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Digital banking is a struggle for many


Published: 30 January 2023

Portret Amany Shalha Publicatie Digitalisering Betalingsverkeer

Some 2.6 million Dutch people aged 18 and above struggle with their digital payments and other banking affairs. This has emerged from a study conducted by De Nederlandsche Bank (DNB). While most people can manage their everyday payments in shops independently, they are less autonomous when it comes to infrequent actions such as opening a bank account or blocking a debit card.

At the same time, digitalisation of payment systems is increasing. In the Netherlands, more and more payment matters can be arranged digitally. Cash use in shops is declining as more people use their debit cards and smartphones. This trend was accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. More and more people are also using online banking, for example to check their bank balance, instead of using paper bank statements. They can also open new payment accounts or apply for debit cards digitally, whereas they used to have to visit a bank branch to do so. In line with this development, Dutch banks are closing more and more branches. This means customers must travel further if they wish to get face-to-face assistance from a bank employee. This makes it harder for certain groups in society to do all their banking unaided, thus increasing the risk of division in society.

The findings from our study serve to inform the Action Plan for Accessible Payments of the National Forum on the Payment System (NFPS). That plan aims to improve banks' existing accessibility initiatives and promote public awareness of them, as well as to identify the issues specific customer focus groups face and how they can best be addressed.

We believe it is important that as many people as possible can continue to do their banking independently. While banks acknowledge the problem and provide additional support, they can do more to keep the payment system accessible to all.

Which actions are the most challenging?

Jos Niels in Gendt is low literate, he needs help from his wife for banking matters.

Dependence by payment service (number of people)

Who is affected?

One in six Dutch adults do not do all their banking on their own. While most of them do perform everyday actions such as checking their bank balance and making payments in shops, many have difficulty operating devices such as ATMs, POS terminals and smartphones. They do not understand texts and instructions because of overly complicated language, have difficulty remembering codes or experience stress when performing actions under time pressure. Among them are people who have difficulty reading, people with physical or intellectual disabilities and people from non-Western migration backgrounds who have difficulties with the Dutch language. There are also those who simply do not have access to the internet.

Number and share of people who do not carry out all banking independently (by focus group)

Number and share of people who do not carry out all banking independently (by focus group)

Some are totally dependent on others

Roughly 400,000 Dutch people aged 18 and above rely exclusively on others for things like paying their bills and arranging their other banking affairs. These people, most of whom are elderly or have a low level of education, are entirely dependent on their partner or another family member for their banking business as a result of digitalisation. They report feelings such as shame, helplessness, inferiority or sadness. Some have difficulty accepting they are forced to rely on others. This includes people who can no longer do some of their banking independently.

Obstacles people face with cash withdrawals

People experience various problems when withdrawing cash from an ATM, such as:

  • ATMs are too high for people in wheelchairs or mobility scooters, meaning they cannot reach the keys.
  • ATMs are also too high for people with limited hand function, and they also have difficulty pressing the keys.
  • In certain light, the screen is difficult to read.
  • Blind and visually impaired people cannot operate an ATM that has no voice function or headphone jack. In some cases, ATMs swallowed their cards because they entered an incorrect PIN or had not pressed the buttons in the right order.
  • People with low literacy sometimes cannot read fast enough and get anxious when there are people queuing behind them.
  • The disappearance of ATMs and the closure of bank branches providing cash withdrawals are also often cited as obstacles. After having had to travel further to an ATM, people sometimes find it is empty or is out of order.
  • For people on a low income, it is important to be able to withdraw small denomination notes. Often, only €50 notes are available, but people in this group sometimes have less than €50 in their account, which means they cannot access their own cash. These people prefer to pay in cash to keep track of their expenses.               

In 2020, Geldmaat installed new ATMs with voice support and more accessible screens, to much satisfaction. Users are very appreciative of its headphone jack.

Also, the agreement that ATMs should be within a radius of 5 kilometres for all residents has held up well, read more here.

Bank branch or ATM nearby?

Banks are closing more and more of their branches. At the end of 2011, there were still 2,654 bank branches, but this number had fallen to 726 by the end of 2021. This means being able to ask a bank employee for assistance to make a payments is gradually becoming a thing of the past.

Moreover, the major Dutch banks no longer provide the option of withdrawing cash at the counter, and fewer and fewer shops let their customers withdraw cash when making purchases. All in all, customers increasingly have to travel greater distances to withdraw cash or to speak to someone from their bank at a branch to get help.

 Mobile banking app challenges

While many customers greatly benefit from using mobile banking apps, specific groups in society struggle with them. For example, some people do not understand the texts in the app because they do not understand all the words or are not proficient in the Dutch language. In addition, there are visually impaired people who cannot read the text very well because the characters are too small for them. Often, they are afraid of making mistakes and losing money as a result. There are also people who cannot perform the necessary actions on their smartphone due to their limited hand function.

A customer with limited hand function recounts: “The screen on a phone is much too small to read things properly, and the keys are too small to get everything right at once. Before you know it, something goes wrong and, if you’re unlucky, you lose your money. My hands don’t work well anymore because of rheumatism. I have enough difficulty sending a WhatsApp message, let alone entering numbers to do my banking.” 

The speech function in mobile banking cannot handle the large amount of information and (possibly unnecessary) advertising in some mobile banking apps; everything is read aloud, making it difficult for severely visually impaired and blind users to retrieve the relevant information.

Some customers learn the sequence of actions to be performed by heart, but run into problems if the app design changes.

For physically disabled people and those who have difficulty with the Dutch language the time available to complete an action is often too short. They typically cannot complete an action within the time limit and then need to start all over again.

Someone with a visual impairment said: “The banking app is reasonably accessible. But if you take too long, you’re logged out and have to log in again, which takes a lot of time. It should be possible to rewind the reader and then you should be able to enter data at the same time. Because when the time is up, I’m logged out. I have to log in again on average four to six times because of that time limit.” 

Current solutions

Banks acknowledge their customers' problems and have come up with different forms of support. For instance, some banks provide face-to-face home assistance or group classes in handling the digital payments environment.

There are financial care coaches and advisers who visit customers, as well as service points where customers can go for support with physical or online banking. Also, for some time now special aids for visually impaired customers have been available, such as talking login devices with large keys. The same applies to applications for speech and voice recognition for people who have low literacy, who are blind or (severely) visually impaired and people with limited hand function.

Share of interviewees stating a willingness to use various solutions

Share of interviewees stating a willingness to use various solutions

In order of interest

Existing initiatives are unknown

The degree of support offered differs from bank to bank. Even so, the target groups are insufficiently aware of the measures banks have taken. There is an urgent need for better information: an information page about accessibility of banks as a whole, insight into the things that can be dealt with at a particular bank branch, simpler use of language, clear step-by-step instructions (e.g. audio CDs, videos), use of images and subtitles and information in multiple languages, etc.

Awareness of existing initiatives

Awareness of existing initiatives

In order of awareness

Is cash disappearing?

There are bank customers who do not want or cannot use digital options. They do not trust digital tools or are afraid of making mistakes and losing money as a result. Others find it too complex or do not have access to the internet. For these people, it is very important to know that non-digital services such as cash, paper bank statements and transfer forms remain available. If the non-digital payments world were to disappear, it would mean the end of their autonomy.

Someone who was born in Morocco says: “I can’t do it, I’m frightened that I’ll make mistakes and that the money will go to the wrong place. I’ve never had the courage to do it, because I'm always careful with money. As you’re closing branches, I am always forced to turn to a friend and many no longer have time to help me nowadays. Sometimes the bills are paid a bit too late. I would like to, and someone should teach me how it works these days. Because I can't do it myself. I’m low-skilled and have a lot of difficulty with the language. And in Morocco we don’t have all that, so I’ve never learnt it.” 

Cash Covenant

Banks and other organisations have made agreements to preserve cash. The aim of the agreements is to ensure that cash continues to function properly as a means of payment at points of sale in the face of a steady increase in electronic payments. 

bankemployee helpt client


It is very important that banks maintain physical contact points where customers can interact with bank employees and that customers can still easily contact their bank by telephone instead of having to communicate with a chatbot. Bank customers can be helped more effectively if they can immediately contact someone who has experience with the various focus groups and the obstacles they encounter and who also speaks their language (including sign language).
Personal telephone customer service is essential: people want to speak directly to a bank employee instead of talking to a call centre employee through a menu of options.
Customers would benefit from face-to-face explanations and training sessions and from workshops in multiple languages and information on the security of digital payment methods.
Technology can be used in a smarter way to make digital payments simpler and tailor them to users. Examples are more accessible versions of the bank website and mobile banking app and greater use of voice recognition and speech, for example for people who have low literacy, who are blind or (severely) visually impaired and people with limited hand function.

Finally, there is much to be gained by raising awareness of the technological and other initiatives that already exist to support people with disabilities.

Read the whole report here

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