buying a house in France: part 16: banking & finance: the UK

Even if you are intending to live the rest of your life in France, you should resist the temptation to close any UK bank accounts or credit cards. The only exception to this is, possibly, for those accounts/cards which have an annual fee.

In addition to the accounts which you already have, you may find it useful to open others as the international dimension changes how you use accounts. For instance, if you have a holiday home in France you’ll obviously be transferring money from pounds into euros much more than you were previously.

The range of accounts in the UK is massive and therefore we can only give an indication of those that you might find useful here; the reference version of this guide will be more comprehensive.

The Nationwide Building Society Flexaccount (cheque account) is a must. It gives you entirely free transfers from pounds to euro and, at the moment, is the only truly free currency exchange service. Their credit card comes close behind with free exchange on purchases.

Beyond that, if you are going to live in France, it’s useful to open credit cards with a number of card issuers. In general, you will not be able to do this if you are living in France and neither can you easily get credit facilities in France so it’s useful to have a number of UK cards as a fallback should you need it. The main issuers are Capital One, the Co-Operative, GE, Halifax, HSBC, LloydsTSB, MBNA, Nationwide and Royal Bank of Scotland (most other cards are rebranded versions of these eg Sainsbury is really Halifax). It’s worth getting an American Express credit card too as you can transfer the account to France, although as the charges in France are considerably higher you may not want to do that right away.

Cheque accounts are also useful to have. If you qualify for the HSBC Premier service, they’ll open an equivalent account with HSBC France for you which has the additional advantage that you get free transfers between your UK and French accounts with them. Barclays and LloydsTSB offer a similar (but more expensive) service though their branches are largely confined to Paris and the Cote d’Azur. The Barclays account offers withdrawals with no transaction charge at BNP-Paribas machines in France (you are still charged 2.75% on the exchange rate). I used to recommend Citibank a lot but they have increased their charges substantially and it’s not as clearly a useful account for expats as it once was.

The Nationwide account is excellent if you are in France and need to transfer relatively small amounts of money from the UK but the £500 per day (about 750‚€) limit means that it’s not practical for large amounts such as for your house purchase. You can use your own bank for this but the charges are generally quite high and the exchange rate isn’t particularly good either in most cases. To transfer more than a few thousand euros you are best to open an account with one of the specialist companies such as moneybookers; if you are going to be making regular transfers (eg paying for a French mortgage from a UK account) then HIFX offers a facility for this.

If you are retaining your house in the UK as we recommend, then you will probably need to change the mortgage to a buy to let one. It’s best to do this before you leave the UK as there are a relatively small number of brokers who deal with overseas clients.

The field of investments in the UK is even wider than the range of banks. However, most seem prepared to change your address to an overseas one. However, if you don’t yet have a UK broker or similar it’s worthwhile opening an account with one before you leave as few will open accounts for overseas clients. We’ll cover it in more detail later but at this point it’s worth mentioning that having a SIPP (Self-invested personal pension) account open is also useful.

If you’ve not yet ventured into this arena, a few useful accounts to have are the Halifax sharebuilder (which lets you buy shares monthly), Fidelity’s Funds Marketplace (which lets you buy numerous unit trusts) and TD Waterhouse brokerage. All are free to open.

As always, you can find links to sites we have mentioned in the Foreign Perspectives directory along with other similar outfits which we haven’t had the space to mention here and the reference version of this entry on our Living in France pages is more complete.

Although you can open offshore bank accounts after you leave, it’s best to open your choice from the above before you leave the UK as it can be difficult or even impossible to do it after you leave.

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