South African digital banking battle

South Africans who want to open a bank account without the hassle of visiting a branch have several providers to choose from.

There are three major banks in South Africa with digitally-focused offerings that operate without physical branches — Bank Zero, Discovery Bank, and TymeBank.

When it comes to sheer numbers, TymeBank is by far the most popular option, having amassed over 5 million customers in the country by June 2022.

That is a tremendous achievement considering it was only launched in February 2019, adding an average of around 1.25 million customers every year.

For comparison, South Africa’s biggest bank — Standard Bank — had 11.73 million customers by the middle of 2022. However, it was founded in 1862.

TymeBank’s substantial growth is likely due to its very low barrier of entry — in terms of pricing, eligibility, and sign-up process.

It charges no monthly fees, and most transactions are free. Only a handful of transactions attract charges of either R3.00, R7.00, or R10.00.

In addition, customers don’t need to have a minimum monthly income and can sign up for an account via the website or mobile app.

At this point, new customers are allowed a maximum balance of R40,000 in their accounts.

They can then go to a TymeBank kiosk to verify their details — requiring an ID, thumbprints, and residential address — increasing their maximum potential balance to R1.4 million.

Their initial TymeBank Visa debit card will be issued at the kiosk at no charge.

While Bank Zero also offers a bank account with no monthly fee, it only launched in late 2021, six years after TymeBank.

It has not revealed details about its customer numbers, but MyBroadband recently calculated that this was likely to be somewhere between 13,000 and 67,000.

Like TymeBank, Bank Zero charges nothing for most of its transactions, although customers do have to pay a once-off fee for their personalised card.

The bank charges R119 for the card and delivery in most cities, while those in some less populated locations might have to dish out R159.

Opting for pickup at a Clicks Store brings that charge down to R69.

Bank Zero heavily punts security and convenience as its standout capabilities.

Usefully, the Bank Zero app lets customers do their complete biometric FICA verification online without visiting a branch or kiosk.

A MyBroadband employee previously took Bank Zero’s app for a test run and found the sign-up process was seamless.

Discovery Bank was launched in 2019, dubbing itself the world’s first behavioural bank, in addition to being fully digital.

It has been offering a wide range of accounts that customers can sign for via its banking app or website.

However, its fees are typically more expensive than TymeBank and Bank Zero’s, indicating that it has a different target market.

Its approach aligns with the broader Discovery Group, meaning it incentivises customers to apply certain healthy behaviours the company’s experts identify from scientific studies.

It rewards customers that meet certain goals with Discovery Miles for buying healthy food, and healthcare products, using Uber, and refuelling at certain petrol stations.

The table below compares the features and ratings of Bank Zero, Discovery Bank, and TymeBank.

South African digital banking comparison
Bank Zero Discovery Bank TymeBank
Customers Unknown (Likely less than 100,000) 450,000 5,000,000+
  • Businesses can use main account
  • No monthly banking fee
  • Low transaction fees
  • App-phone authorisation for all online purchases, including for insecure sites
  • Card has additional patented anti-skimming technologies
  • Personalised
  • Up to 6.55% interest rate on savings account
  • Personalised features
  • Earn Discovery Miles on healthy food, fuel, healthcare products, and Uber purchases
  • Earn Discovery Miles for weekly exercise, drive, and money goals
  • Flight discounts
  • Savings on Apple, Nike, and fitness devices
    Free travel insurance
  • Real-time Forex accounts
  • Up to 6% interest rate on savings account
  • Simple sign-up with no biometrics
  • No monthly banking fee
  • Low transaction fees
  • Up to 8% interest rate on savings account
Biggest selling point
  • Security and convenience
  • Shared-value banking
  • Affordability
Notable weakness
  • Initial fee for card issuing
  • More expensive fees
  • Lower maximum bank balance
Apple App Store rating 3.8/5 (80) 4.8/5 (45,500) 3.7/5 (1,000)
Google Play Store rating 4.2/5 (460) 4.6/5 (500,000+) 4.1/5 (61,700)

For many South Africans, banking fees will be the most important factor in deciding which of these banks best suit their needs.

We selected a basket of typical transactions and calculated how much it would cost to perform them with each digital bank.

Our transaction mix consisted of the following:

  • 5 payments
  • 2 cash deposits of R1,000 at point-of-sale
  • 3 cash withdrawals of R500 at point-of-sale
  • 3 prepaid airtime purchases
  • 1 instant payment of R1,000
  • 3 debit orders
  • 1 debit order dispute
  • 1 emailed statement
  • Monthly fee

The table below summarises what this combination of transactions would cost with a Bank Zero, Discovery Bank Gold, or TymeBank EveryDay Personal account.

Transaction basket for affordability
Bank Zero Discovery Bank Gold (pay-as-you-transact) TymeBank EveryDay Personal
Payments (x5) No charge R2.50 No charge
Cash deposit at retailer (x2) R19.95 R19.95 per R5,000 First free
R7.00 per R1,000
R35.00 maximum
Cash withdrawal at till (x3) R2.00 R2.00 R3.00
Instant payment R8.50 R5.00 + 0.5% of transaction value if over R1,000 R7.00 per R1,000
R35.00 maximum
Debit orders (x3) No charge R11.25 No charge
Debit order dispute R8.00 R5.00 Before 60 days lapsed: R10.00
Older than 40 days: R60.00
Emailed statement (last 30 days) No charge No charge No charge
Buy prepaid airtime fee (x3) No charge No charge No charge
Monthly fee No charge R20.00 No charge
Basket cost R62.40 R89.65 R33.00

Now read: Most loved and hated banks in South Africa — with one slipping badly

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South African digital banking battle