Updated August 2020. Neobanks promise to revolutionize banking with user-friendly experiences and competitive pricing. Industry darling Revolut is particularly enticing for travelers with its free foreign currency transactions at interbank rates. But how well does Revolut fare in real life? I put it to the test over a year and a half and across more than a dozen different countries.
I opened a standard free account and got a card at the beginning of 2019. Just to clarify, this review is unbiased, no affiliate links here!
Online purchases were carried out in the US, Canada, China, Turkey and the EU (Germany and Switzerland). I made cash withdrawals at ATMs in Canada, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Bulgaria. Finally, I paid by card in Canada, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Germany and Bulgaria.
Revolut App User Experience 3/5
Revolut works exclusively through the app. There is no account access through a browser. This means that nothing works without a smartphone with internet connection, although even a working 2G network is sometimes enough.
The app displays all transactions for each currency sub-account under the “Home” section. Transactions can be viewed by currency, country, merchant and predefined categories. Details for bank transfers are stored under the “Payment” section, with a few options to request money, split bills and set-up recurring payments. The “Wealth” section covers cryptocurrencies, commodities (e.g. gold), and so-called vaults that act as saving accounts.
The physical and virtual card’s details can be seen and managed under the “Cards” section. Finally, account details, settings and a long list of options are regrouped in a fifth sub-menu.
Revolut’s app is feature-rich, there is no doubt about it. And this is also its main problem. As the Revolut software engineers keep adding new functions, navigation becomes cumbersome. Important information such as remaining free ATM withdrawals is hidden deep in sub-menus.
Finally, my account didn’t update while in Sudan until I used a VPN. Not a big deal for most travelers, but something to be aware off if you are traveling to blacklisted countries.
Bottomline: the Revolut app has a lot of useful functions, but tends to be unnecessarily complex. And from a traveler’s perspective, a basic offline mode would be handy.
Adding Funds 5/5
I am a Swiss resident on paper, and the Revolut account comes with a local IBAN. Bank transfers are quick, usually less than 24 hours.
Even better, I can use my credit card to instantly top-up my Revolut account when needed. It doesn’t trigger any foreign transaction fees (even though Revolut is UK based). I used to get cashback rewards from my credit card every time I do so, but this loophole has been more or less closed.
Handling Foreign Currency 4/5
Revolut allows you to hold a long list of currencies, including all the major ones. And you can spend directly in over 140 currencies. There is also a cryptocurrency vault which I did not use, as you cannot transfer your coins in or out of Revolut.
In practice I can lock in a favorable exchange rate for an upcoming trip, and exchange money at any time. Preset triggers to auto-exchange foreign currency at set rates is also an option.
If you spend or transfer money in a certain currency, Revolut will first use any existing funds in the relevant sub-account and subsequently convert the rest from your main currency account, defined by your country of residence.
The only downside is that you don’t get to choose your main account’s currency. Say you are a German resident but earn all your money in US dollars, and spend in Mexican Pesos, your default currency will still be the Euro. So any Pesos would be drawn first, then your Euros, and US dollars last. Not ideal, but if you keep your main currency balance low you can circumvent this.
Overall, the foreign currency handling is not perfect, but it’s a huge step forward for a global traveler. Managing efficiently a large basket of currencies has never been easier.
The standard free account comes with one Mastercard or Visa debit card, depending on your country of residence. I had to pay a small fee to order mine, but if you are clever you can find promo links on the web to get yours for free. Google and Apple Pay are supported.
On top of the physical card, you can create up to 5 virtual cards in the standard account. All cards are managed through the app. They can instantly be blocked or unblocked, and the transaction types and limits can also be preset.
For online transactions I used exclusively the virtual cards. The physical card was in use whenever foreign cards where accepted without surcharge at ATMs and shops. Both worked absolutely flawlessly so far.
Sadly, some car rentals still insist on a credit card for the deposit. Revolut and other neobanks are working on a solution, and more and more agencies have started accepting neobank cards. But for now you can’t entirely rely on a Revolut card.
The Revolut app requires a code to be delivered to your registered phone number for the initial log in. Afterwards, you can use the fingerprint reader on your phone or a PIN code to unlock the app. This is not the most advanced security procedure out there, but not having to rely on SMS codes and code generators while abroad does make life a lot easier, as these don’t always work, usually at the worst possible moment.
Any transaction triggers an instant push notification from the app. This means that you will immediately know about the real cost of a purchase, as well as any fraudulent activity. In comparison, my old credit card has a complicated log-in procedure and 1-3 day delay before anything appears on the online statement.
Virtual cards are a great tool for online transactions, especially if you are forced to go through an untrustworthy website while traveling. If a Mastercard 3D Secure authentication is required, you simply needed to confirm the purchase within the app. My card got blocked once in Germany, and I could unblock it immediately through the app. Beats waiting for an hour trying to phone your bank.
Finally, fine tuning the functionality of the physical card adds another layer of security. I block online transactions, contactless payments, swipe payments or ATM withdrawals as needed. Or switch on location-based security if I have reliable mobile internet. Again, this beats most traditional banks.
And if you loose both your phone and cards, you can still phone Revolut’s automated system.
Customer Service 4/5
Revolut’s costumer service can only be accessed 24/7 through a chat within the app. Unless of course you lose your phone, in which case you can call them directly. I know some customers don’t like the fact they can’t speak to a human. But from a traveler’s perspective waiting forever for your phone call to be answered can be very expensive, or entirely dependent on good internet.
I had to contact costumer service twice. Once from Egypt for an erroneous ATM charge, and once from Sudan using a shaky 2G mobile connection because of missing transactions. Both times the problem was solved quickly.
There is however one catch. Finding the chat option is not easy. Revolut first tries to direct you to frequently asked questions, then a chat bot. And you have to type “I want to speak to a human” before being able to actually do so. I understand why they do it, but it’s annoying.
I can confirm that the standard account remains free. I never got charged for a transaction, an ATM withdrawal, an inbound or outbound transfer, regardless of the country. Foreign currency transactions were always carried out at the interbank rate. This is HUGE for someone constantly traveling!
Nevertheless, there is a 200 USD a month free ATM withdrawal limit. In cash-based economies like Egypt this is not a lot. I use my Transferwise Mastercard as a second card in such situations. There is also a 6000 USD a month free currency exchange limit, but that shouldn’t be a problem for most budget travelers. However, by mid-August 2020 this gets lowered to 1200 USD, which will require some planning ahead for bigger purchases to avoid the 0.5% fee charged for amounts over that limit.
Finally, Revolut adds a 0.5% surcharge over the weekend to protect against currency fluctuations. This will be doubled in August 2020. Thus, if I have to buy something on weekends my Transferwise card is generally more advantageous. It’s also worth noting that the Thai Baht and Ukrainian Hryvnia attract a 1% markup, which goes up to 2% on weekends.
If you are a US resident, Charles Swab is still the best option for travelers. For everyone else who is eligible, Revolut is a game changer for international travel. It is the most competitive offer among neobanks at the moment, and has already saved me hundreds compared to my traditional financial providers and banks.
Long-term sustainability of the neobank business model is however less clear. Revolut is betting the house on fast expansion, and is currently loosing money. Covid-19 is only exacerbating this. Whether they can one day be profitable with premium account fees and cryptocurrency remains to be seem. But for now, it’s as good as it gets.