By Steve O’Hear for Techcrunch
Money transfer company TransferWise has begun a private launch of its “Borderless account” for consumers. It marks the first time the European unicorn has offered a debit card (pictured below), a move that is bound to draw further comparisons with newer fintech upstarts such as Revolut.
Initially rolling out to a thousand customers, with several thousand more to be invited in the coming weeks and a full public launch pegged for Q1 this year, the online banking account gives you local bank details for the U.K., U.S., Australia and Europe, and lets you hold and convert 28 currencies. It is targeted at people who need to receive and spend money abroad and who want to take advantage of TransferWise’s low exchange rate and transparent fees when doing so.
The product originally launched in May last year but was previously only available for business users and didn’t come with a debit card, meaning that the only way to spend money from a TransferWise account was to move it to another bank account first.
“It’s a step forward for completing our vision for borderless money, where anyone anywhere in the world can spend and receive money globally without having to worry about the hassle and the exchange rate,” TransferWise co-founder and chairman Taavet Hinrikus tells me. “I think it’s the first time that anyone has created a multi-country bank account. It did not really exist before.”
On the surface at least, the TransferWise Borderless account is quite a stripped-back affair and is “not replacing the current account,” says Hinrikus. Instead, consider it a companion account that solves a couple of different but fundamental problems (which is just as wellwhen you factor in TransferWise’s partnerships with challenger banks such as N26 and Starling).
If, like me, you receive income from abroad and in a different currency to your home bank account (as a contractor for TechCrunch, I’m paid in U.S. dollars), then you are very likely hit by extra bank charges and an uncompetitive exchange rate by your existing bank. This could be avoided if you had a local bank account in the country and currency you are paid in, and could then choose when and how to do the currency exchange.
However, to do so would require joining a local bank and incurring additional charges. This is the first problem the free to open TransferWise Borderless account addresses, effectively letting you receive money like a local, including being given a local bank account number with a single click. The addition of a TransferWise MasterCard lets you spend money like a local, too.
“You are actually the perfect use-case. You get your salary paid from a different country, so previously it was a huge hassle for you. Now it makes it easier,” says Hinrikus. “It is people who are working, living, studying abroad, who are most benefiting from this.”
As well as being bright green, the TransferWise card itself — or, rather, the money transfer company’s infrastructure — has an extra trick up its sleeve, something it calls “intelligent currency routing.”
Explains its chairman: “You can have money in 28 currencies in the TransferWise account, but if you don’t have money on the currency you are spending, then we will automatically exchange it in a way that is cheapest for you. So we will choose which of your existing balances will be cheapest to exchange into what you are spending.”
Given the number of fintech startups, especially in London, that have launched a product based on a debit card (powered by MasterCard and often using Wirecard, the same card issuer TransferWise is using), I asked Hinrikus why it took so long to do so. Especially since the Borderless account and card makes so much sense.
He says TransferWise had other priorities, namely building out its payments infrastructure so that it can move money across borders in a timely and cost-effective way, which in turn required it to reach scale. Now that the company has gone a long way in doing so, it is in a position to offer the multi-country/multi-currency account and card it perhaps always wanted to. And one that runs on as much of the TransferWise rails as possible.
Meanwhile, the London-headquartered company says it now employs 900 people globally across its nine offices and holds 15 percent market share in the U.K., its most mature market. The company grew more than 140 percent last year, claims 2 million customers and became profitable for the first time.
It also remains well capitalized, having announced a whopping $280 million investment in November, although a portion of that was secondary as early shareholders cashed in. This reportedly valued seven-year-old TransferWise at $1.6 billion.