The French Bank Account: An American Couple's Journey

Paris, France

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A Rude Awakening...

Can I let you in on a secret? As it turns out, applying for a long term visa for France isn’t the biggest hurdle standing in the way of your Expat dreams. Because once you have obtained that highly coveted sticker in your passport, you will find yourself facing a number of exasperating obstacles begging the ever recurring question of, why did I move here again? More specifically, the battle of opening a French bank account as an American.

Something you will learn as soon as you step foot on French soil is that administrative tasks are far from straight forward. We spent four months living a life between two fires. Before we could celebrate our tiny successes, we were faced with another dilemma. Somehow we constantly found ourselves stuck in an administrative Catch-22. I had to start taking hair protein vitamins from all the hair pulling!

So, to save you from going on the same regulatory roller coaster, we wanted to share all the ins and outs of opening a French bank account as an American on a long term visitor visa. If you are a resident or are employed in France, there are different requirements (and you will most likely have a much easier time). Buckle up, friends. Here we go!

 

Why Do You Need a French Bank Account?

Let’s get the obvious question out of the way. Why even bother? Trust us, we went through the same motions. When we first arrived in France, opening a bank account was the last thing on our minds. We were more focused on which boulangerie served the flakiest croissant. But after talking to some folks, we quickly realized opening an account was an essential step if we wanted to stay in France beyond our first year. At some point, having a French bank account is no longer optional. If any of the following apply to you, stop delaying and get a move on!

Our first piece of advice, don't delay! Start this process as soon as you can!

  • Staying in France over a Year - If you plan on renewing your titre de sejour, you will need to show proof that you are integrating in France. Having a French bank account is one of the first steps in establishing your “French-ness.” Bah oui!
  • Paying your Landlord - Most landlords will only accept payment through an international RIB. We were lucky enough that our landlord didn’t require a French bank account; however, we were racking up some hefty fees from our international wires. To help with the fees, we use Transferwise. We can't say enough about how much of a lifesaver it was.  For example, using Transferwise, we would save at least $150 dollars on a $1000 dollar transfer vs Bank of America. If you'd like to get started, click here for your first free transfer. It really is a no-brainer after you do the math. 
  • Cell phone Account - A French bank account is required to sign up with any of the major network providers such as Free, Orange, or SFR. But don’t panic just yet, if you haven’t opened your account, you can still benefit from France’s wonderful data plans. MVNOs, or Mobile Virtual Network Operators, are separate mobile providers that piggy back off of the French networks and do not require a bank account. Plus, you can purchase a sim virtually anywhere in Paris. When we first moved here we went with Lycamobile and had 12gb of data for 14€ a month!
  • Paying Bills - Brian and I were lucky enough to have all of our bills included in our rent (a blessing and a curse, stay tuned) but this is more of an exception than a rule. You will most likely have at least an electricity bill that you will need to pay every 3 months.
  • Getting Paid - If you have any plans of changing your visa status through legal employment in France, it is required to have a French bank account. Show me the money!
  • Purchasing Real Estate - Don't even think about buying and financing a home in France without a bank account. Starting your relationship with your bank early will help you in the French real estate market. (ps. We do not own any property in Paris (yet!). I can barely afford my bank fees!)

Overall, having a French bank account will make daily life a little easier. You will soon find out that your RIB is just as important as that coveted electricity bill (more on this later). And while you can still use apps such as Venmo between your American friends, if you plan on paying the French, it's all about that RIB.

Why Is It Difficult to Open an Account as an American?

If you are on a long term visitor visa like us and pay income tax in the good ole US of A, get ready for a bumpy ride! As it turns out, there are a few more steps than just presenting your ID and an initial deposit to open an account. Why? In 2010, the US enacted FATCA, The Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which requires all foreign financial institutions to report additional information on their US bankers to the IRS. So you can imagine that most French banks don't want the extra work, hassle, and cost. And honestly, can you blame them?

Our second piece of advice, open an account with one of the international banks before you move!

If we could go back in time, we would have opened an HSBC account in the US before starting this process. But such is life. And now, you lucky folks have people like us to learn from, and as my husband Brian would say, well... now you know, and knowledge is power!

Of all the international banks in France (Axa Banque, Barclays France, Deutsche Bank France, HSBC France, JP Morgan France, and Citibank) HSBC was the only one that ended in a success story for us. If you have found success at any other banks, please send us an email or leave a comment! We would love to include your story for others to learn from as well.

Brian and I spent a week just trying to find a bank that would talk to us. We started with online banks like Hello Bank and ING; however, the second you answer the question, “do you pay US taxes?” it’s au revoir my friend.

Next, we spent two days walking into, and systematically being ushered out of, every bank in Paris, including but not limited to, BNP Parabas, Credit Agricole, Societe Generale, Banque Populaire, and even HSBC. This was one of the few times where waving our American passport didn’t benefit us. After facing our 15th, “non, c’est pas possible,” Brian and I were ready to give up. Finally, just as we were calling it quits, we walked into another HSBC. We were told that one HSBC branch could help us out. Of course, it was the one on Champs Elysees for HSBC Premier members. Premier you say? That sounds fancy… (and expensive!)

What do You Need to Open a French Bank Account?

As my husband would say, I provide a lot of "imparfait" before getting to the point of my stories (that was some French grammar humor for you... signs we have been in France way too long!). But I wanted you all to have the full picture! Success isn’t as sweet if it didn’t take some blood, sweat, and tears to get there. Right?

So finally, what do you need exactly to open a French bank account? I hate to tell you but it kind of depends. This process, like a lot of French bureaucracy, is somewhat subjective. And unfortunately, it can depend a lot on luck. But, regardless of how you roll the dice, there are a few things that are absolutely necessary.

Our third piece of advice, always come overly prepared!

  • An appointment - No matter the bank, you will need an appointment. And they are rarely given on the same day. If you want our suggestion, skip the hassle and go straight to the HSBC Premier bank on Champs Elysees and set up your appointment. If you would like to shop around, we still suggest making the appointment in person to ensure you won’t be wasting anyone’s time come appointment day.
  • Your Passport - This one is pretty obvious. It’s also helpful to have a copy of your ID page.
  • Your Resident/Visa Status - For us, this was our visa issued in our passport. For other’s it could be your carte de sejour, etc.
  • Proof of Address - This can be an electricity, gas, water, or a landline bill. You can also use your renters insurance policy for your apartment. If you are living with someone, you can bring a quittance de loyer, a signed declaration from the person providing you with accommodation, together with a copy of one of their bills and their photo ID. Just a lease will not do the trick! This is where we struggled. More on this adventure below.
  • Proof of Income - We were asked to bring our last 3 pay stubs. If you are not working and can’t provide pay stubs, make sure to bring a copy of your 1040 as well.
  • Tax Documents - The actual requirement here is your avis d'imposition. In France, you file your taxes in April, and in August, you find out what you owe. This amount is your avis d'imposition. Since we hadn’t declared our income in France at the time of opening our account, we were able to provide our 1040 instead. Also, our buddy, Stephen, from the popular blog, The American in Paris, alerted us to the fact that even as non-fiscal residents in Paris, you must declare your income in France. We missed the deadline this year but are on track for next year. This whole “don’t delay” idea seems to be a constant theme in French bureaucracy, non?
  • Confidence! - Don’t take no for an answer! You are reading it here; it can be done! For example, when we walked into our first HSBC branch, we were told no. So we decided to try another one. This time, we were directed to the branch on Champs Elysees. There, we were told that in order to open a bank account, we would need to keep 75,000€ in the account. Excusé-moi?! Clearly these Frenchies had a few too many glasses of Bordeaux during their lunch break. Instead of walking away, we chose to make the appointment anyway. We filled out the initial paperwork and hoped for the best. After submitting our documents, were told that someone would call us soon to set up an appointment. We left with a mixed bag of emotions. We accomplished more than we had at any other bank (success!) but waiting on a phone call in France is like watching paint dry. Would it ever happen?

Our fourth piece of advice, don’t take no for an answer!

The Catch-22

Much to our surprise and delight, a few days after visiting the bank, we received a phone call from Jeremy, our new HSBC Premier banker. He asked us to send over copies of all the required documents via email. Easy peasy. Except for one little snafu. We thought our lease would suffice for our proof of address. Jeremy told us that we would need to show our electricity bill. What is it with this electricity bill? It seems to be the most important document you can ever have in France! We explained that all of our bills were included in our rent so he asked for a quittance de loyer, or a copy of our renter's insurance instead. Since we couldn’t rely on our landlord to provide a QDL (long story), our only option was renter's insurance. Except, we didn’t have any...

Apparently, it’s illegal to rent property in France without securing renter’s insurance first. Whoops! No big deal; we will sign up! We had this in the US, why not in France. Remember that Catch-22 I was talking about earlier? Well, in order to get renter’s insurance, you need a French bank account. But I need the renter’s insurance to open my bank account. Wait...what? Send help!

After a few days of research and several unanswered emails, we finally found Axa. On top of catering to English speakers, they were beyond responsive and allowed us to pay with our US bank account after providing them with a copy of our lease. The only catch was we had to pay for the full year upfront which came out to about 185€ for the whole year. Not bad.

The Appointment, etc.

After three months, we finally had all of our ducks in a row. We sent over our paperwork and secured an appointment with Jeremy a few weeks later. By the way, Jeremy was awesome. While we don’t have anything to compare our experience to, he has been beyond patient with us during this whole process. And when we arrived at our appointment, our bank account was already set up for us! Go Jeremy!  Send us a message if you're interested, and we can send you his contact info.

The appointment itself took almost two hours. We had a lot of paperwork and questionnaires to fill out (mainly about our fiscal goals and incentives). Jeremy explained that he set up a joint “ou” account vs. an “et” account meaning we wouldn’t both have to sign off on checks and other banking documents.

As a reminder, this is an HSBC Premier account, so while it comes with a lot of benefits (still trying to figure those out) there are also a lot of fees. Unfortunately for us, our joint account incurs a 20€ monthly fee. OUCH. I believe if you have an existing account in the US, the fees are much lower, but we haven't been able to confirm this yet.

So, it was about an hour into our appointment that the 75,000€ limit came up again. Gulp. We simply told Jeremy that we would transfer enough money to cover 3 months rent plus expenses for the time being. And just like that, Jeremy showed us where to sign, and handed over all of our documents. Nothing else was said about that exorbitant amount of money. Voila! We were two new HSBC France (Premier) bankers. This just goes to show that you should never stop something from happening out of fear of being told no.

One Last Thing…

Yes, we finally opened our bank account, but it wouldn’t be French administration without a few more frustrating steps. While you will leave the bank with your information and a handy HSBC Premier leather bound planner, what you won’t have are your debit cards. Your debit cards will be mailed to the banking center right next to the HSBC Premier office ten days following your appointment. Next, you will receive three separate letters in the mail. One of these will be your pin which is bank issued and cannot be changed. Finally, once all the documents and cards are in one place, you can start the uphill battle of setting up your online banking system. Again, even with our French bank account, we still use Transferwise to send money between our US and French accounts. 

So, Was it Really That Bad?

Yes and no. There is so much useful information out there today. And honestly, everyone’s experience is going to be different. But what we can tell you, with confidence, is that it can be done! Our takeaways from the whole experience are open an existing account in the US, start early, stay organized, and show up overly prepared. If you have all the paperwork, it’s just going through the motions and remembering that you are trying to navigate your path in a foreign country. Be proud that you made it to where you are today! And as always, if you have any questions or feedback, never hesitate to reach out. We love helping out and hearing from you!

 

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