This post is written by Jordan Bishop, founder of How I Travel.
As I started writing this N26 review, I wanted to give as clear and honest of a display of the N26 product collection as I could. After all, it’s one of just a handful of services that I very strongly support, and it’s fundamentally changed the way I do just about everything related to banking. It’s stripped out all of the things I dislike about the clunky Canadian banking system, which, in my discussions with other digital nomads, seems to be very similar to other major banking systems around the world: old technology, high fees that are not clearly displayed or understood, and a huge pain-in-the-ass if you have a problem while abroad (eg. losing your card).
But as I dug into things, I realized there’s a lot to cover, even after N26 simplifies a lot of it. So to make this review easier to follow, I’ve broken it down into these ten sections:
- What is N26?
- Free Worldwide ATM Withdrawals With N26 BLACK
- Six More Cool Features Of N26
- N26 BLACK
- N26’s Fee Structure (Simplified)
- How To Sign Up For N26
- FAQs About N26
#1 What Is N26?
I was first introduced to N26 last summer, in July 2016. I had just moved to Berlin when my friend Alex was raving about his new bank account that was making everything about the banking experience easier. “Free ATM withdrawals all around the world,” he told me. “You can send money to your friends completely free. The lowest currency exchange fees.” The list went on and on, and frankly, I listened to him with awe.
He was describing everything I needed in my life.
“Free ATM withdrawals all around the world,” he told me. “You can send money to your friends completely free. The lowest currency exchange fees.” The list went on and on, and frankly, I listened to him with awe.
Of course I did. It’s the perfect banking solution for nomads or any type of frequent traveler, because at its core, N26 is a technology company that’s applying modern tech to worldwide banking.
Yet there are two main products to N26 – their regular account and N26 BLACK – and the differences are worth looking into. Personally, I’m a huge fan of N26 BLACK, and you’ll see exactly why below. But first…
Let’s Talk About Withdrawing Money From ATMs.
Frequent travelers find themselves using one of two common approaches to getting cash:
- Whenever you’re in your home country, withdraw a large amount of cash and exchange that at local banks or currency exchanges along your travels. This is normally how you get the most favorable exchange rate (we’ll see very soon why this rate actually isn’t very good), but there’s a glaring problem: you have to carry thousands of dollars in cash while you travel, often through low-income nations. That’s far from ideal, and I personally know people who have had their backpacks stolen with more than a thousand dollars of cash inside. Not fun.
- Withdraw cash abroad using your debit card or credit card. This is less risky than holding huge wads of cash, but the exchange rate you actually get is much worse than most people expect. You end up paying fees in 3-4 different ways:
- The 1.5-2.5% foreign currency exchange fee that your bank charges.
- The additional ATM fee of $2-5 that your bank charges.
- The 20-24% annualized cash advance fee if you withdraw using a credit card, which averages to about 2% out of your pocket if you pay your statement every 30 days.
- The $2-10 withdrawal fee that ATMs charge.
When that’s all said and done, you end up paying 5%+ just to withdraw your cash! Put another way, everything is 5% more expensive than you think it is. That doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but even if you travel modestly and only burn $1000-2000 per month, that’s an extra $50-100 you didn’t account for, or $600-1200 per year.
Imagine that – $1200/year just in banking fees!
So what’s the solution?
#2 Free Worldwide ATM Withdrawals With N26 BLACK
N26 BLACK is N26’s premium banking product, which costs €5.90/month (though I only pay €4.90/month for some reason). It’s currently available in Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Spain and Ireland, and they’re rapidly expanding to reach all of Europe. I upgraded my Current account to N26 BLACK as soon as they released BLACK because I was so excited about their new offering. My two favourite features of N26 BLACK are:
- Fee-free foreign currency ATM withdrawals worldwide.
- Their impressive insurance policy, which includes unlimited insurance coverage for foreign medical insurance, trip cancellation insurance, flight delay and baggage delay insurance, mobile phone theft coverage and cash theft coverage, extended warranty on purchases and more.
Let’s look at both of them in more detail.
Fee-Free Foreign Currency ATM Withdrawals Worldwide
N26 partners with TransferWise to offer fee-free foreign currency withdrawals all around the world. What does that mean? It means that you can withdraw cash at the real exchange rate, which is the up-to-the-second exchange rate that banks use when sending money back and forth across borders. In other words, it’s the most accurate – and also the most favourable – exchange rate you’ll get anywhere in the world. And you can get it at any ATM that accepts MasterCard, which is just about all of them.
This alone has saved me an insane amount of money. As I described above, before N26 I had been paying about 5% per transaction when using any of my other debit or credit cards, which added up to nearly $100/month for me.
It took me years to realize how much I was paying in ATM and currency exchange fees, but now that I see it, I’m ashamed that I didn’t make the switch earlier.
In contrast, here’s a screenshot showing the recent withdrawal of 7,220 Thai baht that I made from an ATM in Bangkok, alongside the real exchange rate from xe.com. Since my withdrawal occurred at 7:36pm Thailand time (7 hours ahead of UTC), the closest historical exchange rate I could find was from 24 minutes later, though you can clearly see that I’m paying the mid-market rate.
It’s also worth noting that, with both the N26 regular account and N26 BLACK, you pay the real exchange rate on every foreign purchases too, so paying by card is a great option anywhere in the world that accepts MasterCard.
Did I mention the card is pretty sleek? They feel nice in your hand too, since the black upper part of the card is a smooth matte finish.
N26 BLACK’s Travel, Medical & Purchase Insurance Coverage
N26 BLACK comes with some pretty impressive insurance coverage. Here’s what they’ll cover:
- Medical expenses up to an unlimited amount if you have a medical emergency while abroad (No deductible).
- Expenses you incur due to a flight delay of 4 hours or longer, up to a maximum of €400 (No deductible).
- Expenses you incur if your luggage arrives more than 6 hours late, up to a maximum of €400 (No deductible).
- Reimbursement for a stolen mobile phone that was purchased with your N26 BLACK account, up to a maximum of €300 (€50 deductible).
- Reimbursement for stolen cash if you get mugged up to 4 hours after withdrawing with your N26 BLACK card, up to a maximum of €500 (No deductible).
- Extended warranty of up to one additional year on items purchased directly with your card and all payment methods associated with your card, such as a linked PayPal account, up to a maximum of €500 (€50 deductible).
- Travel cancellation insurance on every trip before the trip commences, up to a maximum of €5,000 per trip (10-20% deductible).
Unlimited medical insurance policies are almost unheard, and they never come without a hefty, hefty price tag, except with N26: here it is alongside everything else for €5.90 per month. And in case you don’t already see the value in all of this, hear this: medical expenses, flight delays and luggage delays are covered for the first 90 days of your trip. Most credit cards cover up to maximum of 30 days if you have a premium card, so 90 days is an absolutely unheard of coverage period for these things.
#3 Six More Cool Features Of N26
N26 is both a technology company and a bank, which puts them in a pretty unique position to make the banking experience better. Here are some of the things they’re doing that most traditional banks don’t:
- Real-time transaction notifications. Whenever money goes in or out of your account, whether it’s a transfer you’ve initiated or a pre-authorized payment, you’ll get a notification.
- Transaction categories. Every transaction is assigned a category like “Bars & Restaurants” or “Travel & Holidays” to keep track of your spending that way. Just another benefit of having a banking tool built by coders, rather than a piece of technology built by bankers.
- PIN resets. Resetting your PIN at any time is as simple as logging into the app and changing it. No calling N26, no trips to the ATM, etc etc. 30 seconds and it’s done.
- Locking your card. Just like resetting your PIN, locking your card to make it unusable for a period of time is as simple as logging in and pressing the button. Unlocking it is just as easy.
- Payments abroad, online payments and cash withdrawals. For your security, you can toggle these on and off at any time.
- Spending and withdrawal limits. Another security feature that you can choose and change in the app at any time.
#4 CASH26 – Withdraw & Deposit Cash From Over 7,000 Shops
CASH26 is only available in Germany right now so I won’t spend much time on it, but the concept is so clever that it definitely warrants a mention. Any time you’re buying something from one of N26’s 7,000+ retail partners across Germany (think grocery stores, drug stores, and other high-traffic places), you can select to either withdraw or deposit cash from the app. The barcode that’s generated for you gets scanned by the cashier in the shop, and then they act as an ATM, either giving you cash or accepting it as a deposit into your account. How cool is that?
#5 INVEST26 – N26’s Dead-Simple Investing Platform
I won’t go too deep here, since I have never used INVEST26 myself, though it is a neat feature worth mentioning: you can invest money into an investment fund directly in the N26 app. This is cool for two reasons. First, it’s already set up for you with your N26 account, so you don’t need to jump through any additional hoops like you would with a traditional investing account. Second, you can deposit and withdraw money at any time with no delays, which is also completely at odds with just about every other place you would invest your money. Plus they give a cool little diagram that shows what you can expect from your investment depending on whether you choose their Bold, Balanced or Cautious plan.
#6 N26 MoneyBeam
MoneyBeam is N26’s service that allows you to send money to other people without knowing their bank details, with just their phone number or email address. If the recipient is also an N26 user, they’ll receive the money immediately, or if they’re not, it will take 1-2 business days to arrive. If they don’t accept the MoneyBeam within 7 days, the transfer will be returned to your account. MoneyBeam is completely free, both to other N26 users and non-users.
#7 N26’s Fee Structure (Simplified)
N26’s fee structure, which they call their Price List, is eight pages long and fairly dense, so here’s the important stuff.
- All N26 bank accounts are free.
- N26 BLACK costs €5.90/month (though I’m still paying €4.90/month for some reason)
- Withdrawing foreign currency (any currency but Euros) anywhere in the world: Free for N26 BLACK users, or 1.7% for regular N26 users
- CASH26 withdrawals and MoneyBeam transfers: Free for all users.
#8 When Does It Make Sense To Get N26 BLACK?
From a purely quantitative standpoint, there is a clear breaking point: when you withdraw €347 of a foreign currency in a given month. Why €347? It’s simple.
N26 BLACK saves money for everyone withdrawing €347 or more of a foreign currency in any given month.
If you are a regular N26 user, you pay 1.7% on foreign cash withdrawals, which is a withdrawal of any currency other than Euros. If you’re an N26 BLACK user, you don’t pay any fee for those foreign withdrawals, but you do pay €5.90/month. So, if we divide €5.90 by 1.7%, you get €347, the monthly breakeven point that makes it financially worth it to you to get N26 BLACK.
Of course, there are a lot of other factors that play in here as well, most notably the travel, medical and purchase insurance coverage that comes with N26 BLACK. That’s a bit tougher to quantify, though, since you can’t predict when you’ll need to use it, so this €347 breakeven point is a good reference.
#9 How Do I Sign Up For N26?
With its impressive insurance policy, fee-free foreign cash withdrawals, and the app’s ease of use, I really couldn’t be happier as a member of N26 BLACK. It’s made banking a lot easier and cheaper for me, and solving a lot of the messy problems I had before, mainly expensive and vague travel/medical insurance policies plus spending nearly $100/month in subtle ATM and currency exchange fees.
To sign up, you just need to provide standard personal information (name, date of birth, etc.), a valid ID or passport, and an address within one of N26’s supported European countries. As I write this, the list includes Germany, Austria, Ireland, France, Spain, Italy, Netherlands, Belgium, Portugal, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Luxemburg, Slovenia, Estonia, Greece and Slovakia. Once you’ve signed up, verified your ID in the app and paired your smartphone, they’ll send you your free MasterCard in the mail. Mine took just 2 days to arrive, and it comes in a pretty sleek package. Comment below if you have questions about N26 and I’ll do what I can to answer them, or you can also reach N26’s Support team via their app or website.
Can I use N26 if I’m not a European citizen/resident?
YES. I’m Canadian and it’s my go-to card for any transactions—online or in-person, including ATM withdrawals—outside of Canada. You do need to have a European shipping address for them to send you the card, though if you don’t live there, you can have it sent to wherever you’re staying (hotel, friend’s apartment, etc.); just be sure to include “c/o YOUR NAME” when you give N26 the address. If you’re outside of Europe but will be there in a couple of months, sign up now and then complete your verifications as soon as you arrive to ensure you won’t run into any delays.
Is TransferWise safe to use?
YES. Millions of people, including myself, use TransferWise (the currency conversion platform that N26 has partnered with) to send money to international friends or businesses every month. They’re a completely reputable money transfer service, and unlike other banks, you receive regular updates on the status of your transfer as it’s being sent. Due to their unique approach to currency conversions, you pay about 8x less in fees than you would by sending money through a traditional bank. There have been zero reported cases of TransferWise fraud. TransferWise is based in London.
All photos courtesy of N26.