N26 — One more bank to hate?

The Valentine Bank — a must read if you are planning on opening an N26 account

From the N26 home page

If you work in Banking or FinTech anywhere in the developed world you have probably heard of N26, the “mobile bank” that likes to tout itself as “the first bank you’ll love” and “the bank the world loves to use”.

A bank claiming a love relationship with its customers is an ambitious (and perhaps dangerous?) claim to make given that nearly all of us HATE banks. Perhaps ‘hate’ is too strong a word, but there is little question that most people in the modern world view banks as necessary evils. Certainly the anti-bank feeling is one of the drivers in the adoption of cryptocurrencies and services like TransferWise (“the borderless bank”) and Revolut (“beyond banking”).

When I first opened my N26 account — six weeks ago on March 1st 2019— I was almost loving to use it. Sadly, it is now just six weeks later and I am almost hating it. Hating it enough to write this article…

I have lived and worked in 10 countries and thus I have had a LOT of bank accounts in my life — something like 15 in total from Asia, Europe and the USA— of which 5 I still use. I think perhaps then I am in a relatively good position to judge a bank account.

I have also worked inside seven banks (although I never held accounts with them, they were just a way to put food on the table!). So you could say I know a little bit about banks. Since I am a developer, I know software too.

Hence when given the opportunity to move to country number eleven — Germany — it made perfect sense to open an N26 ‘mobile’ bank account and see if, finally, I might find a bank, and account, to love. A ‘mobile’ bank that would let me open an account, online, without needing a physical address — just a mobile number in your country of choice— in less than 30 minutes seemed almost too good to be true.

Back in March, the first Brexit deadline (of many!) was looming fast, and as a British expat relocating from the Netherlands to Germany I needed to arrange things quickly. So whilst visiting Germany to view possible places to live, I bought a German prepaid SIM card. 20 minutes later, after following the well designed sign-up wizard, a brief video call and installing the app, I was good to go. A quick transfer and the next day I had money in my new German bank account!

It was, without a doubt, the fastest, easiest and most obstacle-free process I have ever had to follow to open a bank account. It was simple and I simply loved it. The mobile app is intuitive and well thought out, just like the web app. Could I possibly be falling in love with a bank account after decades of hate?

If you are anything like me, you probably hate those electronic identifiers and the annoying process of having to authorise transactions by inserting a card and entering codes. I understand the need for them (I have worked in Anti Money Laundering!), but they are a pain, and in this age of mobile tech they should be unnecessary.

N26 does not have an e-identifier. You use your phone.

What a relief…finally my e-identifiers can be consigned to the bin:

Adding money is easy, transfers are easy. Everything just works. Just be sure to keep your phone charged (or charger to hand), since every transaction must be authorised by the app on your phone. And that is my undoing…

When you first sign up and install the app, that phone you signed up with is paired to your account. It means you can use the account immediately, which is great as it is what you would expect — there is no need to wait for your accompanying Mastercard.

Unfortunately what N26 do not tell you — until it is too late — is that you cannot switch phones without the card.

During my relocation to Germany, I decided to buy a new phone. Given my knowledge of software and banking, I feel quite an idiot for not quite fully understanding that my phone LITERALLY IS MY BANK ACCOUNT — so all the money I transferred to Germany is now inaccessible. Wait, what?

On my new phone I installed the app and started the pairing process. It started by warning me I can only pair one phone at a time. So dutifully I went and unpaired the original phone.

Notice it DOES NOT tell you that you will need your card to pair the new phone

Then continued the wizard on the new phone…only to get to the end to be told I needed my card, which I did not have.

Despite how slick and intuitive the app is, this is a fatal flaw in the ‘helpful’ wizard. When you un-pair the original phone you signed up with, there is ZERO warning that you cannot pair a new phone unless you have the card on hand. The flaw is that it should NOT let you un-pair a phone unless you have first successfully paired a new one. In other words, by successfully pairing a new one, the api backend should no longer send or receive data to the old phone other than a message to say it is now deactivated.

Since I have no card (after 6 weeks has still not arrived at my new address in Germany) I now cannot do anything with my account, except login.

To be fair to N26 they did try to deliver the card once, before I had even moved there (even though I asked for it to be delivered in April). I still don’t know for sure why it was not delivered.

I had already been on the N26 support chat to ask for the card to be sent again. I received a great service on the chat. Helpful, patient, quick response, just as you would hope for. I was told my card would be resent, but it could take up to 2 weeks. Thankfully I could afford (just about) to wait that long.

Or so I thought…relocation costs were mounting fast, so after a week, I hopped on the chat again to check. I was told to allow for the full 2 weeks.

Grrr…ok, so I wait patiently but you know already where this is headed: yep, once the 2 weeks are up I still have no card!

So I am back on the chat again and told again, wait another 2 weeks, we will reorder it. No I won’t, I frantically type, as I tell them it was already reordered 2 weeks ago…so I am put on hold for a few minutes and finally told that actually the cards are still being manufactured. It was never sent! Wait, what!?

It seems N26 are inundated and manufacturing of cards is behind schedule. Why in 2019 is it so much to ask that companies communicate properly. It would have been nice to have been notified of this either the first time, or the 2nd time or even with an email update. But I was told nothing. Just kept in the dark.

So I get on the chat for a 3rd frustrating time:

Me: How long?

N26 Chat: No idea.

I press the issue again:

Me: Please give me a rough estimate, ball park at least!

I wait patiently for a few minutes…

N26 Chat: At least a month. Then please allow 2 weeks for delivery.

So no access to my money for another 6 weeks.

Me: How I can get my money out?

N26 Chat: Close the account and we will transfer the balance to an account of your choosing.

In this age of technology, I cannot believe that is the only solution to this Catch-22. One that should have never been possible if the software had been designed correctly in the first place.

At this point I start to wonder what the new TransferWise borderless account is like…perhaps I can have my balance transferred to that.

Arthur Morgan, following the Valentine Bank Heist in Red Dead Redemption II.

I loved that N26 has no branches…the downside is I cannot follow in the steps of Arthur Morgan and simply blow up my local branch to get my money out…

N26. The first bank you’ll love?

Nope, just the latest bank I hate.

UPDATE Nov 2020

N26 reached out on Twitter and were amazingly helpful, and we got everything sorted out (eventually) so I did not close the account.

I’ve moved countries 2 more times since posting this and I have to say that I have indeed fallen in love with N26…

…but I now also have the TransferWise Borderless account (just in case!) — and it is just as awesome.

Other people shoot for the moon. Me? I like to piss on the sun.