Recently I did a talk at Sheffield Women in Tech and during this talk I spoke a bit about my transition from publishing and graphic design into becoming an experience designer in the techosphere, but I didn’t go into detail about how and why I am here.
My journey started in 2015, when I moved from the United States to carve out a life in the United Kingdom with my then-partner. As an American, I naively thought that moving to a country which seemed to have strong economic and political ties to the U.S. would be fairly straightforward. On the face of it, both countries have the same types of shops and financial institutions (often owned by the same multi-national conglomerates), both have similar access to services, and both have largely the same access to internet things like eCommerce and social media sites.
One of the things that enabled my move from the U.S. to the U.K. was that I was self-employed: I had been working as a freelance designer since 2013 for international publishers based in the states. This gave me the flexibility to pack up and move without much consequence to my work, and once I arrived in the U.K. I began taking on a more diverse range of projects, expanding from publishing to marketing, web design and support for small businesses in the U.K., and picked up one client in Germany as well.
By 2016, I was earning an internationalised income, receiving payment from clients in dollars, euros and pounds. I never anticipated being an international freelance consultant. It felt kind of cool being a sort of ‘digital nomad,’ but, believe me, being an individual sole proprietor is hard enough without having to think about multiple currencies and tax codes. What astounded me, however, was how very little help I was able to get from traditional financial institutions and advisors.
Getting a Bank Account in the New Country
I think any immigrant anywhere in the world will know this—getting a bank account in your new country is super hard. I would consider myself privileged, I was brought up in a pretty typical middle class American household. I never wanted for anything, and never struggled to find help or support when I needed it—where there was a will, there was usually a way. But when I started ringing up banks to find out how I could set up a bank account in the U.K., I was surprised at how difficult this was.
Not Privileged Enough
By my late twenties (I was 29 when I moved to the U.K.) I had built up an exceptional credit score, had a sensible amount of savings and had a checking (current) account at a well-established credit union in the U.S.. I knew it wouldn’t be difficult to shift my checking account from my bank to a bank that had international branches—like Barclays or HSBC. So my first hunch—in anticipation of my move to the U.K.—was to try ringing up these banks that I knew had a foothold both in the U.S. and the U.K. thinking (oh so naively) that if I could just transfer my funds to one of these banks in the states, then surely I could then access the same funds from these same banks in the U.K. The answer I got was a ‘Yes, you can do that, but…’
I could, indeed, have international banking access if I could meet a minimum requirement of £150,000 into one of their premium international accounts.
Um… ok. Yeah let me just transfer that right on ov…
One hundred and fifty THOUSAND pounds is the cost of access to international banking. Folks, I did NOT have this kind of money lying about to lock up into a special account with either of these institutions. No luck, no joy.
So I continued searching the internet for international banking options, and found that indeed there were options, but none of them were accessible to someone in my income range. I did not have piles of cash to lock up in an account for a little international privilege.
After realising that I was not in the class of individuals elite enough to hold an international bank account at established financial institutions like Barclays or HSBC, I decided it was best to just wait until I got the U.K., then field my options for banking once I was there. Maybe find a local branch where I could speak to someone in person to get a sense of my options, and hopefully convince a bank to let me open an account over there. I knew I could rely on my U.S. debit and credit cards to enable me to transact as and when needed, albeit for a fee (typically around 6-7%); but at least I could access my personal funds somehow.
After a few weeks of living in my new home of Sheffield (England), I searched online for banks that would accept people from abroad, and learned that actually most banks would require at least 3 months of proof of address from 2 or 3 sources (e.g. names on bills sent to an address, rental contracts, etc) before they would allow you to open an account with them. I guess this is fairly standard practice for financial institutions.
The problem with needing those proofs of address is that getting the proofs (bills, contracts, etc) requires the same proof of address history! I wasn’t able to get my name on any bills or added to the rental contract, because I couldn’t prove an address history in this country. It felt like a catch-22. I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was losing faith. So, once again I resigned to using my American debit and credit cards and visits to the ATM to get by.
Fun little side-note: At the time, my U.S. credit and debit cards did have chips in them, but they did not work the same as U.K. chip and pin cards. I was able to use them by swiping, but this was very unsettling and rather frustrating for many of the sales clerks I interacted with at shops. So it didn’t take long for those sour reactions from sales clerks to deter me from trying to use my debit and credit cards for day-to-day transactions, instead I started taking out cash from the ATM on a regular basis in order to handle daily expenses.
At this point, I wasn’t yet earning income from any clients in the U.K., so at least getting paid by my clients—all American—was fairly straightforward. Although that, too, would have been difficult if it weren’t for my family back home. My mother was kind enough to receive my checks from my American clients and deposit them into my account back home. (Thanks, Mom!)
With my hopes for financial security in the U.K. waning, in the end I did manage to get my name on a couple of bills addressed to me. Getting a cellular contract was the easiest, they accepted me, so there was one proof down! To get another proof of address I lied on a credit card application, got a ‘starter’ credit card and popped my Spotify subscription on it so that I could start getting a bill addressed to me. It worked! I had proof of my existence in some property in the U.K.—So, 3 months later, I go to Lloyd’s Bank.
“Just ask your husband for his credit card.”
I chose Lloyd’s Bank because I read on online forums that they were the friendliest banks for immigrants to go to. Known for helping international students set up bank accounts, and having the lowest bar to entry for opening an account, I marched up to my local branch one day—newly established proofs of existence in hand along with every form of official ID and documentation they could possibly ever ask for—and met with a bank manager.
The bank manager kindly helped me set up a bank account, he took all of my documents and ID and walked me through the process of setting up an account. The process took maybe an hour in total, going through various forms, signing this and that, setting up multiple passwords and pin codes, all the usual stuff. During this meeting, I explained to the bank manager that unfortunately I am unable to transfer my credit score (a perk that would have been available to me if I had been able to throw £150k at Barclays or HSBC) to the U.K.; so while getting a bank account started, I thought I would ask this man if he had any practical advice for building my credit score here in this lovely country—I asked specifically about any nuances in U.K. credit scoring that I might need to be aware of.
Note: as a sensible southern woman raised on conservative values, my question was sincerely in the interest of developing my own financial security. Credit scores are super important for this. I’ve always believed in financial independence and have never relied on handouts from anyone, including my parents. The first book I read after graduating college was Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover so that I would be equipped with knowledge to proceed with paying off my $36k debt as efficiently as I could (which I damn well did). When I asked the question, I made it clear that this was for my own future, in the hopes of being able to buy a car and a house at some point—but was conscious that building up my credit score from scratch would take a while. I simply wanted to know if there was anything special about building a credit score in the U.K. that I should know about, what to watch out for, etc.
The man then explained to me that if I was worried about needing credit I should just ASK MY HUSBAND TO USE HIS CREDIT CARD.
Guys, I wasn’t even married to my partner. I didn’t have a husband. But this fucker thought that good financial advice was to tell me, a woman, to ask my non-existent male benefactor for his credit card if I was concerned about credit.
Three months of waiting and worrying about whether or not I would even be able to get a bank account set up kept me from saying anything, I didn’t want to offend the person who had my financial security in his hands before we had even finished setting up the account. I cannot tell you how low I felt, though. Really, it hurt. I was so offended that this person, this man, would decide that when a woman asks a question about building credit, the answer he should give is to just ‘ask your husband.’ It hurt because I realised that he didn’t even listen to my question, he just saw me as ‘woman’ and heard the word ‘credit’ and from there computed his incredibly stupid, ill-considered response.
Dear any bank manager or financial person who has ever given this kind of ‘advice’ to women—go fuck yourselves. Sincerely.
Who Owns My Money?
Finally I had access to a bank in the U.K.—I now had bank accounts in both countries, so the next logical step was to transfer money from my bank accounts in the U.S. to my newfound account in the U.K. International bank transfers were a well-established thing, I was sure of this, but reality caught up with me again.
It wasn’t practical to set up small sum transfers from my U.S. to my U.K. account, the fees and effort were far greater than just taking money out of an ATM and then depositing the cash into my U.K. account. So—having an account in the U.K. did not earn me the privilege of avoiding the ATM ‘tax’, it just made it easier for me to transact in the U.K. and enabled me to start doing business in the U.K. Small wins.
The ATM dance and deposit routine became normal for me, I got used to it. And over-time, my income shifted from being primarily U.S.-based to primarily U.K.-based which made things easier. But I still had some savings in the states, and at one point, while preparing to move house, decided I would move a larger-than-normal sum of money over, a few thousand dollars, to pay for moving expenses and have some to add to savings account on this side of the pond. If my memory serves me, I think ATMs at the time would only let me withdraw up to £500 at one time, but this time, around February 2017, I decided to move a few grand over from the U.S. to the U.K. So I started prodding around the international transfer pages on my banks websites.
Days and Weeks
I had no idea how this worked, and both of my bank websites instructed that I call to speak to someone. So I rang my U.S. bank and spoke to someone, she instructed me to complete a form that she would send via email, then return it and that they would get back to me within 2-3 working days. So, I received the form, printed it, completed it, signed it, and then emailed it back with all the requested information (in this, the 21st century). For some reason that I cannot now recall, my U.K. bank—Lloyd’s—couldn’t accept the transfer directly from my U.S. bank (a credit union). So, they referred me to a broker in London who contracted with Lloyd’s to handle international transfers. I really didn’t have much of a good explanation for why this was the case, and I can’t remember the name of the broker in London who assisted me, but in the end it took about 6 weeks to get all sides lined up for this transfer to occur. And by week 4, because it was taking so long for the transfer to happen, the broker in London required that I ante up £150 as a security in the event the transfer didn’t occur. Once the transfer was triggered from the U.S., it still took an entire week for the funds to clear and arrive on my end. So for a week there was $4,000 of my hard-earned money not showing in any of my accounts, just floating in the ether, tucked away in the computer systems of either a bank or a brokerage or god knows. I was horrified.
I don’t really have words for how outrageous all of this was. What if I had needed the money for an emergency? I cannot imagine what it must be like for some immigrants and their families who are sending money back and forth—either getting taxed and fee’d to death by banks and/or middle-men, or going weeks without financial support. Fortunately, I was able to get by, I wasn’t in dire straits, but it was seriously stressful, especially during the period of time when my money appeared to be no where.
Fortunately that was the first and last international transfer I ever did, immediately after this incident I discovered Transferwise (now called Wise) and started using that to shift money between my accounts in the U.S. and U.K. It was a life saver!
This experience of having to make multiple phone calls, fill out actual paper work (vs. online forms), and wait and worry and wonder where my money was gave me the keen sense that I don’t actually own my money. I am not the custodian of my money. None of us are if we have our money locked up in these private institutions. My money, those bits of data in a bank’s database that signify the value of the work I had done for various clients, the money I had worked hard to earn, was frustratingly inaccessible. This is the realisation that I had. My money isn’t mine as long as it is being held by some bank. And because I wasn’t super wealthy, my money wasn’t the same as those who had larger account balances—if it were, I wouldn’t have faced these troubles.
Banks are businesses, and like any business they’re set up to make money—not help people. I can accept that. But I can’t accept the thought of so many people in the world struggling to get by because they can’t access their own money. Something is wrong here.
FinTech and Blockchain to the Rescue
After all of this—the struggle of getting an account in the first place, the harsh realisation that only super wealthy people can have access to international banking and transferrable credit, and the frustrations of moving what is essentially data between two entities in different countries in the age of high-speed internet and globalism—I began keeping an eye out for alternatives. I was more than keen to opt out of the traditional financial marketplace as quickly as possible. It made me sick to think that people sat in high-rise office towers so detached from the day-to-day realities of the rest of us were making rules and laws that made it difficult for me as an individual to access my own money, and it gave me a great deal of empathy to feel this pain and know that so many people and other immigrants around the world would be feeling this same frustration if not much, much worse.
It was around this time that Monzo cropped up—a hip, fintech startup that promised easy access to current accounts, a slick app that made pinging money between friends super easy. As soon as I learned about Transferwise, I started using them rather than get stuck in the not-so-SWIFT international transfer loop again. Later on I discovered Starling and Revolut. At least in my world, these banks were different, a breath of fresh air in the stuffy world of traditional finance—a world that is set up to serve the 1% well, but not the rest of us.
In 2017, I also started hearing more about Bitcoin. A friend of mine was well into it and he would talk about it at length. I started watching Andreas Antonopolous’s YouTube videos and read his book The Internet of Money—I found his talks to be truly inspiring. Bitcoin was on the rise in 2017, so there was a lot of hype around it, but it was super exciting to be watching the space and learning about it. I put a little money in, and a bit more after Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, declared Bitcoin to be a “fraud” on the mainstream media outlets (this is when the concept of FUD really clicked for me! ha!). It was super exciting to watch as my investments doubled, then tripled, then quadrupled… and so on.
At the same time I found myself getting emotional listening to Andreas Antonopolous describe the same pains I experienced with financial institutions, and share similar stories of people around the world whose lives were made more difficult by governments and institutions through financial collapse, hyperinflation, and fraudulent banking practices. He also talked at length about the underbanked and unbanked populations of the world—something I’d never really considered in the comfort of the Euro-American economies I participated in, where you could almost always count on a merchant accepting Visa or Mastercard, and cash never too hard to get ahold of from an ATM machine. The world of finance was way worse than even I had experienced.
Antonopolous’s talks reminded me of a very simple principle I had learned in my 5th grade economics class at school—you vote with your dollars. When you buy something from Amazon, you’re voting for Amazon to continue existing. Likewise, when you put your money in a certain financial institution, you’re voting for that institution to do whatever it decides is best. You might have your own values and principles, but you can’t always know what the values and principles are of the organisations and institutions who you give your money to, which makes it hard to ‘vote’ sensibly; but Bitcoin and blockchain offer an alternative. And, since blockchain is a communications protocol—not just a digital currency—the field of application and opportunity is robust. I started learning about smart contracts, and found the idea of micropayments and data ownership to be really very compelling.
As an artist, I realised that cryptography would be beneficial for copyright and ownership, and recently I’ve added my own art to the blockchain as NFTs. I love knowing that I could mint copies of my own art and retain some connection to those minted tokens throughout their lives—in the same way that artists would make copies of their art and sell them, I can make a digital copy and sell it, but also have rights to commissions made on future sales of my art.
I have learned so much from blockchain—in it are lessons of history, economics, markets, global politics, philosophy, innovation, media and market manipulation (FUD, Shill and Whales oh my!), scalable platform technologies, communications technologies and the importance of faith in maintaining societal constructs. Honestly it’s almost broken both my brain and my heart at times to stick to it, but it has also opened up an entire world of possibility to me, and helped me become a more innovative thinker. It’s also given me hope to see the energy buzzing around these philosophies of decentralised, censorship-resistance, open-source, borderless technologies. As someone who sees herself more and more as an Earthling rather than just an American or a British Resident, this gives me hope. My dream is that everyone in the world will have equal access and equal opportunities in our global economy, and that when an individual is contributing value to the world that they can trust that they’ll have access to that value no matter what piece of land they happen to be standing on.
Thank you for reading <3