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A Step above the rest.
Member Name: rune_tune
Date: 17/07/08, updated on 17/07/08 (1352 review reads)
Advantages: A great "basic" bank account from NatWest
Disadvantages: None so far
~ What and why? ~
The Step account from NatWest is placed in the category of being a basic bank account. These have sprung up over recent years, mainly because of the government trying to push people who might get benefits of any kind into receiving them via a bank account rather than the post office. They are also often used for people with poor credit ratings for whatever reason.
However, in my case the reason I looked at this account is because I'm considered by many of my friends of being a bit of an oddity. I refuse to run up credit if I can help it (Mortgage excepted) and so I don't use an overdraft and my credit card is the smallest amount I could find (just a few hundred pounds) and only used where no other card is good enough.
So, when Barclay's bank finally managed to annoy me enough after being there for nearly 30 years since leaving school, I began to look around for alternatives. The NatWest were the first place I looked because of their promise that you can speak to a local branch if needed via telephone and since my arthritis now makes walking difficult, this was an important consideration for me (and one reason Barclay's have managed to annoy me so much but that's a separate issue).
So, on looking up this account it was perfect for what I need. Its only main difference from the regular current account is you don't get an overdraft. Fine - I don't want one. Nor do you get a chequebook - well they are slowly being phased out anyway, and I can't remember the last time I used a cheque!
~ The application process ~
I applied online, so will be going through this process. You can also apply via the local branch and my sister also went for this account when she heard about my experience and used this route so I will just include a small amount about her experience after mine.
The online application process is fine. The website itself is nice and easy to understand and follow, and all the questions were standard. I have one complaint and that is you get asked about something known as the Blue Advantage - which I didn't take so can't give full details of. I do know it offers things like mobile phone cover, other basic insurance for a fee taken per month.
However, the wording and page this is on when you apply online isn't all that clear. The wording is ambiguous and so it's a little confusing trying to work out if you have actually said NO I don't want this feature. I did complain recently about it and the online NatWest team have at least acknowledged my issues and while I don't expect them to change it, it's nice to at least get a response from them.
Overall it isn't a big problem and I would give the overall rating on using the online application 9/10.
The paperwork all arrived in good time (within 3 working days, so in my case midweek) and I sent back the necessary documents and it was only another few days before I had full confirmation of the account. It was a few days later before all the paying in books, debit card and pin number arrived, but it was all within the timescale I would expect from a bank, if not slightly quicker than I might have otherwise expected.
At the time I applied I wasn't asked for forms of ID, and this has now changed but NatWest are more understanding of the problems that not all people might have the standard forms of ID some other banks insist on (Namely a passport, driving licence and recent utility bills).
This is important because not everyone has these, my sister being a good example. She has no passport, doesn't drive and utility bills were all in her husbands name. She recently went through a divorce, so had to organize her own accounts etc - After trawling around other banks and getting nowhere fast, I told her to try NatWest, who sat down and organized it with her without fuss.
Now, I know fraud needs to be combated, but sometime it becomes so inflexible that common sense gets lost. Another good thing to see from this bank, common sense prevailed!
As mentioned, my sister went for this account, and did it via the bank. She said the process was efficient, and they were able to help her despite not having the "standard" forms of ID other banks were insisting on. The time it took to process the application was slightly quicker for her because her ID was taken in and dealt with at the initial application, rather than having to be sent on if using the online application process - so I would say its up to personal preference as to which method you might use. If you were in more of a hurry I would recommend getting an appointment to see someone at the local branch as being slightly faster than the online method.
~ What does the account offer? ~
As mentioned, this account offers pretty much the same as the regular account except a chequebook and overdraft. This means you get the following:
* Telephone banking with UK call centres, open for you 24 hours a day plus access to your local branch phoneline if needed.
* Online banking
* Free day-to-day banking without charges (if in credit)
* Monthly statements online or via post.
* Solo Debit card, which can also be used abroad at Maestro points.
* Withdraw at most cash machines in the UK. Cash can also be withdrawn abroad at Maestro cash points.
*Small interest paid *currently 0.01% gross* daily on credit.
~ My experience of the account ~
I've now been using this account for a little over a year. I have to say, while I know no-one banking institution is immune from mistakes, and they all charge extortionate amounts on some charges (as the current court actions have highlighted) I've been more than happy with the account and bank in general.
The staff are all friendly, and they don't seem to have a big turnaround of people working there. Before at my other bank, because they were working between more than one branch you couldn't really get to know a face. At NatWest I've found it's the opposite and have got to know pretty well all the main staff that work there. This is especially beneficially if I've had to call up because they know who I am and so are more able to deal with the situation. There are always plenty of cashiers on duty if busy, and waiting time has always been minimal.
I've also noted they don't continue to try and push me into taking other NatWest options. I was asked would I be interested in a NatWest credit card, and also a regular current account. When I explained why I was happy with what I had, and the reasons behind this, it was accepted without a problem and I've not been asked since. This is a world away from my previous bank that continually kept trying to get me to buy their products.
It actually means I'm more likely to look at NatWest for some things now, and already I've gone with a saving account with them. Another point in their favour.
I benefit from getting the exact same interest rate on the Step account as if I had the regular current account. Sure, it's a tiny amount overall and some might say nothing more than a gimmick, but its nice to actually gain something back, no matter how small - and at a comparable rate.
The cash withdrawal limit daily on the Solo card is £250 per day, but I've never had any problems being restricted to that amount. Nor have I ever experienced issues with using other cash machines or going to use the card in a shop in payment for something.
We have also visited friends in the Netherlands this year, and again I had no problems using the card at Maestro points - either paying in shops or using a cash machine.
~ Online banking ~
This is easy to set up, but because of combating online fraud you cannot use the online facility the same day you set it up. This is because you have to get an activation code sent to you. Again it was a matter of just a few days before mine arrived, and it was then I could begin to use the online banking.
My one word of warning - make sure you note down all your passwords in a book somewhere (you have more than just a password to access your account) - because you only get two attempts to log in online. If you make a mistake twice, it freezes the online facility and you will need to ask for a new activation code.
This has been set up simply because of online fraud, and while it's a great idea to offer this additional level of protection, not everyone is going to remember it all. Write it down and carefully type it in is my advice. I got caught out early on because I didn't realize you had such a strict restriction on the number of attempts. It didn't cause any problems other than me not being able to access the account online for a few days, but it might be more costly for someone else.
I've not had any problem setting up or cancelling direct debits or standing orders. The online banking is very nicely laid out and easy to use. I've subsequently set up a saving account with NatWest and its simplicity itself to go from the one account to another online.
NatWest have recently introduced another level of security online. This comes in the form of a card reader. This looks a little like a small calculator, and basically if you wish to add something to your online account (A standing order for example) you need this device to then generate a code from the debit card, which you type online to take it further.
It doesn't have to be used to do basic online things with the account, or when you first log in - and so far I've only used it once!
As I've said, its additional security NatWest have added and its to stop someone from coming in and setting up a standing order to wipe out any money you might have on your account for example. Necessary? I don't know - but it's not a bother for me. However, it might well be too much for some - for example my father has Parkinson's and this is probably too much for him to remember, and the controls simply too small for him to use. So if you find this sort of thing confusing, this isn't going to be an area of the online banking for you. But because it isn't dependent on your logging in and using basic online facilities, it at least gives you some choice as to how you use the online facility.
Overall I've had a very positive experience using the online banking and I give it full marks.
~ Final thoughts ~
Banks all have issues and downsides. But at least NatWest do seem to be trying to avoid some of the pitfalls made by other banks by keeping it local! It makes a surprising difference and this bank account is a perfect one for someone who either needs a basic bank account, but for whatever reason finds they can't get a regular account elsewhere or like me, doesn't want an account with unnecessary bells and whistles. Other basic bank accounts can offer direct debit facilities, but I don't know of any other which offers a debit card as part of the package.
Each local branch might differ, but again I've been impressed with our local branch. The staff in general just seems less harried and more able to deal with queries you might have than I've seen in any of my previous bank branches I've been in more recently.
This is simply a great no frills account, but all encompassing bank account. And the bank itself so far has been fine in all areas I've dealt with them.
Summary: NatWest do seem to be bucking the trend of banks in recent years. Not without its faults.