When you are a customer of a non-Finnish bank, you very quickly come to appreciate how well the whole banking system works in Finland. No, I don’t claim it’s without any problems Finland, but trust me, from the point of view of getting your everyday banking done, it could be much, much worse.
In addition to Finland, I’ve had bank accounts in France, Germany, USA, and Korea, so I’m not a complete stranger to foreign ways of handling money. Sure, when you actually need to go to a bank branch to take care of something, the experience is relatively similar, i.e., you wait in line and then get serviced (or “serviced”, as the case may be). It’s the part when you don’t need to go to a branch where Finland is way, way ahead of the others (except maybe Korea, where we’re maybe just a little bit ahead).
When the Euro was introduced and European banks started to make their systems interoperate better, I remember reading in a newspaper that for Finnish banks this would mean going back 15-20 years in time. That really wasn’t very far from the truth, based on my experience in France and Germany, although recently bank transfers within Europe have become easier.
Although one time I had a funny experience in a bank branch. This was back in 1996 when I was doing an internship in Lyon, France, and I had received an advance of my first salary (about 1000 EUR) and wanted to open a bank account. Although I spoke French, my boss sent a French intern to come with me. The guy in the bank says: “Oh, you want to open an account? You need to have an appointment, the next appointment is a week from now.” I had heard that opening a bank account in France was tricky for foreigners, so when the French intern simply resigned to this fate, I figured that was it. When my boss heard about it, he blew a gasket, called the bank, threatening to move the company’s business away from that bank, and suddenly I had an appointment for the following morning. (Not sure how effective the threat was, since although the company was Electricite de France, the French national electricity provider, i.e., a very big company, he was only a section head, so he probably wouldn’t have been able to carry out his threat.)
About the banks in US, it suffices to say that these guys still use checks as a part of their everyday life. I vaguely remember seeing my parents use checks back in Finland about 30 years ago, but those things belong in the past (unless you happen to have an archaic banking system… not naming any countries, but the list is longer than just 1 country). There is one nice(?) feature at my bank here in California, in that I can have receipts for my ATM withdrawals go to my email instead of cluttering my wallet or pockets. I’m not sure if I want to actually save them, but at least the option is there.
Bank transfers in the US seem to be considered a creation of the devil, since nobody seems to use them. Sure, checks cover many of the features of a working bank transfer system, but a transfer is just so much more convenient in every conceivable way. Paying for rent, school photos, etc., is all done by checks and when I asked my landlord how he would prefer to get the rent deposit, it ended up being done over Western Union. I did mention the possibility of doing a bank transfer from Finland, but he never reacted to that option. 🙂 Back in 2000 or so, when I was working as a summer intern in the US, I got my salary as a check, however there was the option of getting it directly on my bank account. I took that option, but many people reacted with a “are you sure you want to do that?”. Maybe things have changed in the last 10 years, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
In Korea the system is about at the level of Finland. One interesting feature is the ability to get your bank to send you a text message every time you use your debit card. It felt a bit weird to pay for something and then have your phone beep/vibrate about 5-10 seconds later, but I got used to it and it actually got pretty annoying in the end. Given the annoyance factor, this arrangement brings up the question of why such a system has been implemented in the first place? If it’s my card, wouldn’t I know that I have just bought such and such? (It only tells you the amount and name of merchant.) I can only think of it as a fraud protection system and such an annoying system would seem to imply that there is a lot of fraud; however, I don’t have any data, so that is just a wild guess. I know that the system has been around for 10 years or more, so maybe it was just originally implemented as “hey look at this cool extra service we can provide with mobile phones” and nobody has given it any serious thought. It wouldn’t be the first nor the last time…
About the only thing the Koreans don’t seem to have when compared to Finland, is the reference number for a bank transfer. This lets the recipient check automatically who has paid and who has not, avoiding the need of manually checking from deposit books for my last month’s electricity payment, as happened with the guesthouse manager in Seoul. (Then again, for her it seemed like business-as-usual, so I guess that’s how it happens.) Truth to be told, the gas company bill in Seoul had a bunch of numbers on it, but it had to be fed through an optical reader, so I don’t know what exactly happened to those numbers. The standard ATM bank transfer interface in English didn’t let me enter anything but account number and amount. The Korean interface allowed me to save recipient lists, but didn’t allow entering these kinds of reference numbers.
Other than that, the world of banking has developed in the last 20 years that I’ve been using it in different countries. I can even log into my banks web service in Finland and do a transfer to my account in the US. And it works and the money is here in less than a week and the commission is very reasonable.