Almost exactly 18 months after moving to Ireland I’m finally bound to receive my first Irish credit card. This took longer than I was expecting but at least it should cover a few of the needs I have, although it’s not exactly my perfect plan either. But I guess it’s better start from the top.
First of all, I have already credit cards, Italian ones that as I wrote before, they are not chip’n’pin which causes a major headache in countries such as Ireland (but UK too), where non-chip’n’pin capable cards are not really well supported or understood. This means that they are not viable, even though I have been using them for years and I have enough credit history with them that they have a higher limit than the norm, which is especially handy when dealing with things like expensive hotels if I’m on vacation.
But the question becomes why do I need a credit card? The answer lies in the mess that the Irish banking system is: since there is no “good” bank over here, I’ve been using the same bank I was signed up with when I arrived, AIB. Unfortunately their default account, which is advertised as “free”, is only really free if for the whole quarter your bank account never goes below €2.5k. This is not the “usual” style I’ve seen from American banks where they expect that your average does not go below a certain amount, it does not matter if one day you have no money and the next you have €10k on it: if for one day in the quarter you dip below the threshold, you have to pay for the account, and dearly. At that point every single operation becomes a €.20 charge. Including PayPal’s debit/credit verification, AdSense EFT account verification, Amazon KDP monthly credits. And including every single use of your debit card — for a while, NFC payments were excluded, so I tried to use it more, but very few merchants allowed that, and the €15 limit on its use made it quite impractical to pay most things. In the past year and a half, I paid an average of €50/quarter for a so-called free account.
Operations on most credit cards are on the other hand free; there are sometimes charges for “oversea usage” (foreign transactions), and you are charged interests if you don’t pay the full amount of the debt at the end of the month, but you don’t pay a fixed charge per operation. What you do pay here in Ireland is stamp duty, which is €30/year. A whole lot more than Italy where it was €1.81 until they dropped it on the floor. So my requirements on a credit card are to essentially hide as much as possible these costs. Which essentially mean that just getting a standard AIB card is not going to be very useful: yes I would be saving money after the first 150 operations, but I would be saving more to save enough to keep those €2.5k in the bank.
My planned end games were two: a Tesco credit card and an American Express Platinum, for very different reasons. I was finally able to get the former, but the latter is definitely out of my reach, as I’ll explain later.
The Tesco credit card is a very simple option: you get 0.5% “pointback”, as you get 1 Clubcard point every €2 spent. Since for each point you get a €.01 discount at end of quarter, it’s almost like a cashback, as long as you buy your groceries from Tesco (that I do, because it’s handy to have the delivery rather than having to go out for that, especially for things that are frozen or that weight a bit). Given that it starts with (I’m told) a puny limit of €750, maxing it out every month is enough to get back the stamp duty price with just the cashback, but it becomes even easier by using it for all the small operations such as dinner, Tesco orders, online charges, mobile phone, …
Getting the Tesco credit card has not been straightforward either. I tried applying a few months after arriving in Ireland, and I was rejected, as I did not have any credit history at all. I tried again earlier this year, adding a raise at work, and the results have been positive. Unfortunately that’s only step one: the following steps require you to provide them with three pieces of documentation: something that ensures you’re in control of the bank account, a proof of address, and a proof of identity.
The first is kinda obvious: a recent enough bank statement is good, and so is the second, a phone or utility bill — the problem starts when you notice that they ask you for an original and not a copy “from the Internet”. This does not work easily given that I explicitly made sure all my services are paperless, so neither the bank nor the phone company sends me paper any more — the bank was the hardest to convince, for over an year they kept sending me a paper letter for every single wire I received with the exception of my pay, which included money coming from colleagues when I acted as a payment hub, PayPal transfer for verification purposes and Amazon KDP revenue, one per country! Luckily, they accepted a color printed copy of both.
Getting a proper ID certified was, though, much more complex. The only document I could use was my passport, as I don’t have a driving license or any other Irish ID. I made a proper copy of it, in color, and brought it to my doctor for certification, he stamped and dated and declared, but it was not okay. I brought it to An Post – the Irish postal service – and told them that Tesco wanted a specific declaration on it, and to see the letter they sent me; they refused and just stamped it. I then went to the Garda – the Irish police – and I repeated Tesco’s request; not only they refused to comply, but they told me that they are not allowed to do what Tesco was asking me to make them do, and instead they authenticated a declaration of mine that the passport copy was original and made by me.
What worked, at the end, was to go to a bank branch – didn’t have to be the branch I’m enrolled with – and have them stamp the passport for me. Tesco didn’t care it was a different branch and they didn’t know me, it was still my bank and they accepted it. Of course since it took a few months for me to go through all these tries, by the time they accepted my passport, I needed to send them another proof of address, but that was easy. After that I finally got the full contract to sign and I’m now only awaiting the actual plastic card.
But as I said my aim was also for an American Express Platinum card. This is a more interesting case study: the card is far from free, as it starts with a yearly fee of €550, which is what makes it a bit of a status symbol. On the other hand, it comes with two features: their rewards program, and the perks of Platinum. The perks are not all useful to me, having Hertz Gold is not useful if you don’t drive, and I already have comprehensive travel insurance. I also have (almost) platinum status with IHG so I don’t need a card to get the usual free upgrades if available. The good part about them, though, is that you can bless a second Platinum card that gets the same advantages, to “friends or family” — in my case, the target would have been my brother in law, as he and my sister love to travel and do rent cars.
It also gives you the option of sending four more cards also to friends and family, and in particular I wanted to have one sent to my mother, so that she can have a way to pay for things and debit them to me so I can help her out. Of course as I said it has a cost, and a hefty one. Ont he other hand, it allows you one more trick: you can pay for the membership fee through the same rewards program they sign you up for. I don’t remember how much you have to spend in an year to pay for it, but I’m sure I could have managed to get most of the fee waived.
Unfortunately what happens is that American Express requires, in Ireland, a “bank guarantee” — which according to colleagues means your bank should be taking on the onus of paying for the first €15k debt I would incur and wouldn’t be able to repay. Something like this is not going to fly in Ireland, not only because of the problem with loans after the crisis but also because none of the banks will give you that guarantee today. Essentially American Express is making it impossible for any Irish resident to get a card from them, and this, again according to colleagues, extends to cardholders in other countries moving into Ireland.
The end result is that I’m now stuck with having only one (Visa) credit card in Ireland, which had feeble, laughable rewards program, but at least I have it, and it should be able to repay itself. I’m up to find a MasterCard card I can have to hedge my bets on the acceptance of the card – turns out that Visa is not well received in the Netherlands and in Germany – and that can repay itself for the stamp duty.