If you like an easy life, free from hassle and stress, then a Cypriot bank account is not for you.
If on the other hand you enjoy confrontation with bureaucratic red tape and rude bank employees, then I urge you to open as many accounts with as many different Cypriot banks as possible.
Not that the UK banking system is any better these days. The personal service element has long gone. Frustrating call centres are the norm. You’re just a number these days instead of a valued customer. If you want to speak to someone at your branch, first you have to speak to someone in Wales or India. And they wonder why they’re losing so many customers!
Banks have always had a unique way of trying to make you believe that they’re doing you a favour, and that you should be grateful to them. That sharp intake of breath when you ask for a loan or an overdraft, so that you feel indebted to them when it’s granted. Well, you are of course financially indebted to them at that point. But it’s purely a business arrangement. Both parties get something out of it. But when did a bank ever say ‘thank you’ for bringing your custom to them instead of a competitor.
They’re a strange lot.
When I first arrived in Cyprus in October last year, I was staying with my friend Steve at his place 20 km from Larnaca just outside a small village called Anglissedes. So the first day I was there, I opened an account with the only bank in the village, a branch of the Bank Of Cyprus.
“Would you like a cheque book?”
‘Why not?’, I thought.
I discovered the reason why not when I got my first statement and saw that I’d been charged £6 for it! And I’ve never used any of the cheques. I use internet banking for paying all the bills. I wondered if I’d be charged the same for the paying-in book if it ever arrived. But I needn’t have worried. They don’t have paying-in books!
I changed some currency while I was in the bank. The rate was 0.86, which was pretty good. Less commission of course. You can change money commission-free at many places but their exchange rate is never as good.
So I changed £200 while I was there. Which is when I discovered after the transaction had been done that there’s a minimum commission charge of £5.
“You didn’t tell me that.”
“I didn’t know that you didn’t know!”
“Yes, but you could have told me anyway.”
“You didn’t ask!”
So that was the way it was going to be!
“Ok, well I’ll change a bit more then to make it worthwhile.”
“You’ll have to pay another £5. I can’t change the first one. It’s on the computer now.”
Ok. First day in a foreign country. Chalk it up to experience. Remember next time. But he could have been a bit more helpful.
Most of them are like that. I’ve met a few very nice, very helpful tellers, but mostly they’re rude and indifferent. I’ve no idea if they’re like that with their compatriots, or whether it’s just their resentment of the English surfacing. I suspect the latter.
– – – – –
My next mistake was in assuming that Cypriot and Greek banks have reciprocal arrangements for drawing money from an ATM. Not so! I soon discovered that if I drew money from any bank other than the Bank of Cyprus, that I was charged £1 for the privilege.
This came to light one weekend when I’d left myself short of money. Most of my money was in a deposit account for which the ATM card hadn’t yet arrived. My current account had £100 in it, of which I’d withdrawn £60 on Friday from an ATM belonging to another bank.
On Sunday, I went to withdraw the remaining £40, but it wouldn’t let me. Wouldn’t give me a cent, no matter how hard I kicked it.
Same story on Monday morning, so I went inside the bank to find out why.
That was when I discovered about the £1 charge.
“Why would you want to give another bank £1? Are you stupid?”
Interesting question to ask a valued customer! I felt like I was being scolded.
“I didn’t know. No-one told me. I assumed it would be the same as the UK. I don’t get charged there if I use another bank’s ATM.”
“Yes you do. They all charge. I’ve been to England.”
So, first I’m stupid, now I’m a liar! Although I have to confess that it’s been a long time since I used an ATM in the UK belonging to a bank other than my own. But it always used to be the case. Even so, I don’t expect to be spoken to like that in a bank, whatever country I’m in. My blood was rising.
So I explained that the ATM wouldn’t let me have any money, even though there was £40 in my account. He printed out a statement for me and said,
“Your account is blocked. That’s why.”
“Blocked? What do you mean?”
“You took money from another bank, so your account is blocked until the other bank has been paid.”
“What are you talking about? There was £100 in there. I took out £60. So there’s £40 left.”
“Yes, but your account is blocked. It’s only for four or five days.”
I was having trouble taking this in. It didn’t make any sense to me. I showed him the statement he’d just given me which clearly showed that £60 was due to come out, leaving a balance of £40.
He started to get angry. Yes, that’s right. HE started to get angry! I was ready to pull him over the counter and bust his skull!
“You know how much the other bank is going to get. It says so here. That leaves £40. I want to withdraw it. Now give it to me please. It’s my money and I want to draw it out.”
“YOUR ACCOUNT IS BLOCKED UNTIL THE OTHER BANK HAS BEEN PAID!”
“Why? And don’t shout! I’m not deaf. Just incredulous. You’re not making any sense.”
“I TOLD YOU! BECAUSE YOU USED ANOTHER BANK.”
Everyone was staring by now.
“Let me speak to your superior.”
They hate that.
“You cannot speak to the Manager because your account is not held here. You need to speak to the Manager in Anglissedes. But he will tell you the same thing. Your account is blocked.”
“What does that mean? And why is it blocked? Why won’t you give me my money?”
We went round in circles a few more times just for the hell of it, and because I was actually starting to enjoy it, and then I forced myself to leave before I was arrested for flattening a rude Cypriot bank-teller’s nose. I’d only been here two weeks. And even though I was boiling over, I was aware that I’d come up against a foreign country’s banking system which was very different from the UK.
But I was appalled by his attitude, and by his inability to explain why my account was ‘blocked’. There seemed to be no rational explanation for why I was not allowed to withdraw the remaining £40 of my own money from that particular account. It felt as if I was being punished by the Bank Of Cyprus for using another bank’s ATM.
I subsequently asked a few people, but no-one knew or understood what account ‘blocking’ was all about, even though they’d all come up against it.
“This is Cyprus. That’s just the way it works“, was the usual response.
Anyway, now I know. And if you can’t beat the system, which clearly I couldn’t, you have to adapt and learn to live within its rules. Chalk it up to experience again.
– – – – –
Then there was the time that I wanted to withdraw some cash from an ATM on my way to the beach, and the machine told me that my account only had £1.45 in it instead of the £201.45 that I knew was there. I went inside to protest.
“Can I see your passport please?”
“Sorry, I don’t have it with me. I was just on my way to the beach.”
“You don’t have your passport?” – Total disbelief. How could anyone possibly walk around without their passport? It was unheard of!
“I was just going for a swim. I wasn’t planning to swim to Syria so I didn’t bring it with me.”
No lightening of her attitude. My fault. Did I really think a Cypriot bank employee would have a sense of humour?
I pointed out that the ATM didn’t want to see my passport. It only wanted to see my card and my PIN. And all I wanted her to do was check on the computer and see why the ATM was giving an erroneous balance for that card. I wasn’t asking her to give me any money. There was no breach of security.
But that was it really. No passport – no chance!
– – – – –
Someone sent me a cheque from the UK at the beginning of December. It would have taken three days to clear in the UK. I imagined it would take about a week here. So I paid it in to my account.
“How long will it take to clear please?”
“Three weeks!???”, I said. “You cannot be serious.”, doing my best John McEnroe impersonation.
“Yes. The cheque will be blocked for 21 days, and the money will be released on the 22nd day.”
There was that word again. Blocked. And the use of ‘blocked’ and ‘released’ implied that the money would be in my account long before 21 days were up.
“Why does it take so long? It can’t possibly take that long.”
He shrugged helpfully.
“Three weeks is nothing. My brother was in Barbados and it took six weeks.”
I wasn’t in Barbados. I wished I was though. This was the beginning of December and it was cold. I’ve been to Barbados in January and it was hot. I got a lovely tan. Didn’t need to cash any cheques though. I was in Cyprus now, and I wanted that money for Christmas. But apparently I wasn’t going to be able to get my hands on it until after the New Year.
There was no point in arguing. This is Cyprus. The cheque was ‘blocked’ for 21 days, and that was that. I was resigned to it. It wasn’t the teller’s fault. I spared his life on this occasion.
I mentioned it to a few people and the popular theory seems to be that they just want to hang on to your money for as long as possible. They do it to everyone, so that’s a few million pounds extra they’ve got to play with.
“They’re bastards here”, was an expression used by more than one person!
Actually, they’re bastards everywhere. It just manifests itself in different ways in different countries.
But The Bank Of Cyprus is in a class of its own. A great place to go if you need to let off a bit of steam. An argument over something petty is almost guaranteed.
I wouldn’t be without them…
Cast (in order of appearance)
Gordon Banks – England goalkeeper 1966 World Cup winning side
Jeff Banks – fashion designer
Tony Banks – Genesis keyboard player
Banks Island – North Canada
Tara Banks – model
Dogger Bank – this is where Cleopatra keeps all her money!