If you have a valid visa before you come to New Zealand (a work or residence visa) you can open a bank account when you get here or even before you get here.

No such luck for me. I came to New Zealand on a critical purpose visa (thanks to Lady Rona) meaning that I had to wait until my partner residence visa came through (a whole 6 months) before I could open an account and apply for a debit card at one of the local banks.

Up until then, my husband had to withdraw cash for me which made the weekly shop a real budgeting challenge. I’d use the supermarket scanning machine so that I could keep track the total but I’d always get to the last aisle and realise I only had $5 left to pay for two loaves of bread, a packet of burger buns and a dozen eggs. Then I’d have to rifle through the carefully selected groceries in my trolley and yank out items that I would have to do without because I literally couldn’t pay for everything.

The day I had to choose toilet roll over chocolate nearly broke me.

There are five main banks in New Zealand along with a couple of smaller ones. Although not as old English banks (Child & Co. opened in 1664 and Barclays opened in 1690), they’re a lot older than you might think.

The first bank to be established in New Zealand was the New Zealand Banking Company in 1841. A branch was opened in Auckland in 1842 but the bank didn’t turn out to be the lucrative venture that the shareholders hoped it would be and it was forced to close in 1845.

ANZ (Australia & New Zealand) opened it’s doors in 1840, closely followed by ASB (Auckland Savings Bank) who welcomed it’s first customers seven years later in 1847. In 1850, TSB (Taranaki Savings Bank not Trustees Savings Bank as the UK version is called) was founded, followed by BNZ (Bank of New Zealand) in 1861.

This is amazing historical photograph is of the BNZ headquarters on the junction of Lambton Quay and Customhouse Quay in Wellington taken in 1926.

Nearly a hundred years on, it still looks the same although it’s now The Old Bank Shopping Arcade so instead of safe and tellers, it houses a Starbucks and a Lush.

At around the same time as BNZ was established, Westpac (originally called the Bank of New South Wales and founded in Australia in 1817) opened seven branches in New Zealand. Apparently, their first customer was a miner who struck lucky during the Otago Gold Rush.

In 1869, SBS Bank (what was originally called Southland Building Society) was established and finally, the baby of the bunch, KiwiBank, started playing with the big kids in 2001.

History lesson over. Well done for sitting through it.

At 9:30am, with my brand new shiny visa clasped in my freakishly small mitt, I walked into the Paraparaumu branch of Westpac as soon as the glass doors were unlocked with the intention of opening my first New Zealand bank account. My husband banks with Westpac and so it made sense to use the same bank to make money transfers quicker.

I stood by what looked like a counter and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Ice ages came and went.

There were people in the little glass cubicles lining the walls but no-one came out to see if I needed any help. There were no tellers and the only other person in a Westpac uniform was helping a man with a large ice cream tub full of coins use the deposit machine.

“Is it always like this?” I asked an older couple who were sitting in what I took to be the waiting area. It looked like an American diner with tables set between two sofas that were facing each other.

“It’s really gone downhill,” the woman confided. “I used to work here and I can see how bad it’s become.” She leant forward. “They got rid of all the experienced people and replaced them with youngsters who don’t know anything.” She sat back again and folded her arms. “I had an appointment at 9:30am and now they’re saying there’s no-one available.”

“I keep telling her to change banks,” said her husband who I noticed had a hole in his neck that he had to cover with one finger to speak which made his voice all hoarse and whispery. “But she won’t listen.”

“Is there another bank I could go to?” I asked.

“Try ASB,” whispered the man. “I’ve been banking with them for 15 years and I’ve never had any problems.”

I glanced around. The branch still looked like the deck of the Mary Celeste.

“You know, I think I will,” I said. “Thank you for your help!”

The man proceeded to give me directions to the nearest branch and then wished me good luck.

Just as I was about to leave, a Westpac employee walked over to the couple and crouched down in front of them, like you would do with a toddler if you want them to listen to you. I didn’t hear what she said but I assumed that it wasn’t good news given the reaction of the older woman.

“Well you’d better go back to your manager and tell her that I made this appointment a week ago and I intend to keep it,” she said rather abruptly. The Westpac employee looked a little shaken but she nodded her head, stood up and headed for one of the glass cubicles.

The man lifted his finger to his neck.

“And don’t give us any more shit!” he snapped. Taken aback by his sudden outburst (and his choice of language) I looked over at the departing Westpac employee to see if she had heard him. She didn’t appear to have noticed. If his voice been a bit louder than a harsh whisper and she had been a few steps closer, I think her bad morning would have been made even worse.

A short walk through Coastlands, mall I found ASB.

As soon as I walked through the doors I was waved over by one of the tellers.

“I’d like to open a bank account, please,” I asked politely, folding my arms on the counter and peering through the Perspex screen that separated customers from the staff.

“We can absolutely help with you that,” the man said with a smile. Or at least it sounded like he smiled. And I think that’s what he said. He was wearing a heavy duty face mask and that coupled with the thick plastic barrier between us made it nearly impossible to understand the muffled sound that came out of his mouth.

He got up from his seat, walked around the counter and motioned for me to follow him. I was instantly struck by the fact that there were absolutely no security measures here. In every bank I’ve been to in the UK, the tellers are not only separated from the customers by thick Perspex, they are completely sealed in a separate area, needing a security code on the door to enter or exit. The counters in this branch and in the branch of Westpac were free standing so if I’d wanted to, I could have stepped around the counter and stood shoulder to shoulder with the teller.

Not that I would have. That would be weird.

As an aside, did you know that the word ‘teller’ comes from the Old English word ‘tellan’ meaning ‘to count’? No, neither did I.

The teller took me over to a counter with a small keyboard above which hung an even smaller screen. He asked me to complete an online form and said that if I got stuck, to call him back.

The form was very straightforward. The only thing that could have potentially thrown a spanner in the works was if I didn’t know my National Insurance number as they needed to know in which country I am registered to pay tax but fortunately, I know it off by heart.

Just then, the older couple from Westpac walked in. The lady came over to me.

“We’ve just closed our account with Westpac,” she announced. “We weren’t going to put up with that kind of customer service any more.”

I pictured the poor Westpac lady, cowering and red faced as the couple laid into her, the man furiously rasping more insults using a selection of colourful language as his wife let loose a torrent of disparaging remarks about the dramatic decline of the place of her previous employment.

“Fair enough,” I agreed. “This place seems way more efficient.”

“Told you!” grinned the man.

Once I’d completed the online form, I went back over to the other teller to confirm that I’d finished. She asked for my passport and a proof of address. I assumed my visa would suffice for the address bit given that it was from a government department. She frowned at it over the top of her black rimmed glasses and said she would have to check with her manager to make sure this was an acceptable document.

My face fell. I didn’t have another proof of address on me and when I thought about it, I wasn’t sure I could give her anything else anyway given that my drivers licence still has my old Waikanae Beach address on it (despite updating it online two months ago) and the mortgage and utility bills are all in husband’s name.

Fortunately, it was accepted and I left the bank proudly clutching my rather budget-looking yellow bank card.

It might not have looked like much but at least I could use it to take out cash and swipe it to buy stuff in shops.

My Visa debit card with chip and pin technology took a week and a half to arrive and I was excited to see what it looked like.

It was a budget-looking yellow bank card…with the word ‘VISA’ on it.

Not fancy, I didn’t care. Just having it in my wallet somehow made me feel a bit more at home here.


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