Simple is shutting down, and there aren't really any great alternatives out there in the US. But what about the other side of the pond? Europe is a hub for financial technology (fintech) startups and some of the innovative new banks are looking to expand their business to the US (some already have). So let's run through what's available in Europe and see what you could soon have access to in the States.
There are many reasons why Europe is a haven for fintech innovation, with regulatory advantages being key. Banking infrastructure is built upon the standardized Single Euro Payments Area (SEPA), which allows for instantaneous and free transfers across borders and consistent routing numbers. Other laws like the Payment Services Directive 2 (PSD2) force banks to offer a standardized API, allowing for products that tap into existing bank accounts with ease. Some countries outside the eurozone (like the UK) are also part of SEPA, helping startups there profit from the unified standard.
Revolut is a UK banking service that turned into a proper bank, founded in 2015. It's also active in the US thanks to the help of a partner with a US license. Revolut advertises its service as "a better way to handle your money" and offers the same basic features as many other fintech startups: There's a debit card with instant notifications when it draws money from your account and a flashy, beautiful app.
But Revolut could probably come closest to what Simple offered once it launches its full suite in the US. You can order your money into virtual pockets once your paycheck arrives and then assign payments to withdraw from these — for example, you could create a pocket for your rent and utility payments, so you don't even touch that money before it's deducted. You can alternatively or additionally use the bank's intelligent day-by-day budgets to see how much money is safe to spend on groceries, entertainment, deliveries, etc. And if you have other bank accounts, you can even connect them to your Revolut app to see all of your finances in one place. Unfortunately, a proper joint account option doesn't exist yet outside of shared "vaults," so you need to find another solution to share bills with your partner.
Revolut is also great for investing. You can trade cryptocurrencies and gold, or you can let your money grow in Saving Vaults. The bank additionally excels when you need to send money abroad. The free standard plan lets you send up to $1,000 per month with little to no fees (0.11% worse than the European Central Bank exchange rate), making it a better choice than top dog Wise (formerly TransferWise). And if you travel abroad more extensively once the pandemic blows over, you can even use a fitting Revolut premium account with insurance, more fee-free currency conversion, Junior accounts for your kids, and so on.
German banking startup N26 was founded in Germany in 2013 and launched in the US in 2019, where it managed to attract half a million customers since. But there are some significant differences between the company in the US and Europe. N26 is a licensed bank in the EU, allowing it to offer a more diverse portfolio of credit and savings products. There are also paid tiers that give customers perks like phone support, more than two sub-accounts, prettier cards, joint (sub) accounts, and a wealth of insurances.
The N26 app has one of the prettiest banking interfaces, although it likes to overload its dashboard with banners and ads a little too much here in Germany for my liking. It's also a bummer that there aren't any automatic Simple-like goals and expenses you can set up to pull money straight out of your sub-accounts for specified purchases or transactions — though you can set up recurring transactions.
Some of the perks available to German customers.
In the US, N26 doesn't have a banking license of its own. Instead, it works with the Axos Bank to offer deposit accounts and its Visa debit card. It's still a decent product in the US, with real-time notifications, no foreign transaction fees when using the card abroad, cashback offers, free cash withdrawals, fast direct deposits, and phone support. And given that N26 is currently heavily invested in expanding its customer base internationally, I wouldn't be surprised if it brought over its full product portfolio to the US someday.
Bunq is a 5-year-old Dutch challenger bank built around advanced budgeting options and debit card features that save you money and time. You can automatically sort your income into up to 25 pockets when you receive it — essentially a set-and-forget envelope system. Each of the sub-accounts is a regular checking account and can be dynamically linked with one of your physical cards (up to three are included) or up to five virtual cards. That allows you to create a sub-account for, say, subscriptions with its own dedicated virtual debit card.
But what I consider the biggest advantage over other banks is that bunq's physical debit cards are disguised as credit cards, allowing you to use them for any hotel or car rental payment — businesses that often only accept proper credit cards. The app also allows you to change your CVC codes dynamically and request new card details for online debit cards on the fly, and there's a dual PIN option that allows you to connect your physical card to two sub-accounts at once. I've yet to find another banking alternative that offers similar card features, and that alone is worth a lot. And Bunq charges quite some money if you want to have access to the full service. The regular Easy Money account is €8 a month, and when you want to share a single pocket with someone else (who isn't a Bunq user), you'll need to pony up an additional €3 a month per account, which can add up.
Customers aren't unequivocally happy with the service, though. The bank often works in a Facebook-like "move fast and break things" fashion and introduces pricing changes and feature deprecations with little to no notice. The latest app redesign from 2020 is also under fire for being much less intuitive than its predecessor, and customers are disgruntled about critical voices being removed from the bank's online forum.
Kontist is only available to freelancers and sole proprietors based in Germany, but the concept is worth exploring and will hopefully inspire more services like it around the world someday (and indeed, there's Coconut in the UK that does things similarly). Since freelancers don't have their taxes deducted straight from their income, Kontist automatically creates virtual sub-accounts (one for income tax and one for VAT) where it stores the money you owe, updated in real-time with every transaction. If you do get in financial trouble, you can dynamically tap into the money designated for taxes, so it remains accessible to you if you need it. Customers pay €9 a month for the account. It includes some basic bookkeeping features, a debit card, and overdraft options.
For those who don't want to deal with bookkeeping and taxes at all, Kontist also offers a tax advisory service at €99 to €149 a month, which is pretty competitive given that it saves freelancers tons of headaches and hours spent on managing their finances. A service like this with a flat fee seems pretty revolutionary.
While Monzo may be the brits' darling neobank, its competitor Starling comes across as another robust bank with a few more features. It offers personal, joint, and business accounts without monthly fees, multi-currency capabilities, extensive budgeting features, and more. Like most of the competition, it lets you save for a goal like Christmas presents or vacation via its form of sub-accounts, Goals, and you can use its analytics tool or spaces for budgeting the rest of your regular purchases. From what I can incur as someone who can't open an account there (only open to UK residents), it comes the closest to regular old banks thanks to support for cheque deposits, free ATM withdrawals, overdrafts, loans, and a few more brick-and-mortar bank features.
Another unique Starling feature comes in the form of its shared cards that you can give out to friends or family who spend money on your behalf. The cards are capped at £200 a month, and you can easily block them altogether. Money also isn't drawn from your main account but a designated extra space.
Curve does things a little differently. It doesn't offer a checking account — instead, the startup offers a debit MasterCard that you can connect to existing credit and debit cards from banks. You can then dynamically choose which payments to make with which card without having to carry all of them in your wallet. The concept is pretty similar to Google Pay (and the Curve card can be added to it), but you also have a physical card to fall back to if a terminal doesn't support contactless payments.
There are also neat features like time travel, which allows you to switch cards after the fact if you used to wrong one for a payment, and the anti-embarrassment mode, which automatically taps into another card if you reach your limit at checkout — making it a better multi-account option than PayPal, if you ask me. Free ATM withdrawals are included, and you pay the regular foreign exchange rate when you travel abroad. There are also paid plans that offer cashback and some more features.
Klarna is also a little different from the others on this list — I'd compare it with a payment provider like PayPal more than with a traditional bank, though Klarna does have a Swedish banking license and offers bank accounts in some European countries. But the company is mostly concerned with offering short-term, interest-free buy-now-pay-later plans in the US along with weekly deals and price drops, though it also offers regular plans with interest. In the EU, you can even use a debit card issued by the company in physical stores, an option that isn't available in the US just yet.
These are just a few of the most interesting fintech companies from around Europe — there are many more, and our European readers will probably point out a few I omitted in the comments below. But this roundup exists to give our American readers a quick overview of what's available on the other side of the pond and what companies or even just features might come to them someday. If you'd like to know more about some interesting US fintech firms you can actually get your hands on, we've got you covered in our roundup of Simple alternatives.
For further reading, here are some other unique services worth checking out:
- Monzo, a UK online bank that was among the first to offer a mostly app-based alternative to good old brick and mortar banks in the country.
- Vivid, a German subsidiary of the Russian Tinkoff Bank that combines banking, exorbitant cashback deals, and stock trading in one app.
- Tomorrow, a German bank that wants to help you go carbon neutral with carbon offset programs.
- Wise (formerly TransferWise), the London-based fintech company that got big with affordable international wires and that has since become a fully-fledged banking service.
- Numbrs, a Swiss multi-banking app that has some neat analytics and savings features up its sleeve and isn't too different from Curve.
- Monese, a British fintech company that offers personal accounts, joint accounts, and more.
- Qonto, a French business bank account with sub-accounts, automation, and accounting features.