The hole in the wall gangs unite

The holy grail of universal cashpoints - any machine, any card - is close at hand. But it can cost you, writes Steve Lodge

The day when every cashpoint card can be used in every cash machine in the land drew closer last week, as Royal Bank of Scotland became the first bank to allow cash withdrawals by customers of any other institution - and to give its current account holders access to the entire network of 22,000 'hole in the wall' machines in the UK.

Current account holders with TSB, Co-op Bank and Alliance & Leicester are now able to use RBS's 1,300 machines at no charge, while RBS customers now have free use of the entire Link network of machines, which includes machines run by Halifax, Abbey National and Woolwich.

RBS account holders can now use any cashpoint in the UK at no charge, but for account holders at some of Britain's biggest banks and building societies, the increased access offered by this and other cashpoint 'sharing' moves of recent years has a sting in the tail in the form of charges.

The table below, compiled by the Independent on Sunday, details the access available to current account holders as well as savers with Tesco and Sainsbury's - two of the newest and fastest-growing banks. Many account holders may be surprised at the wide range of machines they can use for free.

Woolwich is the worst offender on charges: there is nothing to stop its current account holders using thousands of machines run by the new bank's rivals, but if they do they will be charged 60p a time. Abbey National, Nationwide building society and NatWest Bank also charge their account holders for using the machines of some other institutions. Savers - as opposed to current account holders - should also beware of charges: many institutions charge for using other cashpoints and some, such as Nationwide with its InvestDirect account, even charge for using the society's own cashpoints.

The RBS move towards 'universal reciprocity' of cashpoints and cashpoint cards follows research that found that current account holders - particularly younger people - see cashpoint machines as the single most important service available from a bank. At the same time it found that the vast majority of people were not aware of the full range of cashpoints they could use and often steered clear of machines run by other institutions for fear of their card being rejected or swallowed, let alone being charged for the use.

Banks have been poor at communicating the increasing amount of access available. Cash machines themselves do not always say which banks' cards are acceptable, and the machines give no warnings if you are to be charged.

Charges, where they do exist, are set by whoever issues the card, not whoever runs the cashpoint, although banks say they are merely passing on costs charged to them by the other bank. However, the chargers also earn fees when their cashpoints are used by customers of other banks.

NatWest, for example, earns fees when customers of the Halifax and other Link members use its machines, but it also charges its own customers when they use machines of the same Link members - and now those of RBS. Customers may be tempted to argue for refunds, although NatWest claims it knows of no recent complaints. Other banks are more generous. Citibank customers, for example, may only have a handful of cashpoints of their own, but the bank, unusually, allows free withdrawals through any machine in the UK carrying the Visa or Cirrus symbols. Customers of tradition al banks with cards carrying a Visa or Cirrus symbol, as well as having the access detailed in the table, can also use other machines carrying these symbols. But they will be charged. Most people will welcome the greater convenience offered by moves like RBS's, particularly RBS customers who have access to only a relatively modest 670 branches, half of them in Scotland. But some banks say there is little demand for wider access to oth er banks' cashpoints. Lloyds and TSB, which merged over a year ago and now promote how customers can use both sets of branches, do not offer customers the same range of cashpoints. While each can use the cashpoints run by the other bank, TSB customers ca n withdraw money from a total of 19,000 of the UK's cashpoints - the vast majority - but Lloyds customers can use just 9,000. However, a Lloyds TSB spokeswoman points out that the network of 2,700 branches is now the biggest in the UK. Some banks also argue that what is really important is not the number of cashpoints an account holder can use but their location. Many banks are gearing new cashpoint openings to supermarkets, shopping centres and railway and petrol stations.

WHICH CASHPOINTS CAN YOU USE?

Bank/building society Free machines other than own

(any cost in brackets)

Abbey National Midland, Link network, NatWest (pounds 1), Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) (pounds 1)

Alliance & Leicester Link, NatWest, RBS

Bank of Scotland RBS, Barclays, Lloyds, Link, NatWest

Barclays Lloyds, RBS, Bank of Scotland

Citibank Any carrying Visa or Cirrus symbols

Co-op Link, NatWest, RBS

First Direct Midland, TSB, NatWest, RBS, Halifax,

Abbey National, Clydesdale, Bank of Ireland

Halifax Midland, NatWest, Link, RBS

Lloyds TSB, Barclays, RBS, Bank of Scotland

Midland As First Direct

Nationwide Link, TSB (60p), NatWest (60p),

Sainsbury's (60p), RBS (60p)

NatWest Midland, TSB, Clydesdale, Link (60p), RBS (60p)

Royal Bank of Scotland Barclays, Lloyds, TSB, Midland, Bank of Scotland,

Link, NatWest, Halifax

Sainsbury's Bank Instant Link, RBS

TSB Lloyds, NatWest, Midland, Link, Clydesdale, RBS

Tesco Savings RBS, Link (from November)

Woolwich Link (60p), RBS (60p), NatWest (60p)

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