Looking for the best banks for American expats in France? Read on.
Opening a bank account in France is one of the first things you must do when you plan to live, work, or study in France.
However, when you’re an American expat, foreigner, or student looking to open a bank account in France, many will discover that opening a bank account is a major challenge.
I’m talking big time headache.
And here’s the ultimate, ironic rub in France: In order to secure an apartment, rental, or house, you typically need a French bank account. But to open a French bank account you need to have a residence with a mailing address.
*This post is a series in Wanderschool’s French Love Affair collection.
It took me many, many weeks to open a personal French bank account and that’s no exaggeration. And let’s not even talk about the business end.
Why? Besides the requirement to produce so many documents, including address of residence, there’s the tricky issue of American citizenship and US Tax Law compliance.
Bank Accounts and Banking in France
If you’re American, you can at least partly blame the difficulty of opening a bank account in France on the financial reporting obligations under US Tax Laws (FACTA, Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act). Frustrating, yeah, but it’s said that the idea behind the obligation is to expose tax evaders.
By the way, if you’re an American and have questions about your tax obligations, talk to your accountant or ask a tax lawyer. This post is in no way legal advice. Rather, it’s a personal experience rant.
Expat Groups Online
If you’re a member of any online expat groups, such as the handful of Moving to France groups on Facebook, you can find many rants, stories, and tales of woe by expats about opening bank accounts in France. American banking in France is a different beast than you might expect.
If you’re not a member of any of these groups, I highly recommend joining them. They are probably one of the key reasons I stay on Facebook. Of course, another reason is because of the Wanderschool Facebook page.
All is Not Lost
Before you get too discouraged (or if you’re already there), let me give you some good advice and perspective I learned in my French banking struggle. All is not lost. You’ll get there. You’ll find a bank who will open an account for you. Just stay persistent.
Online Banks & ‘Old School’ Banking
If you’re from the US or other parts of the world and trying to open an account in France, you might be surprised to discover that the idea of full-on Online banks and banking is not quite fully there yet in France.
You might also be surprised to discover that opening a bank account in France often involves going to a bank branch, at an appointment time, and meeting with a banking agent to open an account (and sometimes you may even have to wait for a decision or satisfy additional paperwork requests).
To find an expat-friendly bank, keep reading this post, of course. 😉
But you can also check out Facebook and other online groups and read about others’ experiences. You can also ask outright if a particular bank will work with you, as an American expat. Don’t be surprised if you get an outright no. Or a “submit everything” and we’ll see.
Something I learned early on is that not all bank branches, even in the same region, are connected or share the same policies. One bank branch may not open an account for you, but a different branch with the same bank name in the next town or in another part of the city might.
So, if you get a no from one branch. Press on. Or try another bank altogether. But don’t give up!
The Best Banks for American Expats in France
I’m calling this list the best banks list based on my personal experiences, what I’ve heard from other expats, read online or in chat circles, and from what I’ve read or heard over the years while I contemplated a life in France, applied for visas, researched everything Expat, and applied for bank accounts.
Best Banks Because They’re Known to Set Up Accounts for American Expats
These listed banks tend to be the names that come up time and time again for working with American expats to establish personal bank accounts in France.
Just because a bank is listed here doesn’t mean it will work with you or open a personal bank account for you. It might. But it also might not. Banks in France seem to take into consideration the individual and individual circumstances in its decision to open an account.
But I can tell you this. If you don’t have luck at one bank, move on, don’t dwell on the rejection, and keep trying.
It may take days, weeks, or months, but eventually you’ll get a bank account.
Banks To Try
HSBC. An International bank that has offices in France and the USA, among other places. Some American Expats are able to open or initialize the opening of a bank account state-side. Much of the process of opening the account, if not all of it, can be done online.
Credit Agricole. Many expats have had good luck opening personal bank accounts with Credit Agricole. If you want to try this bank, your best bet for success is probably to go as local as possible – find the branch closest to you. Keep in mind the note above about Bank Branches. I have personal experience with Credit Agricole and I have consistently had positive experiences with my local branch. I highly recommend going into a Credit Agricole branch nearest you if you are having trouble opening a bank account in France.
Bank Populaire. Some expats have success opening accounts through Bank Populaire. Again see Bank Branches note and also keep in mind that regions with lots of expats (e.g., Paris) may help in opening accounts.
Exclusively Online Banks Perfect for Life in France
I like to think of these online banks as the future of banking, in France and elsewhere. They seem to really speak to my wanderlusty, traveling, digital nomad heart, especially since they are so international-friendly. Plus, it’s helping to do banking in France in English when you’re still a novice at learning French.
N26. “The Bank You’ll Love.”
I can no longer in good conscience recommend N26. Recently, as a customer, along with many others, my account was closed without notice. One day I discovered I was locked out of my Banking App. I called N26 and their representative explained that she was not authorized by management to explain why accounts were being immediately closed, but that a check would be issued and mailed for funds in the account. Moreover, I was refused access to check my balance, the option to electronically transfer the balance to another account, or access to my funds. I had to wait a number of days to receive my funds. You can read the many stories, reports, and comments by expats and customers on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook Groups, and by Googling the topic.
The first mobile bank in Europe with a full banking license. An awesome, modern online bank for people looking for the latest in banking. Easy foreign currency transfer with Transferwise. An App in several languages. No fees for ATM withdrawals. Real-time notifications.
No paperwork. No hidden fees. Manage your banking life with your Smartphone.
No monthly fees on basic account. Super cool Premium You & Metal accounts that include travel insurance and perks. Expense categorization. Disposable virtual card numbers for safer purchases. Create subaccounts for saving. This bank!
Revolut. “No surprises, just fair and honest pricing.”
Basic account is free, except card. Awesome perks with premium and metal accounts, like medical insurance and airline lounge passes. Free Euro IBAN. Cryptocurrencies. Premium accounts include junior (kids) accounts.
bunq. “5 minutes to an account.”
Wise. Formerly Known as Transferwise. “The Multi-Currency Account.”
If you’re an Expat or soon to be Expat, you’re sure to become pretty familiar with Wise. A financial institution that allows for easy transfers and currency exchange between US accounts and local, foreign accounts.
Super easy to use and reliable, Wise is popular with Expats for regular money transfers or to send money anywhere. It’s also a great financial banking service for big transfers like for house purchases or paying college tuition. It’s also popular with digital nomads or full-time travelers who get paid in different currencies or do work or have clients in other countries.
Really, A Must for Expats
What’s really awesome about Wise is that it’s a multi-currency account that allows you to convert between currencies for a nominal fee. You can create an account for free, keep multiple currencies, get paid from different countries without any monthly fees or minimum balances. Your account lets you get free US account and routing numbers AND get a free European IBAN, which is good for France (see the discussion regarding IBAN discrimination).
You can also choose to get a Mastercard, so you can access your money anywhere and whenever.
I have had great experiences with Wise in my travels and life adventures abroad, and I can’t imagine an easier way to move funds. I’m able to transfer funds easily, quickly between my bank at home and my bank abroad., and I still have the option of simply using Wise as a bank account of its own.
I consider a Wise a must, especially for Expats in those first weeks and months (and years!) of trying to get settled France.
Other Things to Be Aware Of When Opening a Bank Account
Bank managers are notably important in France. The manager may decide whether you get to open an account at a particular branch. I’m aware of at least one bank that takes all of an applicant’s documents and request to open an account to the bank manager and a committee, and they decide whether you get to open an account. Holy, Hold the phone, Wowee, right?!? Make that, actually, holy, face-to-face meeting with the French Bank Manager, Wowee.
Get Your Docs Together.
Pile up your documents to create a banking dossier and/or keep a set scanned and ready to go for online bank applications. Expats will want birth certificates, copy of their Residence visa or carte de sejour, which allows them to stay, work, live, or study in France, marriage certificates, US tax info, French mailing address, water or internet bill from French residence, and copy of Passport or other identity papers, among other possible documents, such as US bank account statements.
A.k.a. The Rendez-Vous (your appointment). Once you have an appointment at a bank to open an account, be prepared to stay awhile. It’s not like in the USA where you can walk into a branch, open an account, grab a free lollipop (and maybe a free gift like a cooler), and leave 20 minutes later with a stack of temporary checks and maybe a bank card.
In France, IBAN discrimination is a real thing. You’ll probably hear people tell you, in order to pay a bill or get paid you have to have a French bank account with an IBAN number that starts with “FR.” According to Revolut, because France is a country member of SEPA – Single Euro Payments Area, companies or employers can’t discriminate on the basis of IBAN number. It’s illegal. (Source: Revolt June 30, 2020 distributed email). Revolt even explains that you can take action and gives customers ways to fight IBAN discrimination.
Why does the IBAN even matter? There are some banks and financial institutions, like Revolt or Bunq, that give people living, working, and studying in France more banking freedom and account options, including exclusively online banking, borderless banking, full-featured accounts with low monthly rates, and greater access to customer service. So for many people, including expats, flexible, more progressive, competitive, and modernized banking compared to some traditional French banks.
If you get denied a bank account.
There’s still hope. If you get denied a bank account, I was told to request that a bank give you a refusal letter (letter de refus). Apparently, banks are required to give you a letter when you ask for one. Drumroll into rant mode…one bank did not want to give me a refusal letter. Let’s just say, I don’t deal with that bank, not even to withdraw cash. You can then take this refusal letter to the Banque of France and they will assign you a bank.
Be prepared for fees and then some. There’s no such thing as free banking in France, at least not that I have yet found. 🙂
Student / Child (Minor) Accounts.
It’s possible to open child accounts in France with a parent. Be sure to ask about student or child account rates, which may offer discounts on fees, especially on minor bank accounts for children under 18 years old.
If you’re a married woman in France, don’t be surprised if the bank refers to you by your birth last name — or if you don’t use your spouse’s last name, don’t be surprised if the bank insists on calling you by your spouse’s name. I’ve also heard stories about banks requiring husband’s to be present or consent when opening a bank account. Also don’t forget to bring your marriage certificate or any proof of divorce paperwork when you open an account. I have my own issues with this last name thing in France and see the gender/discrimination issues in the name thing as very problematic (probs my #1 and maybe only true compaint about France). Ummm….let’s just say I have a few stories and experiences on this point….
Opening an Account from the USA.
Some expats have luck opening bank accounts before they arrive in France, or at least starting the process before they leave the USA. HSBC is one bank that expats sometimes report as a bank that does this for Americans moving to France. Other people have had luck opening online personal accounts with N26, Revolut, and bunq.
A Banking Plus
To balance out my above complaint (my one French complaint…gosh, how I love beautiful France), let me share with you my number one love of French banking: the speed and ease of money transfers via IBAN number to friends, family, businesses.
For example, with bunq, you can in seconds transfer money to friends, family, or roommates to cover your share of expenses. You can literally type in a recipient’s IBAN, hit send, and the money is transferred. Voila! Gotta love this banking efficiency. 😉
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Have you successfully opened a bank account in France as an Expat or are you trying to open one? What do you think are the best banks for American Expats in France? Drop a comment below.
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