The best ISAs for international stocks 2012

The tables in this post have been updated with new fees and brokers in the Best ISAs for foreign stocks – October 2012 update.

[Updated 23/04/2012 to include the ISA available from Saxo Bank on its Modern Wealth Management platform]

As we saw previously, the mark-up that many stock brokers put on currency conversions can be a very significant extra cost when trading international shares. And while you can’t ignore these hidden fees at any time, they become an especially  awkward problem for UK investors who want to buy foreign stocks within an individual savings account (ISA) tax wrapper.

While the ISA rules allow a reasonably large number of overseas stocks, they do not allow you to hold any foreign currency – so you need to go through the conversion between sterling and foreign currency every time you trade. As a result, excessively high FX commissions can become costly even more quickly than usual.

So what are the most cost-effective ISAs for dealing in foreign stocks? The table below shows the charges for the main UK execution-only brokers that offer ISAs and allow foreign stocks in them. (Some major firms – eg Interactive Brokers – don’t offer an ISA at all, while others – eg Barclays Stockbrokers – currently only allow UK shares to be held in one.)

Dealing chargesFX commissionISA costMarkets available
Alliance Trust£401.3%£30/year (plus 0.01%/year custody for international stocks)Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, USA
Halifax Share Dealing£11.951%0.6% (min £31, max £120)Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, UK, USA
Hargreaves Lansdown£11.95Up to 1.7%0.5% (max £45)Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, USA
iDealingLondon Stock Exchange 0.1% (min £10) + £2.10 per fill, Euronext Paris 0.05% (min €5) plus €0.5 per fill, Chi-X 0.1% (min £10) plus £1.65 per fill, UK retail service providers £9.9/€14.5/US$19.5Typically around 0.25%£20/yearAustria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, USA
iWeb Share Dealing£101%NoneBelgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, UK, USA
Motley Fool Share Dealing£17.51%£30/yearBelgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, UK, USA
NatWest Stockbrokers£20Up to 2%£30 for accounts under £10,000, no fee aboveAustralia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, UK, USA
Saxo Bank Modern Wealth Management£9.95 UK, 0.15% (min £9.95) international0.5% (waived until mid 2013)£35/yearBelgium, France, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, UK, USA
Selftrade£12.5Up to 1.25%£42/yearBelgium, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, UK, USA
Stocktrade0.75% (min £17.50, max £60) plus £20 foreign bargain charge plus additional £35 delivery charge for non-CREST eligible stocksTypically close to interbank rates0.5% (min £30, max £180)Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Thailand, UK, USA
TD Direct Investing£12.5Up to 2%£36 for accounts under £5,100, no fee aboveAustralia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Singapore, Spain, UK, USA

Be aware that not all firms will be able to trade all stocks on a given exchange. Not all international exchanges are recognised for ISA purposes (see HM Revenue & Customs’ page on recognised stock exchanges if you want to check which ones are). And the information some brokers give out about what they can do and at what cost is often inconsistent. So if you want to invest in anything other than a major US or European company through an ISA, it’s a good idea to check its availability with your chosen broker very carefully before opening an account.

With those caveats in mind, which brokers seem to be the cheapest? As ever, this is hard to work out since the answer will depend on your trading pattern. But the table below compares the estimated costs for three different ISAs invested in US stocks, all totalling the full £11,280 ISA allowance for the 2012/2013 tax year. ISA A assumes you invest £940/month (in a single stock each time), ISA B assumes you make one investment of £2,820 per quarter and ISA C is based on a one-off investment of £11,280.

ISA A - invest £940/monthISA B - invest £2,820/quarterISA C - invest £11,280/year
Alliance Trust*£668£348£228
Halifax Share Dealing**£324£228£192
Hargreaves Lansdown£380£285£226
iWeb Share Dealing**£233£153£129
Motley Fool Share Dealing**£353£213£160
NatWest Stockbrokers**£467£306£246
Saxo Bank Modern Wealth Management£211£131£108
TD Direct Investing**£376£276£238

*Alliance Trust and Stocktrade are telephone dealing services – the others allow most international stocks to be traded online

**The Motley Fool and iWeb services are white labels of Halifax (with different charges that are cheaper in some circumstances), while NatWest Stockbrokers is a white label of TD Direct Investing (and is generally more expensive)

***Stocktrade costs will rise by £35 per trade for stocks that can’t settle in CREST (this won’t affect most major US and European ones, but will apply to most other international markets) – costs would become £929, £364 and £174 respectively

On first glance, iDealing and iWeb look like they will be the cheapest for many US and European stocks. If you want to hold stocks from some less widely-offered markets in an ISA, you may not have much choice – it will come down to which broker can trade on that exchange.

Firms such as Alliance Trust and Stocktrade look relatively uncompetitive high due to high minimum charges or fixed costs, but would become better value at larger trade sizes. For investors with specific requirements and larger portfolios, traditional full-service brokers such as Charles Stanley may also turn out to be more cost-effective and flexible than discount brokers.

When comparison shopping for ISA, be aware that many firms will charge a fee to close an ISA. What’s more, of course, it’s only possible to open a single stocks and shares ISA in each tax year, although you can transfer an open account to a new provider. So try to make sure you’ve picked the right one for your needs before opening an account – test-driving several providers is likely to be more expensive and inconvenient than with a regular trading account.

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