Technology

The Check Cashed Around the World


Imagine being able to write a check in Madrid to send as a wedding gift to a friend in Taipei -- and she can easily cash it at a local bank. Or having your checking and credit-card accounts open and waiting for you in New York City the day you arrive from your former home in Shanghai.

Banks don't typically provide such services to every retail customer, even as the industry globalizes amid a series of cross-border mergers. But some banks have been rolling out checking account services in recent years that better address the needs of globe-trotting consumers.

It's happening as multinationals and banks continue broadening their global reach. One recent example: National Bank of Greece announced plans in early April, 2006, to buy a 46% stake in Turkey's Finansbank for €2.3 billion ($2.77 billion).

And speculation has been rampant this month about what -- or where -- global banking pioneer Citigroup (C) will buy next, now that the Federal Reserve has lifted its prohibition against the New York financial services company's pursuit of acquisitions.

CALLING ALL EXPATS. Citigroup saw the need to provide financial services for expatriates more than a decade ago, when a section of the bank did nothing but handle the finances of its employees abroad. The bank soon decided to extend the service to expats from other companies. It continues helping them with money transfers, accounts, and other matters as part of its "Personal Banking for Overseas Employees" program.

Now banks are improving their services for consumers around the world. "What you're seeing is recognition, on a number of different levels, of the increasing mobility of the population," says Jim Eckenrode, managing director of banking and payments research at Needham (Mass.) research and consulting firm TowerGroup.

He says that banks want to make their services more accessible to consumers abroad for many reasons. Banks benefit from having a global brand that retail consumers recognize in more than one country, he says. They also don't like to lose customers who move away.

HSBC (HBC), which has more than 9,500 offices in Europe, the Asia-Pacific region, the Americas, the Middle East, and Africa, has been working hard to encourage customers to keep using its retail branches in different countries. In recent years the London bank began offering a "Premier" service, which includes perks such as quick credit and mortgages for people moving overseas.

THE SUN NEVER SETS. Geoffrey Byrd, business integration manager for London power systems and services company Rolls-Royce, used HSBC's new service when he moved to the U.S. from Britain in November. The Englishman has lived in his native country for most of his life and banked with HSBC for at least 10 years.

When his company transferred him in September to a position in East Hartford, Conn., Byrd went to an HSBC branch in Britain to discuss his plans to move. The bank's British office filled out paperwork about his account information and sent it to an HSBC office in the U.S.

"We can base everything here on what he has in Britain," says Kristy Moore, a premier relationship manager at HSBC. In most cases it takes three days to transfer the information overseas and adapt it to the new country's financial system. An easy transfer from Britain to the U.S. could take an afternoon, while it might take a few more days from a place like Australia.

HSBC's accounts are geared for higher-income customers, however. The services are free for those who maintain at least $100,000 of assets in the U.S. For those who have less, it costs $50 a month -- which could make lower-income customers swallow hard.

IMMIGRANT AID. Company executives who travel aren't the only ones who need global checking accounts. Daniel Ayala, senior vice-president for global remittance services at Wells Fargo (WFC) in San Francisco, has been sending money to his mother in Colombia for 22 years.

When he did this recently, it took him about an hour. He had to rush out of his office at lunchtime, find an ATM to withdraw some cash, go to an ethnic neighborhood on the other side of town, find an agent at a remittance company there, give them his cash, get a confirmation number for proof of the transaction, go back to his office, call his mom, and give her the confirmation number so she could obtain the money in Colombia. Then he had to call her again the next day to make sure she got her money safely.

If Wells Fargo had a remittance program to Columbia –- it doesn't yet -- Ayala would have opened one of the company's InterCuenta Express accounts in the U.S. Within 24 hours or so of setting it up, Ayala would be able to log into the account online at Wellsfargo.com whenever he needed it.

He could transfer up to $3,000 per day, at $5 per transaction, from the Wells Fargo account, which would be linked to another account in Colombia. His mother could then withdraw the money from the Colombian bank whenever she needed it, instead of having to pick up a wad of cash at the local supermarket.

SNOWBIRD SERVICE. Wells Fargo has been expanding such services for its immigrant customers in recent years and plans to continue doing so. Most recently the bank started providing InterCuenta Express accounts to El Salvadoran and Guatemalan immigrants last May.

To make it happen, it partnered with Guatemalan banks Banco Industrial and Banco De Desarrollo Rural, as well as Banco Agrícola of El Salvador. Wells Fargo has formed such partnerships since the 1990s with banks in Latin American countries, India, and the Philippines, in an effort to better serve its immigrant customers on the West Coast.

It's also happening in the Great White North. Toronto-based Royal Bank of Canada (RY) acquired Rocky Mount (N.C.)-based Centura Bank in 2001. Since then the Canadian bank has been trying to expand its U.S. presence by using the branches of its U.S. subsidiary (now called RBC Centura and based in Raleigh).

The Canadian bank and its U.S. subsidiary have been offering checking accounts in recent years for migrant customers from Canada. Many "snowbirds" live north of the border but spend their winters in Florida. There are also Canadian students at U.S. colleges and people who live in one country but work on the other side of the border.

KEEPING CUSTOMERS. People who sign up for the "RBC Access" service get access to two checking accounts -- one in Canada and the other in the U.S. It costs $3.95 per month, but the fee is waived for a minimum balance of $700.

Customers can then make instant foreign currency transfers between the two accounts, even though they are denominated in different currencies. They can also use their Canadian credit history to obtain credit cards or mortgages from the Royal Bank of Canada in the U.S., among other things.

"It's an easy way to access [your money] without going to another institution," says Michael Reed, a senior manager who comes up with business strategies for affluent clients at the Royal Bank of Canada. And easier access to dollars, euros, and pesos appears to be the order of the day as globe-girdling banks try to hold on to customers -- and attract new ones.


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