Starling Bank Review – The Best Card for Travellers?

Starling Bank Review - The Best Card for Travellers?

When backpacking, there’s nothing like checking your bank account and noticing that your bank has been charging you withdrawal fees to put a downer on your day!

Not only have you been paying a transaction fee to the ATM itself (sometimes up to 6 GBP for each withdrawal!) but your own bank (you know the ones who are supposed to be looking after you), have been mugging you off as well! All because you withdrew your own money from a foreign ATM. 

ATM machines in Phuket International Airport, Thailand.

Here at South East Asia Backpacker, we get asked time and time again – “What is the best way to access your money whilst abroad?” The answer is simple, set up an account with a travel-friendly bank or Fintech company that won’t charge you extra fees when you withdraw money from the ATM!* Starling, Revolut, Monzo and N26 are part of the new digital bank and financial technology trend that is taking the world by storm and each of them offers great benefits to travellers.

*Unfortunately, many foreign ATMs will always charge you money regardless of what bank you have. See this article for more information on how to avoid international ATM charges.

Why Should Travellers Consider Starling Bank?

The best of the bunch, as chosen by our community of readers and fellow backpackers, is Starling Bank. To help you understand why Starling has been chosen as the best bank for travellers, I have included my own experiences using them, as well as thoughts from other backpackers…

Personally, I’ve used Starling Bank for 3 years and I think they are hands down, the best bank for backpackers. I have used mine all across Southeast Asia as well as in South America and Europe, without any issues that were not of my own making. (Like getting locked out of my account because I forgot my password!)

However, instead of just giving you my personal thoughts on Starling Bank, I have included the opinions and experiences of travellers within our Facebook community.

This way, you can make the most informed decision about whether you should choose Starling for your next adventure!

Remember – For anyone reading this who is not from the UK – bad luck. If you are NOT a UK resident, you will not be able to open a Starling account. However, international readers need not fret – we have plenty more information on the best mobile banks for travel, many of which cater to our America, Aussie and European cousins!

Starling Bank: A Review

How does Starling Differ from Other Banks?

Founded in 2014 by Anne Bowden, who had a career in banking and finance, Starling Bank is designed from the ground up to be different. In their own words, “Banks haven’t always done the right thing, but that doesn’t mean they can’t.”

How to Set Up a Starling Account

There was once a time where you would follow your parents into Barclays, Lloyds or HSBC and go straight through to the bank manager’s office. I remember the feeling of excitement that came in that moment, I would finally be an adult! 

Someone who was not only capable of, but also allowed to look after their own money. Someone who could go out and use a bank card to make purchases, to buy whatever they wanted without having to ask their mum for her spare change. It was thrilling.

The hour it took to set up my account left me bored to tears, so fed up I started counting the damp spots on the ceiling and trying to work out why the room smelt so bad.

I decided it was the smell of conformity, responsibility and a desperate need to be a proper functioning adult. Although in reality, it was probably just the mixture of coffee and cigarettes on the manager’s breath. 

The experience of setting up a Starling account is very different. Firstly, you download the app. This can be done via the app store, google play or by entering your phone number into the Starling website. They will then text you the download links and instructions. 

Upon opening the app, you can quickly see that this is not the stinky, damp, fun-sucking office of your high street bank but a sleek futuristic domain that feels like it’s been ripped straight out of the starship enterprise.  Follow the on-screen instructions and within 15 minutes, assuming you are a UK resident, you will have your account ready to go. 

As soon as it is live, you can transfer money into it and start using it with Apple or Google Pay. The contactless debit card will arrive in the post a few days later.  You can even let Starling swap over all your direct debits from your current account, so you can make this your primary bank account should you want to. 

“I’ve been travelling with Starling for 6 months and had zero issues. Really easy to set up in the app and the card arrived very quickly.”

Starling bank pie chart screenshot
Starling bank can show you exactly how you’ve spent your money.

How to Get Help with A Starling Account

If you’ve ever had an issue with your bank of choice, you’ll be well aware of how tiresome the customer service process can be.  Go into the bank, queue up behind 12 other people, all of whom look like they have already been standing there for the better part of a decade and patiently wait your turn.

The one bank teller on duty has a look of resignation on their face that clearly says, “I wish someone would rob the place, just to add a bit of spice to my day”.  You creep forward, trying to take your mind off the smell of cabbage and instead focus on the tiny TV in the corner. Even that doesn’t work for long, the subtitles are lagging so badly it’s hard to determine what is actually going on.

Finally, after 45 minutes, the purgatory is over and you come face to face with the teller. He can’t help you though, partially because he doesn’t care but mostly because he’s not authorised to do so and the manager is out on an extended lunch meeting. You leave frustrated, no closer to fixing your issue. 

Getting help with your Starling account is easy. Unless, of course, you are someone who likes to deal with problems person to person, then it will be nigh on impossible.

If, like me, you are happier dealing with a problem over the phone or chat service, then log into your Starling app, navigate to the menu and tap ‘Help’. You get the choice of sending Starling a message, using their instant messenger service to talk to a representative or calling the 24-hour helpline. 

From experience, I can confirm that this process works perfectly and that the customer care representatives are friendly and helpful. I got locked out of my account whilst travelling in South America last year and had the issue resolved in under five minutes.

“I had a problem with Starling in Belize and spoke to someone online and it was all sorted pretty much hassle-free within a couple of hours.”


How Starling Can Help Keep Track of Your Money whilst Travelling Abroad

Let’s face it, not many of us are good at keeping track of our spending habits, especially when on the backpacking trip of a lifetime! Even though we devote hours of time-saving every penny for the next trip, do we really know how or where it all goes when we’re in the moment?

With your classic high street bank, you could dive into each statement and log every transaction but the process is laborious and how many of us can really be bothered to do that?

Starling makes it simple to see where your money is going. Each transaction is categorised and displayed on a simple pie chart. Be it on food, transport or accommodation, at a glance you can see your exact spending habits.

You will also get notifications every time money goes in or out of your account and if your card gets declined for any reason.

These services only work if you have an internet connection so if you are often in places without wifi, consider getting a local sim card to keep you connected and on top of your finances.

“I love my starling account, even use it at home now. No trouble over 7 countries in Asia last year and will be using it again this year in Asia.”


Saving Money with Starling Bank

Now it is time to give the high street banks their due, although Barclays is the only one I can speak for personally on this front. It is now easier than ever to set up a savings account.

When I opened my first savings account, it was in the same dingy, soul-sucking office I had to enter to open my original current account. It took an age and I spent most of that time wondering how long it would take to drown myself in the water cooler.

These days, you don’t even have to visit the bank. You can set up an e-saver account in a matter of minutes through the Barclays app and load money into it as soon as it is open. 

With Starling, the process of saving is one step easier. Rather than having a dedicated savings account, you can compartmentalise your main account into ‘Goals’. To find these, open the app and tap on the ‘spaces’ icon at the bottom of the screen. If you don’t have any goals set up, you will be prompted to do so. 

You can name the goal, add a picture for the thumbnail, set the amount you want to save and start moving money into it. Money can be moved manually or automatically transferred each month depending on your preferences. 

The goals also have a round-up feature. Once this is activated, every time you spend money on your card, Starling round this transaction up to the nearest pound and add the remainder into your goals. It is only ever small amounts but tiny additions like these add up quickly. This money is kept separate from your main balance so you cannot accidentally spend it, yet it still counts towards your account total so it does not affect the overall interest you can earn.

“The app is straightforward and there were no extra charges for withdrawing at any ATM. Also, they had a feature which would round up transactions and put the difference to the side, sometimes only a few pence but after 6 months of travelling we had saved around $40 and put it towards our flights home. Would recommend.”

Starling card surrounded by money.
Many travellers recommend Starling’s ’round-up’ feature.

Do Starling Bank Have Fees?

When I first travelled to Southeast Asia, I was a novice backpacker, having not spent more than a couple of weeks abroad without my parents. I didn’t know what to expect but the veteran travellers in my life (my grandparents) told me to speak to the bank before I left, just to let them know I would be using my card abroad. 

I queued up in the bank, babies were crying, the subtitles on the tv were three minutes behind the picture and it was once again pension day. Finally, I got to see the teller. I explained I would be in Southeast Asia for at least four months and asked whether I would be able to use my card out there. I was told using my card would be free, even when withdrawing money.

Brilliant, that was one less thing to worry about and my 30 minutes of queuing in hell had been time well spent.  Fast forward 3 months and I’m sitting in a bar in Phnom Penh. I decide to check my bank balance before treating myself to another beer. Low and behold, I had been charged for every withdrawal I’d made across the region. I was staggered at the amount of money I had lost and somewhat naively, shocked that the bank had lied to me. 

To give Barclays their due, they did refund me the money after numerous complaints.

Starling has almost zero fees connected to their account. They do not charge anything for ATM withdrawals so your travel money can be used for its intended purpose.  

Be aware though, many ATMs charge a fee for using them which is connected to the ATM itself and has nothing to do with your bank or card issuer. Unfortunately, no matter which travel card you decide to get, when withdrawing money from an ATM abroad these ATM fees cannot be avoided. 

Starling does charge a fee when making international money transfers. For these, they will charge you 0.4% of the total amount transferred which is still much lower than the market average of 5%.

“I have a Starling card and I highly recommend it. Speaking to other travellers who have paid over £500 in bank fees during their trip so far makes me glad that I got it.”


Losing Your Starling Card whilst Overseas

Losing a bank card is always a pain, especially when travelling. The classic banks require you to call their helpline and wait an age on hold until they can connect you with a customer service representative.

Then they will ask a shed load of questions about your first teacher’s favourite pet’s maiden name before you can cancel the card. The next job is getting a new one and good luck trying to get HSBC to ship a card outside of the UK for you! The most annoying thing is then finding your card an hour after it has been cancelled.

Sadly, it’s too late and you will be unable to get it reactivated.  With Starling, as with all the digital banks, putting a block on your card is easy and can be done within the app. The card will remain unusable until you reactivate it, which can also be done in the app.

If you really do lose your card then Starling can ship a new one to you, anywhere in the world. This service is pretty pricey at £60 but it’s certainly better than having no card at all. 

Traveller Tip! Some travellers will have multiple accounts for this reason, if they lose one card they can just transfer money into a different account and use that for the rest of their travels!

Read more about our recommended travel cards here.

Note, if you are in the UK getting a new card is completely free. 

Other Features of Having a Starling Bank Account

Paying Cheques Into Your Starling Account

We all know that relative who doesn’t trust banks and keeps their money hidden under carpets or in books. The irony that these same relatives are the ones who send cheques in the post is not lost on me and being able to process said cheques is still important. 

Paying cheques into a bank has always been as easy as paying in cash but how do you go about this with a bank that has no branches?

For any cheque under £1000GBP, you can photograph it within the app and it will be processed by Starling. Cheques over £1000GBP need to be posted to Starling and they will have the money in your account within 5 working days. That’s the same amount of time as your high street bank.

The Post Office and Starling

With Starling being an app-only bank, there are obviously no branches. This could be a massive disadvantage to those wanting to pay cash into their accounts but Starling has thought of this too. They have partnered with the Post Office, which means their customers can use any post office branch to pay money into their Starling account. 

There are 11,500 post offices in the UK that you can use to pay cash into your account. Compare that to the 1600 branches of Barclays or only 600 branches of HSBC.

Phone with Starling bank app open.
Moving money from your Starling account is easy.

Are There Withdrawal Limits with a Starling Account?

Starling limits you to six withdrawals per day, no matter where you are in the world, with the combined daily total being £300. Some other new banks, such as Monzo or Wise, only allow you to withdraw a set amount per month abroad before they start charging you for the privilege of accessing your own money.

“Differences compared to Monzo and Revolut, is both of those have a MONTHLY cap on cash withdrawals of £200, after that, you pay a few percent to withdraw cash. Starling just has a DAILY limit of £300. (Basically the normal limit on any UK bank anyway).”


Common Complaints from Starling Customers

In the interest of balance, I hunted through the comments within our community, to discover the most common complaints about Starling. To be honest, there weren’t many but here are the ones I found. 

Cringey Videos

By far the most common complaint from customers was the awkward videos you have to make whilst setting up a Starling account. These involve you reading from your phone screen whilst the app records you. It is used for Starling to verify your identity should you forget your password or need to change any other important information within your account. 

I forgot my password and had to send them a video of me requesting a new one. On their end, an employee compared my new video to the one they had on file to make sure it was actually me requesting the password change. 

It’s best to set your account up somewhere quiet so you can record this video without interruption, or for those of you out there who find cameras awkward, without an audience!

A Lot to Remember

The other common complaint about Starling is that there is a lot of information you must remember to have full access to your account. Not only do you need to set up a PIN for your card but you also need a PIN for the app as well as a password. The password is only really used to add new payees, view the PIN for your card or change personal details within the app.

These are not things we tend to do very often which can make it very easy to forget the password! I’ve personally forgotten mine on two separate occasions so have had to send that cringey video twice to get it reset! If your phone has facial recognition capabilities then you can use this to get into the account, just try not to forget the PIN because you may need it at some point!

“My memory is awful, if I don’t write my passwords down (not recommended!) then I find myself forever forgetting them!”


Losing Your Phone

The final complaint I saw from backpackers was about how hard it is to access your account if you lose your phone when abroad. As all the banking is done within the app, there is no way to access your account from a web browser, it is practically impossible to get into your account should you lose your phone. 

One backpacker really struggled and was told that she couldn’t regain access to her account unless she got a new phone with an English number! This is obviously a massive challenge if you are travelling for an extended period. 

After speaking to a Starling representative recently I discovered the only way to prevent this issue from occurring, is to carry a spare English sim card with you. Put this somewhere safe. If you do lose your phone, you can try to pick up a local smartphone for cheap and then use the English sim to set up your account again. It is not an ideal fix but the only way Starling can guarantee to keep your account protected.

“When I lost my phone in Thailand I couldn’t access my account at all until I got another phone with an English number. They wouldn’t allow me to do anything over the telephone so couldn’t transfer funds or anything.”


What if I Don’t Want A Starling Account?

If you are still not convinced on Starling but are interested in getting away from the high street banks then there are still travel cards available to you. N26, Monzo and Revolut are the other big players in the new wave of digital banks and Fintech companies but according to our readers, none of them is quite as good as Starling for travellers.

Final Thoughts on Starling Bank

As a general rule, I don’t like banks. I don’t like having to surrender control of my money to anyone else. However, with Starling I don’t feel like I’m relinquishing anything. I feel like they are working with me to help me travel the world and live my life in the way I want. 

Unless, you are one of those folks who still hides money under a rug, there really is no downside to choosing to bank with Starling.

Join me in saying goodbye to traditional banking today.

Tim Ashdown | Gear Specialist

After a life-changing motorcycle accident, Tim decided life was too short to stay cooped up in his home county of Norfolk, UK. Since then, he has travelled Southeast Asia, walked the Camino de Santiago and backpacked South America. His first book, From Paralysis to Santiago, chronicles his struggle to recover from the motorcycle accident and will be released later this year.

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