Banking from Afar

Having read about the problems of trying to maintain connections to financial institutions in Australia when one lives in another part of the world, here's how it should be done based on our Canadian experience. I won't go into a boring background about the banking system in Canada, except to say there are six chartered banks and they are the old-fashioned, staid group. Then there are the others. My wife and I have everything at Canada Trust from our house mortgage through to credit cards and bank accounts.

Canada Trust makes a fetish of paperless banking. It really does want its customers to use either the ATM system, or phone banking or web banking. And they cannot make it any easier.

Example: I needed to pay a credit card account. It wasn't one of the cards in my web site. But there's a simple and quick way of adding new bill paying names. I made the addition and without ever leaving my keyboard, paid the credit card bill. Our chequeing account does not send back the cheques. I print up a statement from the web site whenever it's needed. We do the bulk of our shopping with a debit card. In fact we write less than 12 cheques a month. If we don't pay with a debit card, we pay through phone banking - utilities, department store accounts and the like. For regular payments, such as car and house insurance, we have a monthly debit setup. Our mortgage is deducted weekly. The bank even takes out money to pay our property taxes.

For our chequeing account we have established a fixed fee with the bank which doesn't vary regardless of how much is in the account or how many transactions we do. For our other accounts, we pay the small - less than $CD10 a month - bank charge.

We can make payments on our mortgage, on our line of credit, on our credit cards all by phone or website. We can move money between accounts, a plus with our business account.

The only thing we cannot yet do is deposit at an ATM which isn't a Canada Trust ATM. We can withdraw from any ATM and in fact have withdrawn money from Australian ATMs, U.S. ATMs, French ATMs and UK ATMs. All without a home bank charge. There's often a local bank charge added on to the money withdrawn from an ATM, although not in Australia!

Because we lived in London, England for several years, we opened and still maintain a sterling chequeing account with the Royal Bank of Canada. Because I was working for a U.S. company, we also had accounts at a U.S. bank both in the U.K. and off-shore. We just send a $CD cheque to top up the account. Shortly after we returned to Canada from London, the Royal Bank started messing with our account. It's a common problem: trying to pay bills on time and the bank simply sitting on the money, or not acknowledging the funds are in the account. I wrote to the president of the Royal Bank and laid out my problems. Within three weeks I had a groveling - there's no other way to describe it - apology from the vice president of the bank in London and a £10,000 "float" to ensure that there never would be another situation. Subsequently, we've reduced the "float" to £2,000, and although the Royal Bank in London really doesn't want to handle small - in our case now, very small - accounts, there has never been a suggestion that they want to close the account and get rid of us.

We also opened up and still keep two different UK credit cards. Only one charges an annual fee of £10, but their credit limits are high. When I worked in New York and opened an account it took a very long time for the rather large cheque to get through the system. In the end, we complained to the bank and I had the company that had hired me from Toronto to work for them (CBS News) to also talk to the bank. It seems a vice president was defrauding the bank of quite a lot of money. Needless to say, we changed banks and ended up opening accounts with Barclay's Bank in New York State!

Relatives in Australia have horror stories about the way banks treat them and they live there! When my mother-in-law died two years ago and left a very modest amount to my wife, it took almost a year of monthly letter writing by my wife's cousin to actually get the cheque into his bank account. In the end, the cousin took the money out in cash and we brought it back to Canada that way. Going back to London, we also maintained an account with one of the so-called High Street banks. It was like going to visit the Queen at Buckingham Palace to do business with them and we weren't sorry when we had to close the account because of our return to Toronto.

My wife and I are looking at living for a few years in Scotland and we have done some web research and the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Bank of Scotland sites contain much useful information about their attitudes.

The problem in Australia seems to be a lack of a service oriented society. If people don't complain or demand better service, then nothing improves or gets done. Those Australians who live and work in many parts of the world have found, after a settling in period, that the local systems work. They may not be perfect, but they do work.

If you want the Australian financial institutions to change, then write to the president of the bank. Write to the minister in charge of banks. Write to banking publications. Kick up a fuss. If financial institutions in other country's can work to the benefit of the customer, then surely Australia's banks can! One final thought on lack of service. Why is it impossible to get a plain, simple American-style cup of coffee in Australia? I was offered all manner of coffee drinks, all of which needed to have coffee ground, heated, steamed, frothed and served. I didn't have the time for that nonsense. The lineups at the coffee shop at Sydney Airport as people waited for this kind of coffee made me wonder if there's a fortune to be made in opening a Starbucks in Sydney. NBC brought in 15-tons of its coffee for the Olympics. That should tell you something.

Louis Cooper