the logo

A guide to online banks for international students

Are digital banks worth it for international students? Check out this guide on what to look for in mobile and app-based banks including Monzo, Ally Bank and Starling 

  • Student finance
Joy Hunter's avatar

Joy Hunter

Student content curator
October 14 2021
digital online banks for students


Online, digital and app-based banks offer most of the services that traditional banks provide, but are entirely based online, meaning there are no in-person branches. Instead, you can apply to open an account online or via an app, and customer service and support is available over the internet or by phone.

A big advantage of online and app-based banks is that they offer many built-in budgeting features, including notifications on your spending, the ability to set savings goals and a personal budget, as well as easy money transfer and “split-the-bill” options.

While all these functions can be particularly useful for students who need to keep track of their spending, there are a lot of important things to consider for international students who might wish to use these platforms.

See below for our guide to online banking services for international students.

What is the best way of transferring money as an international student?
How to budget as an international student
A guide to student bank accounts in the US
A guide to student bank accounts in the UK
A guide to student bank accounts in Canada
A guide to student bank accounts in Australia

Are online banks and online banking the same thing?

One mistake people can make when looking into which bank to use is the difference between online banks and online banking. Online banks are a modern kind of bank that exists only online and offers online banking services.

Many traditional “bricks and mortar” banks also offer online banking services such as apps, online payments and online accounts, where you can view your balance and move money around.

What to consider when choosing an online bank as an international student

What are the popular digital banks in my study destination?

Most digital banks are based in one country or area, and the services they offer will tend be oriented around one currency. Make sure you research the different online banks that were founded or are focused primarily on providing services in your study destination country; they will usually be able to offer you the best rates.

Can I apply for an online bank account before moving abroad?

Because you don’t have to visit a physical branch to open a bank account with an online bank, you might assume that you can open such an account from anywhere in the world. However, this is not always the case.

Some digital banks will offer accounts only to residents of certain countries, and others will expect proof of address in the country you want to use the account in. You might also be asked for your residence permit details, meaning that you’ll need to have had your visa approved before you can register with a digital bank.

If you know where you’ll be staying when you study abroad, you should be able to use this address to apply for an account online. However, some banks might want to see a utility bill or bank statement from the residence as proof of address, meaning it’s not always possible to open an account before you arrive in your destination country. This is another reason why many students opt to go with a traditional bank first, then set up an online bank account through an app later.

Be sure to check all the exact requirements of each online bank before you decide to apply.

Can I exchange money or send money to other countries?

Different online banks will offer different options and rates when it comes to transferring money abroad. Generally speaking, online banks have reasonably competitive rates for spending and transferring money abroad.

Many of them will let you use your bank card to spend in another country with no extra fees beyond the going exchange rate and will offer low or no fees for transferring smaller amounts of money between currencies.

That said, not all online banks will support all currencies, and some will let you transfer money only to a limited number of countries, so be sure to check that all currencies you might wish to use are supported by the platform. 

What accreditations does the bank have?

While traditional banks have a longer track record of security and stability than newer digital banks, most online banking platforms will have protections and regulations in place to ensure your money is safe.

Most accreditations from financial authorities are issued on a country level, so check the protections your digital bank of choice has in the country you’re planning to use it in.

Do not sign up or deposit any money into an online bank account until you are certain that your money will be safe and protected.

Are there any charges for ATM withdrawals?

Many digital banks will have monthly limits on the amount of money you can take out in cash before they start charging a fee. If you plan to withdraw cash often, make sure you research ATM fees thoroughly to avoid any unforeseen fees. 

What customer support is available?

Since online banks do not have any in-person branches, all their customer support is done over the phone or online. This can sometimes be a disadvantage compared with the face-to-face support traditional banks offer in-branch.

Make sure you check what level of support will be available to you before deciding on which bank to go with – some digital banks will have round-the-clock helplines, for example, while others may take longer to provide the support you need.

Do I still need a traditional bank account if I want to use a digital bank?

Some online banks might ask you for details such as a social security number, which you might not have ready until after you’ve arrived in your destination country

It might be wise for international students to set up a traditional student bank account in their study destination first, then move to a digital bank once they arrive and have settled in their new country.

Doing this allows you to have the best of both worlds: the face-to-face support, student deals, campus presence and track record of security of a traditional bank, and all the online budgeting features and online money transfer options of an online app-based bank. 

Which online bank is best for international students?

See below for a table comparing some popular digital banks in the UK, the US, Canada and Australia and some of the perks each one offers.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. Other popular online banks include Varo, Discover and Chime for the US, Motusbank and EQ in Canada and UP in Australia.

Be sure to supplement this table with your own research and consider how you are personally planning to use the services they offer to help narrow down your decision.

Bank name Where is it commonly used? What do I need to open an account? Can I transfer money abroad? Are there any limits on ATM withdrawals? Can I spend money abroad? What are the perks? What accreditations do they have?
Transfer wise (multi-currency account) Globally Register online and provide photo ID Receive money in EUR, GBP, AUD, NZD, RON, HUF and SGD for no cost Depends where your card was registered Spend in any supported currency for free Designed for travellers and widely used for money transfers Regulated in most countries
Monzo UK You can apply online or through the app, but you need to provide a UK address Monzo is partnered with Wise and offers their rates. Withdraw up to £400 per day and £5,500 per month in the UK with no fees You can spend money abroad in any currency with no added fees beyond the Mastercard exchange rate Overdraft option budgeting assistance, and you can save money in different pots Regulated and protected by the FCA and the FCSC, up to £85,000
Starling Europe and UK You can apply online or through the app, but may be asked for a UK address or bank statement Yes, to 38 countries in 20 currencies worldwide. Transfer fee of about 0.4 per cent Withdraw up to £300 per day in the UK You can spend money abroad in any currency with no added fees beyond the Mastercard exchange rate You can have a euro account as well as a GBP account, budgeting tools available through Starling Marketplace Regulated and protected by the FCA and the FCSC, up to £85,000
Revolut UK and Australia Apply through the Revolut app with ID and residence permit. Supports only legal residents of the EEA, the UK, Australia, Singapore, Switzerland, Japan and the US Exchange currencies via the Revolut app. Transfer money abroad in more than 25 currencies using interbank exchange rate No fees for withdrawals up to £200 per month; 2 per cent fee beyond this Spend up to £1,000 per month abroad with no added fees Monday-Friday. Mark-ups apply at weekends You can use Revolut to trade in  stocks, commodities and cryptocurrencies. Authorised by the FCA but not protected by the FSCS – not officially a bank
Ally Bank US Apply online. You will need to provide ID; for some accounts, you may need a social security number (SSN) You can’t send money overseas using Ally Bank, but you can receive it $500 a day limit for first 90 days, then $1,000 Spend in foreign currencies with a fee of up to 1 per cent 24/7 customer service FDIC-insured. 
Tangerine Canada Apply online with your ID and a social insurance number You cannot receive an international wire transfer with Tangerine Withdraw money for free in more than 3,500 ATMs in Canada. CAD$1,200 daily withdrawal limit Spend in foreign currencies with a fee of up to 2 per cent Competitive interest rates and no monthly chequing fees Owned by Scotiabank and insured by the CDIC


You may also like

University student buying books in a shop

Easy saving and budgeting hacks for university students

Once at university, one of the biggest challenges for students is managing their money. Here are super-easy hacks and tips to help you understand how to maximise your student budget

Tom Allingham

April 27 2021
sticky sign up

Register free and enjoy extra benefits