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Managing an external bank account while in prison


Who is this aimed at?

This information is aimed at people who are currently serving a prison sentence. However, it should also be of use to families, friends, and anyone working with people in prison. It has been produced by Unlock in partnership with Transact, the National Forum for Financial Inclusion (which is a partner charity of Toynbee Hall).

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What does it contain?

It provides detailed information about how to manage a bank account while in prison. It sits alongside broader information on opening a basic bank account in prison and in the community, as well information on opening savings and credit union accounts.

It is important to note that each banking provider has their own policies, processes, and procedures in relation to many of the issues discussed in this document. Consequently, we could not produce a completely comprehensive guidance that covers specifically how each bank handles every subject looked at. If you cannot find the exact information you are after then you should speak directly with the banking provider you have your account with to find out more.

Why is it needed?

There is currently no concise and user-friendly document detailing how people in prison can manage a bank account. Existing official information is a mixture of Prison Service Rules, Prison Service Instructions, and policy guidance. This has left many specific questions unanswered, which we aim to cover in this guide.

Why is Unlock producing it?

Unlock is currently working with HMPPS and the banking industry to increase the ability of people in prison to apply for, and open, a bank account before their release. The outcome of this work so far has been that an increasing number of people in prison have a bank account that can theoretically be operated before release. It is therefore important that people in prison, as well as those who work with them, are aware of how to manage an account whilst in prison.

In undertaking this work, we have identified a number of barriers that unnecessarily prevent people in prison from managing their banking and finances. We plan to take these issues forward by working with HMPPS, the banking industry, and other agencies, to try to improve the accessibility of accounts from inside prison.

The status of your bank account

Nothing happens to an external bank account as an automatic consequence of being in prison.

However, there are several things that could block access to your account, either temporarily or permanently. These are detailed below so that you can check to see if any of them could affect your ability to utilise your account.

Restraint Order

A Restraint Order is used to freeze the assets of a person to whom there is reasonable cause to believe has benefited financially from criminal activity. Restraint Orders are often given to someone suspected of fraud, money laundering, or serious drug offences. Someone subject to such an order will have all their financial assets frozen so that they cannot be used before any potential confiscation hearings (see below). Frozen assets cannot be accessed or transferred. For example, the order prevents the selling of property. As part of the order all bank accounts will be frozen with only a small amount of money being accessible for living expenses where appropriate.

Confiscation Order

A Confiscation Order is made after a person is actually convicted of an offence that resulted in a personal financial gain. The purpose of a confiscation order is to take away this financial gain. The court will determine the amount of profit received by the defendant and the amount of available financial assets the defendant currently has. The court will then order the defendant to pay the lesser of the two amounts. A Restraint Order will be in place from the start of a confiscation investigation until it is resolved; at this point accounts will be unfrozen and access to any remaining money will be given as above.

Third Party Debt Order

If you are in debt then a creditor can take you to court and obtain a court order against you, requiring you to pay them back. If you don’t keep to the terms of the order then your creditor will have several options, one of which is a Third Party Debt Order, which will allow them to take money directly from your bank account.

The first step a creditor will take is to get an Interim Third Party Debt Order. This order will get your bank to freeze the money in any accounts you have with them, up to the amount you owe. You will not be able to access this money, nor will any be paid to your creditor, until the court has made a final decision on the case. If the court finds the creditor to be right about the money owed then it will be taken from your account and given to them. If however the claim is found to be false then your money will be unfrozen and you will gain full access to it again.

If you are currently in debt then we recommend that you take immediate action to deal with it straight away so that you do not lose access to your money through things such as Third Party Debt Orders. You will need to seek independent debt advice so that you can explore the options open to you.

Account dormancy

Banks will sometimes suspend and restrict accounts that are inactive for long periods of time; this is called account dormancy. Any money in a dormant account will remain there and you will be able to reactivate the account and gain access to your money.

While an account is dormant you will not be able to use the money it contains or make any transactions relating to the account.

Banks only make accounts dormant when they have been completely inactive for a set period of time. This varies widely depending on the type of account and the respective banks policy on the matter; it could however be as little as a year for some current accounts. Your bank will try to contact you once this time period has elapsed; if they cannot get hold of you due to having the wrong correspondence details then they will make the account dormant. In 2009, legislation came into force allowing the Government to take money that had been untouched for 15 years to use it for good causes, although it has promised you can still reclaim it if you can track down any money that is rightfully yours. Many people don’t know if they’ve got a dormant account, but the easiest way to find out is to use a free central website, Be patient though; the search can take up to three months.

Avoiding dormancy is very simple. Make sure that your bank has your current prison address (see below for more details on this), and try to actively use it, even if this is only making a small deposit from your internal prison account once every 6 months or so. This will show the bank that it is being used and should stay active.

If your account has become dormant you will need to contact your bank to find out how to reactivate it as the process varies widely from bank to bank. For example, Halifax requires you to visit a local branch and prove your identity face to face (which will be difficult to do while in prison), whereas Barclays only requires you to make a debit or credit entry to the account for it to be automatically reactivated.

Control of your account

It is your responsibility to manage your account and any financial commitments associated with it whilst you are in prison. This section explains how you can utilise your account and details any banking limitations that will have been put in place by the prison service. There is an alternative to managing the account yourself; it’s called a Third Party Mandate.

Third Party Mandates

A Third Party Mandate will allow someone you trust to operate your account from outside the prison on your behalf. You can set limitations on what the holder of the mandate can do, for example make payments, issuing cheques on your behalf, etc. It will not remove your own ability to use the account but will simply give additional access to someone who is not in prison and doesn’t face the same restrictions as you. It’s also free of charge and is usually a relatively simple process.

Obtaining a Third Party Mandate varies from bank to bank so you will need to write to your bank and ask them to send you application details. Usually the process consists of filling out a form with sections for both yourself and the third party to fill in which will then need to be sent to the bank along with proof of the third party’s identity. Unfortunately not all banks allow applications by post and require the account holder and the third party to visit a local branch to verify their identity in person. If your bank requires this then it is unlikely that you will be able to set this up while you are in prison.

Communicating with your bank

Communication limitations

Telephone and Internet banking are not allowed while you are in prison. As a result you will have to conduct all of your banking activities by post. Most banks can operate in this way, but you will be limited in the number of services available to you, depending on the bank you are with.

Changing your address

There is no legal requirement for you to notify your bank that you are in prison, however changing your address is an important first step in managing your account as it will protect you from dormancy and enable your bank to keep you informed of any important information. For example, if your bank sends you a statement to the address they hold on file and it gets returned to sender, your account is likely to have restrictions put on it. To update your address you will need to contact your bank and ask them to send you a change of address form.

The form will ask you for proof of your identity. Some banks will only need a signature from you to prove your identity, as they will then match it with the copy of your signature they took when you first signed up for the account. If the bank requires additional proof of identity then they might accept the prison template used to apply to open a new account. Please see the separate section on proving your identity for more information.

Banks will often ask for proof of address as well as identity. This will usually be asked for in the form of something you cannot obtain, such as a council tax or utilities bill, therefore you will need to get a letter from the Governor of the prison to confirm your current prison address. You may need to request that this letter detail specific information depending on what you are being asked to confirm, such as what date you first came in to the prison, when you are due for release, etc. Alternatively, you may find that a letter from your solicitor is sufficient.

Prison number

To make sure that any correspondence the bank sends you reaches you successfully it is important that you inform them of your prison number and ask that they include it on anything that they send you. Post that does not include your prison number could be delayed in getting to you and may sometimes be returned if the post room cannot identify who the post is for (for example, the prison may be holding, or recently have held, more than one “P. Smith”).

Bank statements

As long as your bank has your prison number and current address you should continue to receive any statements you would have previously received at your address prior to being sent to prison. You may choose to contact your bank and opt not to receive paper statements if you don’t want these sent to the prison.


The prison authorities have the right to open and examine any incoming or outgoing post for security purposes, as well as the right to intercept and monitor telephone calls. As a result, communications between yourself and your bank cannot be guaranteed to remain confidential. This includes bank statements because they are not regarded as being confidential even if they have specific markings such as ‘Private’, ’Private and Confidential’, or ‘Confidential‘ marked on them.

Account items

Bank cards, PIN’s and cheques books

Any bank cards, PIN’s and cheque books must be kept in your valuable property, unless you’ve taken out a Third Party Mandate, in which case it would generally be best for these to be with the holder of the mandate. You will not need to access your card while in prison, however you may need to send cheques on occasion.

In order to access and issue a cheque you will need to go through the appropriate application process. The Governor will need to be satisfied that any transaction you are making is for a legitimate purpose and does not break any security protocols. You will need to fill out a general application detailing why you want to write a cheque and who it is for. If this is approved then you will have to fill out the cheque with a witnessing officer present to make sure it is done in accordance with the details given on the approved application.

Banking restrictions

People on remand

If you are on remand there are no restrictions on the types of banking transaction you can make. You can continue to make any personal or business transactions that you would ordinarily make. However, no special provisions will be made for you. As a result, as detailed above, banking correspondence can be monitored by prison authorities and you will be limited to postal communication only. Also, if you wish to make a substantial cash or property transaction the Governor has the right to consult the police.

The following sections relate to people who are convicted.

Business transactions

You are not allowed to conduct business transactions whilst in prison. A business transaction is one that is liable to take place more than once, or on a regular basis, and does not count as a necessary personal financial transaction (see below). However, once convicted you should be given a reasonable amount of time to settle current business transactions or to hand them over to someone else to manage on your behalf.

Personal transactions

You are restricted to making banking transactions of a personal nature that must fit into one of the following categories:

  1. Help you to maintain your personal affairs whilst in prison.
  2. Help assist you to resume a regular lifestyle on release.

These include:

  1. Making payments to reduce an outstanding balance or other debt re-payment.
  2. The sale, transfer, or disposal of personal property and shares.
  3. The transfer of personal funds, where appropriate.
  4. The ability to issue cheques, where appropriate.

If you have any queries about the legitimacy of a specific transaction that you want to make then you should submit a general application to the Governor to ensure you are not inadvertently breaking any rules.

Credit cards, loans and credit agreements

You are not allowed to use credit cards or enter into any form of loan or credit agreement whilst in prison. Examples include loans from a bank or credit union, mobile phone contracts, insurance paid by direct debit, and mail order catalogues offering credit (although a single installment or one-off payment may be issued on your behalf to purchase a large item, at the discretion of the Governor).

Existing financial commitments

You will need to ensure you have enough money in an existing bank account to meet any ongoing financial commitments that you have, such as loans or a phone contract. If you do not keep up with payments then you are likely to incur charges and potentially damage your credit rating. If you are worried that you do not have enough money in your account and are at risk of falling into debt then you should make contact with debt advice organisations.

Standing orders and direct debits

It is important when you first come into prison that you arrange for any standing orders and direct debits that you can no longer afford to pay to be cancelled, or transferred, to avoid you incurring any unnecessary debt. It is important for you to write to your bank as soon as possible to instruct them to cancel these.

Usually the bank will only need a letter requesting cancellation of a direct debit or standing order, however if on receiving a request from you they need more information they will let you know and may send you an additional form for you to fill in. When requesting a cancellation make sure to include as much information as you can. Most importantly include the name of the company or organisation that the standing order/direct debit is paid to (banks often call this the originator).

As well as contacting your bank it is also vital that you let the originator know that you are cancelling payments to them and your reasons why.

Transferring money

Electronic transfers

There is currently no way to transfer money electronically whilst you are in prison. This is true regarding both the transfer of money from an external account into your prison account, and vice versa, from your prison account into an external one. As a result, you will need to follow the procedures detailed below in order to move money between your accounts.

Transferring money from your external bank account into your prison account

The established process for transferring funds from an external bank account to a prison account requires you to write a cheque made payable to the Governor, which the prison then transfers to your prison account. Commonly cheques are made payable to ‘The Governor, HMP _____’.

Cheques will, as a minimum, be banked on a weekly basis. Post-dated cheques will not be accepted. Transferring money in this way has been known to trigger a SIR (Security Information Report) but this will not stop the money getting through to your account, but may delay the transfer. As long as the money being transferred is deemed to be for legitimate personal use only by the prison then it will be allowed.

However, basic bank accounts, and many current accounts, do not provide a chequebook. If this applies to your account then it will not be possible to transfer money into your prison account from your external account, unless you have a Third Party Mandate allowing someone outside the prison to transfer money in on your behalf.

Transferring money from your prison account into your external account

In order to make a transfer into an external account from your prison account you will need to fill out a Cash Disbursement Form. You will need to include your bank account number and sort code on this form so make sure that you have this information available to you when making this kind of transfer.

Setting up a standing order

It may be possible for you to set up a standing order whilst in prison. This will only be possible on rare occasions that fit into the personal transaction categories detailed above, such as setting up a regular payment to a creditor.

Not all banks will allow you to set up standing orders by post alone. You will need to write to your bank to check and ask what the procedure for application by post is. Usually this will be a specific form that the bank will send you, or it may be enough to send a simple written request containing the following information about the account the money is to be paid into: Bank sort code, account name, account number, payment amount, payment date and frequency, and any end date you wish to put on the payments.

Release from prison

Valuable items

All bankcards, PIN’s, chequebooks, and other valuable banking items that are held by the prison should be issued to you at reception immediately prior to you leaving the prison. If the property cannot be accessed before release you can return to the establishment to collect it. Alternatively the cashier should make arrangements to send it to you by recorded delivery on the next working day.

Changing your address on release from prison

As soon as possible after your release you should notify your bank that you have changed address, otherwise the bank will continue to send any correspondence to the prison. Whilst the prison should forward any post on to your future address this will cause a delay in you receiving potentially important financial information and should be avoided if possible.


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Debbie Sadler
Helpline lead

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