When you get a job in London, you need a national insurance number, or simply NINO, and a bank account. Getting a NINO is quite straightforward, yet opening a bank account is a different story.
Colleagues and friends warned me about this paradox: in the UK is a real challenge to hand over your money to the banks. You need to go through fire and water, defy the law of gravity and perform unimaginable rituals before – victory! – you will get the privilege to deposit your hard-earned money in the pockets of some financial institution.
Armed with a reference letter from the recruitment agency, I took a deep breath and went to the first bank, which was known as a more reasonable one.
Canary Wharf is one of the main financial centres in London, a soulless jungle of steel and glass.
Monday, Bank α. I go to the Canary Wharf branch, where I am welcomed by a smiling lady who asks me the purpose of my visit. “Opening a bank account”, I say raising my eyebrows. “You need an appointment”. “Ok, I would like one as soon as possible”. The next availability for me is in two days. I can still rely on my savings approximately ten days from now, so Wednesday is satisfactory.
Wednesday, still Bank α. I arrive ten minutes earlier. I handle my reference letter to the consultant dealing with my case and I explain that my passport has expired and I don’t have any bills to prove where I live as I have just moved to London. The consultant is giving me a rather sceptical glance. He is reading the letter slowly, nodding, then he disappears, with the piece of paper still in his hands. After ten minutes he’s back. “We can’t accept this; the recruitment agency needs to add more information in the letter, X and Y”. “OK, it’s doable, but let’s book now the next appointment”. “Sure, let’s say next week, Tuesday?” “What next week Tuesday? I need a bank account asap, I need to be paid, please look for a time slot this week”. “Not possible, everything is already booked. However, this branch is so busy because it’s in Canary Wharf, but you should try others that are not so crammed up. I can recommend the branch in Greenwich. It’s easy to get there”. “I would prefer, however, to keep the appointment for next Tuesday”.
I go back to my computer, get in touch with the recruitment agency, and tell them to update my latter. Later on, I travel from Canary Wharf to Piccadilly Circus to pick up the document as the bank is not happy with a scan. This is a two-hour journey, including the return.
Thursday, still Bank α, the Greenwich branch.
One of the best views of Canary Wharf, from the top of Greenwich Park
It takes me 40 minutes to get from my office to the bank. I don’t have an appointment and it seems I don’t need one as there are just two people in front of me. I wait patiently, like a good, obedient schoolgirl. After 15 minutes I get to explain the situation to the bank officer, I have this employer letter, your colleagues from Canary Wharf sent me here, please, can you help me? The woman gives me a glacial look, her mouth set in a hard line. Now I really feel like a schoolgirl that did something nasty and will be soon expelled with no remorse. The woman is grabbing the letter and leaves the room. I can hear her talking to a man indistinctly for a couple of minutes. She comes back with the same glacial look, no smile, she is even frowning. “My manager assessed the situation and told me we can’t accept this”. “Why?” “Because your company is not in this area, we haven’t heard of it, this needs to be sorted out by the Canary Wharf branch”. “But they sent me here”. My voice is low and grave. “I am sorry, we can’t help you”.
Oh boy, my savings are vanishing, slow and steady.
Friday. Today is the day. I am going to visit all bank branches in Canary Wharf. One by one.
Bank β. We need proof of address. Oh, we can’t help you unless you provide a bill you paid recently.
Bank γ. Where are you from? Oh, Romania. Yes, for Romania you need your passport. Yes, we know your country is in the European Union, but we don’t accept the ID. Too bad if the passport has expired. We can’t help you.
Bank δ. You just need to fill in this form. We can do it together now. Yes, sure, right now. However, the account will be opened in approximately two months. Oh, as soon as possible? I am sorry, we can’t help you.
Bank ε. No passport? No bills paid already? Ha, lady, we cannot help you, doooh!
During the weekend I convened the Gods. I meditated until I floated. I had an out-of-the-body experience. I got in touch with my inner child and consulted the elders. I went through fire and water. I metamorphosed into a vulture, reached the sky, and came back to the red brick house in Brockely, London.
On Tuesday I knew what I had to do. I put on my smart blazer and high heels, I went straight to the Bank α and had my bank account sorted. Because yes, I am a sorceress.
This is the only way you will have the pockets of London banks wide opened for your money.
I first arrived in London four years ago, for a one month experience in the UK headquarters of the consultancy I used to work for in Bucharest. “I am sure I will love the city”.
I hated it. I was so happy to leave once that month was over. The commuting, the robots walking to their offices in the morning, confined spaces that made me feel claustrophobic, the overall impatience of the city, all these freaked me out.
“I will never be able to live in that horrendous London”, I was telling to anyone who had ears to listen to me. I have been living now in this city for almost two years.
If you want to defy Brexit and still move to this metropolis, you might want to know that:
- Rents are high. Sharing is the norm here. Even people in their 40s have flatmates. If you want to be by yourself, put aside some significant chunk of your monthly paycheck.
- Public transport is expensive as hell. I pay £131/month to use the tube, trains, buses for zones 1 and 2 only. Last year the monthly pass was £126, I think a sudden £5 pound increase is outrageous.
- Despite the high prices, public transport is not reliable. When I first moved here, I thought I was living close to work. I had to take the tube one stop and then change at Canada Water station, where I had to hop on a train called the Overground through 3 more stations. Easy peasy. Except that the amazing Overground is slow as a turtle, it always comes fully packed, and it has signal failures every week. My advice: move close to work. When I say close, I really mean it. Not ‘almost close to work’. That means you will still curse your life almost every day.
- On the other hand, Uber is great! Much cheaper than the black taxis, drivers come wherever you tell them to pick you up, and they give you a ride even for short distances. In Brussels or Amsterdam, you should avoid Uber drivers.
- You will find medicines in supermarkets and food and beverages in pharmacies.
- Try to get a private health insurance. The public system, also called NHS, has some big issues. Great specialists, but it takes an eternity to get an appointment: three, four, five months. Without a private insurance, you will not be able to afford the private services. An endoscopy can cost £1500. A consultation is £250. Another option is to fly back to your own country for medical issues. Or to pray.
- You can find amazing restaurants in London. Cuisines from all over the world. Artisanal coffee. Street markets are a big thing and you can easily find delicious meals when you visit them. I can recommend the Maltby Street Market and Brixton Market. Borough Market is really colourful and beautiful but too pricey. There are also plenty of excellent brunch places. I can mention here 100 Hoxton and The Pear Tree @Greenland Place. The food in supermarkets is not of high quality. I usually buy it from Waitrose, which has better fruits and vegetables.
- You can find plenty of desserts as well but they lack finesse. Too much butter, too much sugar, the cake batter is dry, with a dense, chewy texture.
- Going out is expensive. There is a fee for almost everything. A friend tried once to book tickets for us for a Halloween party. The venue was asking extra money for insurance. Insurance? Insurance for what? For being on this Earth? It’s the venue’s responsibility to provide the insurance in case something bad happens. We felt that someone was trying to rob us so we gave up.
- It’s difficult to be spontaneous in London. If you want to go to any kind of performance, to go to a spa or even to enjoy a brunch in a nice restaurant, you can’t just show up like that. You can’t even book them two days in advance. It has to be planned a few weeks ahead. It’s the same when meeting friends. Everyone lives in different parts of London so any encounter needs to be carefully planned in advance.
- Brits love air conditioning. There is air conditioning everywhere, summer, winter, it doesn’t matter. You will feel the cold breeze at the gym, in the taxi, in your favourite brunch place, at the theatre, in the public bathroom. You will not feel it when you most need it: in the tube/trains during summertime.
- Opening a bank account is literally more demanding than being Elon Musk and sending a Tesla car on Mars. Read more about it in my next post.
I’ve been in London for more than one and a half years already. I am in transit here. It’s not my home and it will never be. So I think it’s perfectly reasonable to write about this amazing city on my travel blog. New texts to be published soon.