After moving to France, one of the first things you’ll want to do is open a French bank account. You’ll need a French bank account to pay your bills, to easily withdraw cash, and to get paid by your employer, for starters. Sometimes simply opening a bank account in France can seem like a catch-22 with all the requirements: you need proof of address to open your account, but to get an apartment, you need a bank account. And that’s just the beginning. If you’re interested in how to open a French bank account as an American, you’ll want to continue reading. Is it as much of a headache as it seems?
How to open a French bank account as an American
Please keep in mind I’m not a banking professional and am sharing my experience, which may vastly differ from yours. Depending on your banking needs, visa status and personal situation, your experience with opening a bank account in France may not be in line with what I explain below. Always check with your financial institution for the most up to date information and to verify what documents are required.
Before moving to France, I figured that banking would be very similar to what it’s like in the US. A bank is a bank, right? You open an account, you get a debit card, you set up direct deposit. Easy, right? Well, not so fast…
Yes, sure, banking in France is similar enough to banking in the USA, but actually opening a bank account in France as a foreigner was a bit of a shock. It took a while, was not free, and involved a fair amount of paperwork!
Banks in France seem to operate very subjectively. They can tell you they are unable to open an account for you for an assortment of reasons, two of which I experienced firsthand even though I was a legal resident in France and could produce the required paperwork.
The first reason brought me to tears back in 2009 when I came to France to teach English. Tom had just picked me up from the airport and we drove to my new home in the Val D’Oise department outside of Paris to get my French bank account squared away. I had a work contract in hand and had a valid work visa, money to deposit, and spoke intermediate (but not confident) French. I needed to open a French bank account right away because I wouldn’t have been able to get my paycheck unless I had a French bank account. It was of the utmost importance that I open an account immediately.
Except after going through all the paperwork, I was denied.
On what grounds? That I was a foreigner and my French wasn’t good enough at the time.
I pleaded with the branch manager to please give me a chance, that I was jet-lagged, and my French would only improve with time. I had cash in hand and a work contract (not to mention a native French speaker with me)! I told them I’d be no bother (in French) and would only use the ATM.
Tom insisted they process my paperwork. They didn’t care and we left. Defeated. Tired. And in tears. (The story has a happy ending. I managed to open a French bank account at another bank the next day. But wow, what a nice welcome to France, right?)
I couldn’t imagine an American bank denying someone with legal status and a job a bank account because of their English level. It might even be illegal. But France is not the US and this was one instance that reminded me of that in all the wrong ways.
Flash forward a few years and we get to reason-I-was-denied-#2. I didn’t have a paycheck from a French company that would be direct deposited into the account regularly each month. It didn’t matter if I had a decent amount to deposit. Or freelance pay. They didn’t care if they weren’t receiving my salary from a French company monthly. No dice. No account.
Anyway, once I moved to France for good after marrying Tom, things got a whole lot simpler.
Quick note: For simple, no-frills banking, I highly recommend N26, an online bank where you can manage your account from an app on your phone. The free account is bare bones, but if you’re just looking to use the ATM and pay by card (especially when traveling outside of France), it’s a fantastic option. Read more about N26 here.
Also, if you have a need to transfer money between currencies, Transferwise is a no brainer. Fees are incredibly low and everything is managed via a simple app. More here on why everyone living abroad needs to use Transferwise.
To open a French bank account, you’ll need a physical address but when we first arrive abroad, who has an address? We may be in the process of finding an apartment. To get that apartment, you need a bank account! One of the major problems people run into with opening a French bank account is the lack of a permanent address when they first arrive, so you’re not alone. If you’re wondering how to open a French bank account without proof of address, you have a few options. The good news is that you can use a temporary address when you first open your account and change it easily enough to your permanent address once you’re settled.
In my case, I used the address of my landlord when I lived in her backyard studio. You can use the mailing address of your employer, school, temporary student housing, Airbnb, or even a friend or colleague’s address with an attestation stating you live at that address signed by them with a copy of their photo ID.
So keep in mind there are always workarounds if you don’t have a permanent living situation when you first arrive and you don’t have proof of address. It’s only normal, so go to your bank appointment prepared with what you do have at the time.
How to open a French bank account
To open a French bank account as a foreigner, I had to do three things:
1. Make an appointment
No walk-ins allowed! You’ll have to call or visit the bank in person to request an appointment to open an account in France. Appointments are rarely, if ever, made for the same day, so plan accordingly. It may seem a little old school to have an official appointment for the seemingly simple task of opening a French bank account, but that’s just how it’s done here.
TIP: If you’re looking to open a French bank account as an American, ask them upfront (before you spend an hour in their office) if they’re able to do it. If one bank tells you no, shop around. It can be done! Why is this sometimes tricky? It’s a hassle for French banks to jump through the hoops required to comply with the IRS. Having Americans as clients just adds to their workload and banks have no problem turning Americans away. Sometimes you don’t find this out until after you’ve been in their office for an hour.
2. Get your documents together
More on the required paperwork to open a French bank account below.
3. Show up to the appointment with the required documents.
Easy, right? More or less.
The details on my French bank account:
My legal status in France: Legal permanent resident. I’m an American living in France on a 10-year carte de sejour (married to a Frenchman) which I was required to show.
Bank: Crédit Agricole, Maine-et-Loire (Department 49)
Time spent at bank: 1-hour appointment going over everything and signing paperwork. Debit card arrived at the bank about a week after opening the account and I had to go pick it up.
- Annual 49-euro fee for the chipped debit card, but they gave it to me for free for the first year (PIN is set by bank, by the way, you don’t choose the 4-digit code)
- 6.63 euros/month in fees (elective, I say more on this below)
- Highlights: Checks are free, online banking included, ATM withdrawals/deposits are free at my bank, no minimum balance requirements
Documents I was required to bring for opening a bank account in France:
- Carte de sejour
- W-9 form
- Proof of residence in France (I brought our electricity bill as proof but any type of bill would work if it’s in your name)
- Last two years of our tax declaration (if you’ve just moved to France but your spouse was there before, bring his/her declaration even if your income doesn’t factor in)
- Optional: Not 100% obligatory but I was told this would help move things along if I could bring any of the following: Proof of owning a home, a work contract, 3 months’ worth of statements from another bank account in my name.
Something I learned, which surprised me, was that it was possible for me to get my debit card and then not incur any additional monthly fees. I would not be protected against overdraft fees if my account dipped below zero, would not have charges immediately reversed in the case of card theft, as well as other protections, but some banks DO offer very low-cost accounts.
It’s not recommended to opt out of these services, though, so I didn’t. Most French people are used to paying a monthly banking fee of some sort so I figured I should get on board. 😉
So was opening a French bank account a hassle?
Not really. I admit I was nervous walking into my local Credit Agricole and asking if they are able to open accounts for Americans. But there was no need to be nervous. They were nothing but kind, scheduled an appointment for me the next week and that was that. Smooth sailing!
On the other hand, I’m paying for more services than I need. I have very simple banking needs in France and I don’t need all the bells and whistles that come with my debit card and account.
Another banking recommendation I have for you is TransferWise. If you are looking to send money abroad or to hold money in various currencies, consider using them. It’s a great tool for sending and receiving money internationally with low fees — much cheaper than using your local bank. Not to mention opening an account is free along with a debit card and there are no monthly fees with TransferWise like there would be with a traditional French account. You can also get your own local bank account details in Europe, UK, US, Australia and New Zealand with the TransferWise Borderless account.
So back to opening a French bank account with the mainstream banks. My biggest piece of advice is to shop around and don’t get discouraged if a bank turns you away. Some are strict and others are not (regardless, you will need proof of identity, address, and legal status at a minimum).
Be friendly and professional. Show up organized with your documents, and hope for the best!
How has your experience been with opening a French bank account in France?
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