Joseph Harkins

Joseph Harkins

The personal blog of Joseph Harkins, technology entrepreneur


Test driving the Irish banks

One man's quest to bank with everyone in Ireland

Joseph HarkinsJoseph Harkins

[dropcap]On[/dropcap] a brisk September morning I set out with the goal of taking on the Irish banks. An arduous task perhaps, however I was not interested in some truck stunt.

Banks are an unusual organisation in their own right, requiring constant oversight (at least in hindsight). Banks are one of the few ‘purchasing’ decisions we make without trying before buying, yet they are something we all can’t do without. Our parent/guardian will have us set up a bank account in their existing bank, we’ll choose the bank which has the closest branch to us or whichever bank gives the best opening perk. Whatever our reasons for opening an account with a particular bank, they are usually not based on a banking experience.

They can be difficult to open and even more difficult to close, depending on the bank in question. If opening a bank account is a painful experience then switching banks is orders of magnitude worse. Changing existing regular payments, salary deposits, bill payments etc means you only usually change bank if you have had an extremely unsatisfactory experience. When we choose a bank we are usually with them for life.

At the time of this experiment I was in college, which meant that all the banks were vying for my business, throwing freebies at me while eagerly calculating my life time value. I realised this was the best opportunity I would have to test out all the banking services that were available to me, without any cost since most banks offered free banking to college students. This would allow me to get an adequate feel for the different banks and then based on my experiences stay with whichever bank I had the best experience with, ditching the rest.

I had two bank accounts before taking on this endeavour.  I had an inactive Bank of Ireland account, which my mother had opened with me as a young child since it was her bank and she presumably wanted me to learn financial responsibility through saving. My primary, active bank account was with AIB, which was the only local bank branch available to me at home.

In my backpack I was armed with every conceivable piece of paperwork that might be required to open a bank account as well as pre-filled account opening forms to dazzle the jaded bank clerks. I was prepared to meet the bureaucracy that awaited me. I set out after my morning lecture, knowing I had a few hours to spare before my afternoon lecture began. On my target list was Bank of Ireland (to reactivate my account), Danske Bank, KBC, Permanent TSB and Ulster Bank.

I judged the banks by several metrics; ease of opening account, customer service, branch facilities and bank facilities such as online banking. This post is focused on my thoughts and experiences in dealing with each bank rather than scoring or rating in particular.

Ulster Bank

Account opening: First up on my route was Ulster Bank, sitting at the corner of Grafton Street onto Suffolk Street. I greeted the man at the customer service desk with a smile and informed him I wanted to open a new account. Immediately the man began looking for the account opening form while explaining that there was some form filling to do but that he would help me. Feeling smug with myself I told him that wouldn’t be necessary as I have the account form fully filled in with the required documents. A couple of quick check overs the man apologised and explained that unfortunately there would be a delay and the account would not be active till later that afternoon. It took me a moment to realise what he had said, since I had anticipated it taking at least a few days to open a new account.

Within a few days I had received all of the usual account opening documents in the post, along with my new shiny debit card. Out of all the banks I was most impressed with Ulster Bank’s efficiency and speed at opening the account.

Customer service: On the occasions I have dealt with Ulster Bank since they have been pleasant, personable and generally helpful. My one criticism would be that when dealing with customer service as opposed to a teller, the experience can be uncoordinated.

Branch/bank facilities: Adequate amount of branches and in branch facilities. Online banking could be improved, it is not laid out in a user friendly manor and requires some fiddling.


Permanent TSB

Account opening: After my positive experience with Ulster Bank I strode into Permanent TSB in the middle of Grafton Street hoping to have a similar experience. After waiting at the customer service desk for about 15 minutes I was informed that I would have to book an appointment to open an account and that unfortunately they were busy and it would be several days before someone could see me. I tried to explain that I had all the necessary documentation with me and the account form fully filled out. Alas, I would still have to set up an appointment. I decided to forgo the appointment and try the other Permanent TSB branch just down the road at St. Stephen’s Green. Again, I was told I would have to set up an appointment and return in a few days time.

At this point I was feeling quite frustrated and thought that Permanent TSB’s appointment system for opening personal accounts was ridiculous. I could perhaps understand if they needed to go through the forms and documentation with me but I had it all under my arm, ready to go. If they could have just applied some common sense and taken my forms in. Given this experience I decided that opening an account with Permanent TSB was not worth the effort and it was likely that I was to continue having similar experiences with them. First impressions are important.

Customer service: My first experience was poor, waiting about 15 minutes with only one person ahead of me. I’ve seen more people at customer service desks in rural branches. No other experiences.

Branch/bank facilities: Ridiculous account opening procedure. Never experienced any other facilities.


Bank of Ireland

Account opening: Feeling frustrated with my experience in Permanent TSB, I was still hopeful that I would have a better time in Bank of Ireland. After all, I had an existing account with them and simply needed to reactivate it and apply for a debit card. After entering the St. Stephen’s Green branch, I tried to locate a customer service desk but could not see one. I asked one of the staff who was walking by, who told me to take a seat and that someone would be with me shortly.

After a few minutes a lady approached me and I explained that I needed to reactivate my account and apply for a new card. She informed me that that was doable and she would be with me once she finished up with something else. About 40 minutes went by where she passed by me several times informing me she would be right with me. Eventually I had to leave to make my afternoon lecture and told her I would call back later that afternoon. When I did call back I ended up waiting another 30 minutes before being dealt with. When I was eventually dealt with, the lady who dealt with me seemed not to know what she was doing. Another 30 minutes and my account was re-activated. Unimpressed.

Customer service: My experience re-activating my account left me feeling like I wasn’t an important customer to Bank of Ireland. Maybe if I had been opening an account by depositing a large cheque I would have been dealt with differently. A naive approach if so, you never know who will turn out to be your most valuable customers in a bank and starting a relationship this way is not a good omen.

Branch/bank facilities: Good branch network. At the time of opening online banking was poor but a visual overhaul has improved the user experience.



Account opening: At the time of this experiment KBC had only recently launched personal banking in Ireland. I visited the head office on

Customer service: Definitely friendly and welcoming but got the distinct impression they weren’t prepared. You might make some allowances for a newly launched product if it wasn’t a bank that was going to be handling your monetary affairs. 1800 customer service number, a nice touch and when I did call I got through to someone very quickly.

Branch/bank facilities: At the time there was just a handful of branches but they have expanded since. Online banking was mediocre.


Danske Bank

Account opening: Dankse Bank was the only bank that would not offer free banking to 3rd level students. Still, I rang to enquire about their personal accounts and got the impression it didn’t make sense to take it any further. Funnily enough next month they would announce the closing of their personal banking service.



Account opening: As I mentioned earlier I already had an AIB bank account for several years prior to this experiment. However, subsequent to this experiment I have opened a business bank account with AIB. Given this post is focused on personal banking I won’t go into detail on opening the business account except to say it was quite straightforward and the AIB rep that assisted me was excellent and helpful throughout.

Customer service: I have had the most consistently good customer service with AIB. Granted, a poor experience is inevitable with any bank, however AIB seem to put the extra effort in. For example in Bank of Ireland and Ulster Bank I was looking around for awhile before finding customer service while in AIB, I am always approached to see if I need help. Even when in line at customer service someone will check with each person in the line to see if they are in the right place or if it is a quick fix/answer they need.

Branch/bank facilities: Excellent in branch facilities. The automated cash and cheque deposit machines greatly speed up most of my trips to the bank. Personal online banking is the best I’ve experienced. Business online banking looks like it is from the 70s and is hard to navigate but gets the job done. Major problem with the business online banking is very poor exporting of statements for accounting systems (resulting in user made workarounds). Good branch network.


Closing thoughts

I will remain with AIB for my primary personal account for the foreseeable future. I recommend AIB to anyone who needs a personal or business account given my typically consistent banking experience with them. AIB seem to be aggressively improving their personal banking service over the past few years and it has shown. It would be the cherry on top if AIB followed in Bank of Ireland’s footsteps in providing Enterprise Lounges. Ulster Bank is a close second for personal banking and I will be keeping my account active with them.

CEO & Founder at DeveloperFair

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