/ Money

How do we protect access to banking in a digital age?

At the very core of our day-to-day lives is our ability to access, spend and manage money. As technology advances, how can we protect access to banking?

While many of us will not want to think about it, making a payment is one of the most common activities we undertake as an adult.

We are so used to simply being able to tap a card, hand over cash or type in a pin, that we can easily fail to realise the enormity of the infrastructure that is enabling our payments and the extent of the transition that we have undergone as we move rapidly to a world of digital banking and payments. 

For people comfortable using banking and money apps, and for people with money to manage, new technology can provide great opportunities.

We have seen examples of smart saving apps, new budgeting tools and accounts that will save us money spending abroad.

But we must not forget that there is a large number of people that simply want to be able to receive and spend their money is a way that suits them – and for many this still means visiting a branch and using cash.

Are we ready for a digitally dominated world?

Our research has shown that almost everyone in the UK – 95% – still uses some form of physical banking services, with most of us in the UK visiting a branch and using an ATM in the last three months.

It also highlights that many people in the UK are far from ready or able to make the leap to a world dominated by online banking and digital payments.

For some people, this will be because there are still services we need to visit a branch for – paying in cash or to speak to staff – or because we need cash as it is still a useful means of making a payment in our daily lives, but for a significant proportion of the population online or mobile banking are simply not suitable alternatives to branches and cash.

Our research shows that as many as 11 million people in the UK would not be confident checking their balance online and around a third of us would not be confident setting up a regular payment.

A shocking 85% of consumers said they would find it difficult to live their lives without the ability to withdraw cash

It is unsurprising then, that most people would would need support if they were to start banking online and relying on digital payments. 

Our new work shows that over half of consumers would need support to improve their digital capability if they had to transition to online banking and eight in 10 consumers would need support just in case something went wrong while banking online.

How do we protect and support?

We believe that, where possible, consumers should be able to access the support and services necessary to enable them to bank online when they want to.

But for many people in the UK, the simple truth is there is still no alternative to in-person banking services that will allow them to bank safely, comfortably and securely.

Over the next few months Which? is going to be talking to businesses and charities in the UK about what more we can be doing to ensure that nobody in the UK is left without access to vital banking services. 

To discover more, download and view our Everyday Finances reports here.


Your article says it all. We need to speak to people, not computer/phone keypads. People used to managing money in a way they have done for decades will not want to change habits. Money and finance is a vital part of everyday life. It is easier to make mistakes when everything is automated and a push of a button can not be undone. Perhaps we can move to a system where there is a branch of every bank in every town, but only one building which deals with the lot. Perhaps financial issues can be dealt with in a separate office if the end product does not need cash to pass hands. Once again that office could be a combined banking facility.
It is important to believe that, just because someone needs to handle cash and finance in a non digital way, they are not a nuisance or irrelevant. Some of us will know how to go on line and handle digital cards and cashless transactions and we will choose to avoid doing this. This should not be stigmatised. On line banking has to be far more secure and reliable to be foolproof and criminal free. This means not succumbing to service demand attacks that prevent people getting and using electronic money and hacking where accounts are raided. This means no hardware or software failure that locks customers out of the systems.
We need to know for whose benefit changes are being made. If they are not for the customer, then banks should prove they will make the system better and not just add to their profits by using less staff. So far, the banks have done what suited them at our expense. It’s time to alter the balance and I wish Which? luck in its work towards a financial service for everyone with bank branches and smiling faces to greet us.

Kevin says:
9 December 2019

People should have access to physical money as a choice, for me it’s a matter of personal freedom and liberty apart from the evident unreliability of online banking systems.

Banks should also be obliged to agree to some basic standards regarding online security and web ergonomics, I’m sick of widely differing standards in everything from password length and complexity to functional issues like archived statement retention, statement formats, and general web interface design.

Proper 2 factor login is essential. Most people have a chip and PIN card, and there are a limited number of standards for the handheld card readers to generate a one-time code. I’d expect at most one reader for all VISA cards, irrespective of actual bank, and one reader for Mastercard. But each bank insists on it’s own unique system. Why, if you already have a Chip card from them? Bank security is more about protecting the bank and designed for their own convenience, not the consumer. Time to remind them that we employ them, not the other way round.

I don’t visit banks very often but I’m now living not far from a town where all the major banks have a branch, which is very convenient. I don’t need to visit a bank very often but when I did some tidying up of my finances recently I visited branches of four of the banks. A couple of my queries could have been difficult to deal with on the phone but the banks’ staff were very helpful and I prefer face-to-face contact for non-routine problems.

At Christmas I usually visit my family in the highlands of Scotland, where there is no longer a single bank in the nearest town. Last Christmas the only ATM was out of action. What we need, in my view, is planning before withdrawal of banks or ATMs, just like we need planning of provisions of schools, buses and Post Offices. Vynor has mentioned the possibility of a building that offers banking services for all the main banks. I was fortunate in having this service many years ago. When it was set up it was operated by Midland Bank (predecessor of HSBC) who were given use of a university building on condition that a service was provided for other banks. It was a basic service such as that currently offered by Post Offices but it was very convenient and well used. Cooperation between companies can be beneficial for the businesses and their customer, and perhaps the best example is the Link network of ATMs that from the 1970s, dispensed with the need to visit one operated by your own bank.

Bank branches (or combined branches) could help more people embark on using online banking, contactless cards and phone banking safely by offering hands-on tuition and advice on avoiding fraud.

We certainly need the right mix of services to cater for all consumers. Access to cash has been discussed at length, with various suggestions made as to how it could be greatly improved. ATMs will never be provided in all locations to meet everyone’s convenience. Bank branches close because, when they are little used, they are a considerable expense.

We’ve discussed multi-provider bank branches so all customers can have personal banking. I wonder if the banks would like to respond to this? Out local building society branch was operated by an insurance broker quite successfully; maybe a financial office could be used that offers other services as well. Post Offices do fill an important gap, funded by the banks, but there are matters that need face to face discussion where they are not suitable.

I’d suggest that online banking has been a huge improvement in convenience; one of my family today needed a small loan, and it was provided (by me) in seconds. How could I have done that otherwise? Personally, in the years I’ve used online I’ve never had any problem. But as with all financial matters, responsibility, thought, common sense needs to be exercised.

It might be useful if Which? took a holistic view of personal banking and set out some ideas as to how it might see it organised, but bearing in mind realism and pragmatism. Things change and we need to provide the means to adapt.

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If folk ever stop buying food in shops and instead only order it by phone or online, we’ll have a real problem on our hands.

Until then, enterprising local shops can provide cashback, ATM’s and, via Post office counters, access to other banking services.

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My parents live in an area without mobile signal and are self isolating. Unfortunately this is becoming more and more impossible as the banks they use rely on multi factor authentication using SMS that they cannot receive. They are no longer able to use their M&S credit card as a result. They have called M&S who refuse to change the method of authentication to either email or landline. How can we lobby for locations in remote areas to have different verification methods for online shopping? The village used to have two banks, now has none and also has no cashpoint. I absolutely agree on the needs for a different approach and to allow all communities access to money.