the account manager.

Things don’t start too well. As we show her our passports she looks up at us, clearly confused. Austria, that’s like… Germany?” she asks Martin. Anybody who knows Martin knows too that it takes quite a lot to make him angry. Problem is, calling him a German is right up there north of “quite a lot”. No need to say, he is not overly impressed.

At the next question, we wonder if she is faking her own stupidity: “passport issued in London. (puzzled look at us)… where is that?”. Then she asks me if I, too, am Austrian. I mean, I know my French is sometimes a bit sketchy and my accent sounding from time to time a bit foreign but for heaven’s sake, SHE HAD JUST CHECKED MY PASSPORT TOO!

Compared to this interesting start, the rest goes reasonably, if not ideally smoothly. Goes smoothly but does not come cheap. Instead of Barclays’ interest bearing current account and debit and credit cards, everything is now on a fee basis. Cards, check books, you name it, you pay for it.

Oh, and internet banking is charged, too, although our account manager seems at a loss to understand why we would want it anyway. But, weird as it may seem, we got used to managing our accounts from the comfort of our own home rather than getting a post-communist Russia feeling by having to stand in a queue for hours. So, deciding to get wild and splash out, we go for the full internet banking package. Not that we want to do more that the occasional bank transfer, but in the heat of things, you know…

An hour and a half later, - a tiny bit longer than the 10 minutes previously mentioned by the bank manager, and with Martin by now seriously late for work - we are done. It was a fight, but now, more than 6 months after we have arrived, we feel like real citizens, with still no tax return, but at least a bank account. And internet banking.

Or so we think. Until, a few weeks later, we need to make a transfer. Nothing fancy, involving cross border transactions, different currencies, crazy amounts (like, where would the crazy amounts come from, I am unemployed, for heaven’s sake). No, just a plain transfer, from a euro denominated account in a French bank to another euro denominated account in another French bank. So, here am I, logging on my hard-fought for, brand new, secured, internet page. I scroll through the menu. Look for transfer. Can’t find it. Look again. Still can’t find it. I am stuck. I call a friend (or rather, a husband, actually). Who can’t find it either. I give up.

A few days later, as I am walking past my bank, I think I may as well go in and ask what kind of stupid thing I have missed.

Well, as it turns out, the thing I have missed is that I actually CANNOT make online transfers. The fact that the possibility to do online transfers is the service we are actually paying for, and the fact that the girl at the desk explains to me that online transfers are not possible for security reasons but then proceed to set up the transfer without asking for any form of ID, all this is not relevant. ONLINE-TRANSFERS-ARE-NOT-POSSIBLE-FULL-STOP.

Shall I carry on with a list of the things you cannot do as a (clearly not at all) valued client of a French bank. Actually, I shall not, because it is bad for my health, gives me palpitations… But one thing for sure, forget everything I may ever have said about Barclays. Actually, give me Barclays any time. The staff may be useless and their outfits ridiculously ugly, the foreign exchange commission fees akin to day-light robbery, the website rubbish, at least, they do online transfers. So, to hell with the French banks, and God save the Queen, and Barclays.

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