Here’s my experience with Serbian Banca Intesa. I’ve spent over 5 years with them and feel the need to share my experience. As their website’s home page says:
1. Introduction – how I came to Banca Intesa
When I had started making my website, I needed a way for paying for things on line. A friend recommended Banca Intesa – saying they don’t charge anything for a foreign currency account (with euros and US dollars, used for paying stuff online). This sounded like a good idea, since I seldom buy anything on line, didn’t want to pay each month for something I don’t use.
So I went, signed about 20 papers (they do all sorts of anti-fraud / money-laundering checks in Serbia… unless you’re a politician, or a real criminal) and in under an hour I was set. I could pay and even receive money transfers from abroad!
2. Banca Intesa – your money is safe with us… if we accept it
When I was buying my garage, some three years ago, I wanted to pay all the money over the bank – to make sure there is a paper trail, make sure it’s all documented and legit. So I went with the seller to Banca Intesa, where they also had an account. Then, as I was counting money to pay, one 500 euro not was turned down by the bank. Why? Because it was dirty. No damage whatsoever, just a slight, light-brown, hardly visible mark. Here’s the picture of the offensive note, I had to photograph it:
So I had to excuse myself, have the seller wait, then go to another bank, tell them the note was not accepted in Banca Intesa (so they can double check if something except the “dirt” was the problem). They were a bit confused, but accepted the note and were kind enough to exchange it for “cleaner” ones.
See how my hands are dirty from fixing bicycles? 🙂 But I think the money I make is clean – though you can be the judge from the photo.
So that was the first hick-up I have had with Banca Intesa, but thought, fine, the other services work as intended. And I didn’t want any more hassle with paperwork.
3. Banca Intesa – impulse purchase protection
I seldom shop on line, but on occasions, when there are no parts to be found in Serbia, I do. One of the very good shops, with excellent reputation and good prices is the German bike-discount.de. So, on one occasion, I ordered some parts from that store. Using my Banca Intesa issued Visa. However, the payment kept being blocked. After some tries, I phoned the bank. They explained that Bike Discount is blacklisted as fraud.
Then, I said that many friends and people I know shop there, that I have also shopped there in the past, they are very secure, professional and have an excellent reputation. The reply was: “we don’t know about that, someone marked it as a fraud and we block the payments”.
Offering to unblock the payment, “at my own request and risk”. But I’d have to phone and ask each time I wish to shop from Bike Discount – no permanent “whitelisting”, even upon my own request, for that one particular vendor, for my account alone if possible.
This was awesome: a bank that really helps you save the money – no impulse purchases with Banca Intesa!
4. Banca Intesa – emptying account protection
On another occasion, again trying to pay on line. Had about 100 euros on my account and wanted to pay for some parts costing just over 90 euros (with shipping included). When I tried to pay, the payment didn’t go through.
Great! Another opportunity to spend some quality time with Banca Intesa phone operators – who are very polite and professional, I must say – not being sarcastic, their staff really is great and understanding… unlike their company policies.
The operator had patiently explained that, when you are making a purchase, you need to have 15% more money left on your account, than the price of the goods purchased. Why? “For covering any unexpected conversion costs”, and the conversation went on like this:
Me: “I have euros on my account and am paying for goods from Europe, listed and charged in euros. Is there any conversion in that case?”
Me: “What kind of conversion costs are involved then?”
Me: “Why can’t I be allowed to pay for this, without having 15% extra funds on the account?”
Operator: “Catch 22“… no, I’m joking, the actual reply was: “Company policy”, that was just my translation to plain, non-corporate English.
So technically it is possible to spend almost all of the money from your account. When you’re down to say 10 euros, you can buy something for up to 8.5, then something for 1.2 and, when you get to the last 2 cents, you just need to find something costing 1 cent. And that’s it. Banca Intesa protects you from ever going completely broke!
5. Foreign company checks cashing
My cycling website uses Amazon affiliate links for products (for those interested, read why I use Amazon affiliate links). The principle is simple: I link a product that I like, use and would recommend, people buy it from Amazon using that link, then Amazon pays me some percentage of the profit. It’s a win-win. Unless you are born in the wrong country – Serbia.
Digression: Apart from all the sanctions and wars during my growing up, being born and living in Serbia has many other benefits. One of those is that Amazon doesn’t offer direct wire-transfer of the money made through their affiliate program for Serbs. The neighbourhood is covered: Croatia, Romania, Hungaria… but we… we’re special! For Serbia, you have to wait to get at least 100$ on your account, then Amazon takes 15$ commission out of that and sends you the rest – using a company check, to your name.
I asked if I could go some 60 miles north, to Hungary, open an account there and have the money directly transferred. They said it’s not allowed, the bank must be in my country of residence. “Company policy”.
Anyway, occasionally I get a company check from Amazon. Take it to the Banca Intesa. Then, the procedure used to be the following:
- I go to the bank. Wait for about 20 to 60 minutes for my turn at the register.
- Once my queue is up, I let a clerk scan the check. They run some background checks, while I wait. This takes about one hour.
- After the initial check is complete, I hand over the check, and wait.
- Then, after a “maximum of 45 days”, the money gets onto my account and I can spend it (with the above explained protections in place).
The problem is, those 45 days often last for 60, or 90 days. If I ask around, phone the banks support line. Generally, I have to spend quite some amount of quality time with the bank for them to finally let me have my money (again, with the above explained protections in place).
However, fortunately, they have modernized. In the next chapter, I’ll write about that.
6. Banca Intesa’s modernized company check cashing system
At the beginning of February 2020, I went with another Amazon check to cash it. Expecting to wait for about an hour after handing the check to a clerk. Then, to my delight, the clerk said: “Oh, we have changed and modernized our system, now you just let me scan the checks and go, we’ll phone you within a day, two at max, as soon as the initial checks of the check are done. Then you can come over and hand us the check for cashing.”
No calls. Some 15 days later, I went to the bank to see what’s going on. Waiting again for about an hour for my queue at the counter. Clerk then explained that they did send the check’s scan for checking, but didn’t get any confirmation. Saying they will re-scan it and re-send it for confirmation – calling me when it’s done, “within a day, or two”.
On the end of the second day, I sent an email to the bank, explaining the situation, chronologically and in detail. Some two weeks later, I got a reply, saying: “We have confirmed it’s a company check” (Really!? Wasn’t that clear from the start?). “You should go to our nearest branch, hand it over, then wait some 45 days for it to be cashed”.
Being patient and naive, I did exactly as they said. Went to the nearest branch, waited for my hour in the queue, then gave a clerk my check. The clerk said: “now we will scan the check, and phone you within a day, or two, once the initial checks are finished”.
Digression: have you seen the Groundhog Day?
I explained patiently to the clerk the whole situation. Let her read their own bank’s email I got (from my smartphone). She was very understanding, apologetic, but said her hands are tied by “the company policy” – until she gets the check’s check confirmation, she can’t take the check for cashing. And she hadn’t received any confirmation. Looking at the data on her computer, seeing the previous two occasions when the check requests for the check had been sent.
We both started laughing. I said that she needn’t do anything. I’ll try another bank. Doing business with the Serbian Banca Intesa only in case I have no other options.
7. Conclusion and my personal opinion
Staff at most Serbian Banca Intesa branches (the ones in Novi Sad at least) are very professional, pleasant and polite. With the company policy such that you are bound to spend a lot of quality time with them – whether you like it, or not. See, when a bank decides to screw you, they do it politely and tenderly. With a long foreplay.
You can go to another bank, of course. Unfortunately, there aren’t many banks in Serbia who cash checks in US dollars. Not many things work normally here, and there are very few competent people left in Serbia. Just earlier this week, a major public data processing company got hacked, with no backups and safety protocols in place (wrote on my IT website about the data breach and email security).
On the bright side, you get to train in patience, whether you want to, or not. I have lost mine with Banca Intesa, but don’t expect the things to be much better with any other Serbian bank. However, I’d feel really stupid to not at least give it a try, because the treatment I got at this bank was unacceptably poor in my opinion.
I have politely and patiently provided all the above written feedback to Banca Intesa’s customer feedback department (over emails). During the five year period I’ve been with them. They have had enough time to change – seems the change is only for the worse, at least in my experience. If anyone asks me about this bank, I’ll just copy-paste a link to this post, saving myself the time.
8. Hotel California update
You know the song: “…you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…”
- Komercijalna Banka – no
- AIK Banka – nope
- Sberbank – no
- Raiffeisen Bank -no
- Vojvođanska Banka – no
- Direktna Banka (didn’t know this bank existed, “Direct Bank”) – nope
- NLB – no
Update (never give up!):
- UniCredit Banka – 25 USD commission if the check clears, 45 USD charge if it doesn’t. Must have a created account with the bank in order to do it. A rip-off, especially if a check gets “not cleared” (fails checking) for any reason, rather risky, but better than nothing.
- OTP Banka – no way
None of those banks cashes USD checks. Update: one seems to do it, with questionable commission policy.
9. What to do as an Amazon affiliate in Serbia?
As you can see, there is practically no way for me to cash any USD checks. Amazon offers payment in credits at their own shop. However, because of shipment costs and Serbian import taxes, if I order goods that cost around 100$ from Amazon.com (the US store), I’d eventually have to pay around 100$ extra for the shipment and taxes. So this is far from practical and it beats the point of using Amazon credits to shop from Serbia.
Now I’m considering contacting trustworthy cycling enthusiasts from the US, to see if I can buy some parts, tools, or bicycles, using my Amazon account funds, and have them shipped to their location, so they (the parts/tools/bikes) can be given to the people who are less well off, to be put to good use. Yes, I’d rather use the money to buy tools for my own bike service, but this also seems like a good thing to do.
I also sent a link to this literary jewel to Amazon, as an “associate feedback”, hoping they might re consider offering direct bank transfers for us in Serbia, like they did for the neighbourhood.
Serbian banks: from the people, for the people! 🙂