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Challenger banks, neobanks, digital banking - what's the difference and what's the way forward?

- 10 minute read

The last few decades have witnessed a transformative journey in the financial sector – a shift from traditional banking to digital-first financial services. The relentless march of technology, and evolving consumer needs, have disrupted the foundations of the banking sector.

In this blog, we delve into the rise of challenger banks, neobanks, and digital banking, and their impact on traditional banks. As we unravel the distinctions among these entities, we peer into the future, contemplating the trajectory of an industry undergoing unprecedented change.



The evolution of digital financial services and the impact on traditional banking


Over the past decade, the banking landscape has undergone a remarkable transformation, driven by a mix of factors, including technological advancements, changing consumer preferences, and a dynamic regulatory environment. The traditional brick-and-mortar model of banking has evolved into a digital juggernaut, with online banking becoming the norm. This shift has been primarily fuelled by the innovation in financial technology, commonly known as fintech, and the widespread adoption of smartphones, offering consumers unprecedented convenience and accessibility to financial services.


From a consumer perspective, the move towards digital banking can be attributed to the growing demand for seamless, user-friendly experiences. Nowadays, consumers expect real-time access to their accounts, the ability to conduct transactions at their fingertips, and personalised financial insights - all of which digital platforms readily provide. On the business front, financial services providers have recognised the benefits that digital banking can offer, including cost efficiencies and streamlined operations, prompting them to embrace it.


This shift towards digital banking has not been without consequences for traditional banking players. High street banks have had to adapt to the new reality, investing heavily in their digital infrastructure. The impact on customer relationships has also been profound, as face-to-face interactions give way to virtual interfaces, banks are left to reimagine how trust and loyalty are cultivated in the digital realm.


Amidst this transformation, a notable trend has emerged with the rise of challenger banks, neo-banks, and digital-only financial institutions. These entities, free from legacy systems and the infrastructure of traditional banks, have leveraged technology to create agile, customer-centric platforms that cater to niche markets. The rise in popularity of these digital disruptors highlights a clear revolution in the banking sector, where consumers increasingly prioritise flexibility, transparency, and innovative financial solutions over the familiarity of established brands.


Challenger banks vs neobanks vs digital banking 

The financial crisis in 2007/2008 gave rise to a new breed of financial services providers, what we know today as challenger banks, neo banks, and digital banking. These entities emerged with a commitment to providing alternatives to traditional banking, championing lower rates, and advocating for heightened transparency. 

As of January 2024, Europe stands at the forefront of this digital banking revolution, boasting 110 of such entities – the highest number globally. While these online-only banks may have started out as relative unknowns, some fintech titans like Monzo and Revolut, have already become household names.  

Understanding the distinctions between neobanks, challenger banks, and digital banking is key to explain the evolution of the financial services industry and its prospective future.

The difference between neobanks and challenger banks is two-fold: their licensing position and services offered. Neobanks are financial services providers that operate exclusively online and do not hold a banking license. Most commonly, they offer banking platforms with basic services, such as current accounts, primarily to small and medium-sized businesses, enhanced by features such as payroll, expense management and automated accounting. As neobanks do not hold a banking license, they rely on a partner bank to operate. 

On the other hand, challenger banks have a predominant online presence, with occasional physical branches, and wield a banking license. This means they can offer a broader spectrum of modern banking services, including credit cards and loans. Challenger banks, as their name says, ‘challenge’ the traditional banking system by targeting both personal and business consumers who are often overlooked by high-street banks. 
Ultimately, the majority of neobanks have fintech roots and evolved into challenger banks once obtained a banking license. So, every challenger banks once was a neobank, but not all neobanks are challenger banks. 

Finally, digital banking is a term that has been used loosely to describe any form of online banking, regardless of the provider, but it generally refers to the ramification of fundamental banking services offered by traditional banks via digital channels. This triumvirate of financial innovation is reshaping the banking landscape, offering consumers diverse options, and redefining the parameters of financial services in the 21st century. 


banks neobanks 1-2


What does the future of digital finance hold?

The proliferation of challenger banks, neobanks, and digital banking has injected a healthy dose of competition, compelling traditional banks to reassess their strategies and raise the bar of their customer experience. The customer-centric approach adopted by these digital players has not only heightened expectations but has also led to an unprecedented enhancement in user experience through streamlined interfaces, personalised services, and rapid response mechanisms. Moreover, the relentless pursuit of digital innovation by these entities has propelled the entire industry into uncharted territories, fostering an environment of continuous improvement. Finally, by catering to niche markets and addressing the needs of underserved customers, these fintech disruptors have successfully democratised financial services.

However, as they navigate this path of constant innovation, several challenges emerge. The solutions that these innovative financial services providers will find to these challenges will determine the future of the industry.



Despite having been around for over a decade, neobanks and challenger banks often grapple with the lack of immediate customer trust due to their relative novelty in the financial landscape. Building credibility, and a long-lasting trustworthy relationship with customers, demands time and substantial resource investments to reassure those who are accustomed to the reliability of traditional banking institutions.

However, a unique dynamic unfolds as many consumers find themselves underserved by established banks. The absence of viable alternatives often compels people to adopt the offerings of these new players, creating a symbiotic relationship where necessity fosters trust over time. Bridging the trust gap remains a pivotal challenge for neobanks and challenger banks, necessitating a delicate balance between pushing the boundaries of innovation and providing services that are secure and dependable.



Since their early beginnings, neobanks and challenger banks have focused heavily on growth and customer acquisition, often with less evident clarity on the path to profitability. While the UK, and Europe as a whole, has long been a fertile ground for digital banking innovations, a spate of banking services providers facing financial predicaments has raised concerns about the sustainability of such growth-focused models. The solution may lie in strategic collaboration with established banking players.

This collaboration not only provides a potential fast-track to profitability, but also serves as a means to fortify trust and credibility. In this two-way relationship, neobanks and challenger banks stand to benefit from the well-established ecosystem of partnerships and access to financial institutions that traditional banks bring to the table. Simultaneously, high-street banks gain from the agility and innovation that characterise the operations of modern banking players, creating a mutually reinforcing dynamic that could redefine the future of banking. 



A growth-aggressive strategy requires considerable funding, and with uncertain economic conditions, challenger banks and neobanks can no longer simply rely on their large addressable markets alone to attract funding. By the end of 2023, funding declined by nearly 80%, compared to peak levels in 2021. Investor scrutiny is pivoting away from the traditional emphasis on growth and customer acquisition towards a more nuanced evaluation of the essential drivers of profitability and cashflow, such as margins, customer retention, and operational costs, to assess the financial health and sustainability of modern banking players.

The link between funding and profitability is undeniable. Securing adequate funding is a cornerstone for the growth and sustainability of modern banking players, and profitability is the linchpin that sustains investor confidence. As neobanks and challenger banks navigate financial viability, partnerships with established banks emerge once again as the answer to this challenge, offering a robust financial foundation that helps neobanks and challenger banks avoid having to rely on external funding to survive.


Regulatory compliance

There is yet another challenge that neo and challenger banks face – regulatory compliance. These entities operate in a highly regulated environment, and just like traditional banks, they must comply with the applicable laws and regulations depending on their geographical footprint. The level of bureaucracy for digital and established banks can vary across countries, however most jurisdictions tend to apply existing banking laws and regulations to digital banks. Even in the few countries that have set up specific regulatory frameworks for digital banks, the main licensing and requirements remain similar to those applied to traditional banks.

Financial authorities, such as the Financial Stability Institute (FIS), recognise that digital financial services providers offer significant benefits compared to traditional banking, so the overall challenge for authorities and regulators is to maximise these benefits, while mitigating potential risks to the financial ecosystem. This leaves authorities and financial players at a crossroad: Enhancing the existing regulatory framework to address digital banks or create a brand-new one?

Many industry experts believe the current regulatory set up, which addresses the traditional banking system, is simply not fit for purpose, as it doesn’t take into consideration the innovative services offered by neo and challengers banks, as well as the various sources of risk they pose, such as operational vulnerabilities, and the issuance of new forms of payments. It’s highly likely that regulators around the world will overhaul the current framework by introducing new regulatory categories and supervisory models. However, compliance with future regulations, expected to be more targeted and stringent, may become even more challenging for the disruptors of the financial industry, since they may not possess all the resources, expertise, or tools to manage the regulatory complexities and the impact on their business model. 


So, what will happen to neobanks, challenger banks, and digital banking?

Digital financial services providers may face a challenging future, but one full of possibilities. Here are some of the possible outcomes:

Grow: Only the neo and challenger banks that will be able to maintain an engaged user base, while scaling and adhering to the highest regulatory standards, will successfully shape the future of the banking industry.

Merge: Innovative financial players may acquire or merge with their counterparts to grow internationally or to consolidate their presence in saturated markets.

Get acquired: While less likely, industry leaders could buy neo and challenger banks for their modern technology, digital expertise, or to enter niche segments.

End operations: Since 2010, around 630 neobanks/challenger banks were launched, but ~180 of those ceased operations due to lack of sustainable revenues and funding, or due to compliance issues, which may well continue to be challenges in the future.


In conclusion

The evolution of banking over the past decade has been marked by a shift towards online and digital platforms, driven by consumer preferences and the efficiency demands of businesses. The impact on traditional banking has been substantial, requiring adaptation to the digital landscape to remain competitive. Concurrently, the rise of (mostly) digital-only financial services providers underscores the industry's ongoing transformation, with regulations and collaboration playing a pivotal role in shaping the innovation of the financial sector. 




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