Can an American Open a French Bank Account?
Yes, you can — with some caveats and a whole lot of persistence. To start with, everything I read about Americans wanting to open a French bank account said it would NOT be easy. This is mostly due to FATCA, the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which requires foreign financial institutions to report on the foreign assets held by their US account holders. Many banks don’t want to be bothered with the extra paperwork.
So, when I set out to open a French bank account, I expected a challenge. I was in the process of buying my house in France and knew a French bank account would be required for paying utilities. From the US, I tried to open a French bank account online, but was promptly turned down. Then I called HSBC, an international bank recommended in several articles for expats I'd read online. However, in order to set up a French account, HSBC would require me to open a US checking account, non-interest bearing, with a minimum balance of $50,000. Forget that.
I was elated when my realtor in France said she’d arranged insurance for the house through Crédit Agricole, which is also a bank, and they would also open an account for me. However, a week before I was to close on the house, they learned I was an American. Not only would they not be opening a bank account for me, but they would also not be insuring my house. I was left scrambling to find an insurance agent in France from the US. Luckily, I found one just before I left for France.
The catch 22
To purchase or rent a home in France, you are required to have a French bank account. However, you can’t open a bank account without first having a French address. Even though the notaire (a government-appointed lawyer who handles property sales) was insisting I have a French bank account, I got around this rule by using the currency exchange company, Moneycorp, to transfer the funds from dollars to euros. I highly recommend using a currency exchange as the fees are much lower than a traditional US bank. As soon as the house purchase went through, the notaire gave me an attestation, showing I was the new owner. This was a crucial document for opening a French bank account.
Once I was in my French home, I needed a bank account in order to pay utility bills and most importantly to set up internet and phone service through Orange S.A., the main telecommunications company in France.
Since traditional banks weren’t interested in me, I thought I’d try an online bank. Someone suggested Revolut. However, after setting up an account with my French address and my US social security number, I realized all I had was another American-based bank account and the last thing I needed was another American bank.
My next attempt was with Bunq, a bank that lives up to its name. I put in my French address, set up their free online account and sent them $100. Then I went to my appointment with Orange to establish internet, cell phone and landline service. Everything went well until I showed them my Bunq IBAN number, the equivalent of the US bank routing and account numbers. This is when I discovered Bunq was based in the Netherlands, and I now had a Dutch bank account. I was told to come back when I had a French bank account.
A few days later Bunq asked for my French tax ID. Being a non-resident, I don’t have a tax ID. Then I received an email saying I’d signed up for a free trial of an account that was now going to cost me 40 Euros a month. I tried to switch to the free account which I’d signed up for, but it said I would have to withdraw all my funds first or forfeit my balance. I immediately withdrew my $100 from the nearest ATM and closed my account.
Back to traditional banking
At this point I decided the traditional route might be best. Maybe the first couple of banks would turn me away, but I was determined to get a French bank account. However, in France you can’t just walk into a bank and open an account. You must have an appointment. Since my French is not that great, I would need to go in person to set up the appointment.
I googled all the banks in the nearest town and wrote them down in order of their Google rating. The highest rated bank was Banque Populaire and I soon realized why. I walked in and after a hearty “Bonjour Madame,” asked for an appointment to open an account. “Je voudrais un rendez-vous pour l'ouverture d'un compte bancaire.” Followed by “Je suis une Américaine.” And the question, “C'est possible?”
The women replied, “Oui, oui, pas de problème.” Yes, and no problem, music to my ears.
After we set an appointment for one week out, I repeated, “Je suis une Américaine.” “C'est bon?” "Oui," she replied. I wanted to be absolutely certain they would open an account for an American. With high hopes, I made an appointment for the day after my bank appointment with Orange to set up my internet and mobile accounts.
A week later, I arrived and met my banker, David, who was gregarious, humorous and spoke a lot of English. He used my favorite expression a couple of times, once when I asked if I could deposit a check using the bank’s app, “Of course not. It’s France!” Over our two and a half hour meeting, I learned everything there is to know about French banking. Most importantly, never bounce a check. There is no such thing as overdraft protection in France. It is illegal to write a cheque without sufficient funds in your account and the consequences can be quite serious, like having the Banque de France, the central bank of France, close all your accounts and ban you from using checks for five years!
In the end, opening a French bank account was simple. I find banking in France easier than in the US. I haven’t been to my US bank in months, and when I do, I don’t recognize anyone as the tellers constantly move from one branch to another. Most frustrating, I can no longer reach my local branch by phone. I have to call the 800 number and talk to some anonymous person without the autonomy to help me.
With my French account, if I have a question, I just email David and he gets back to me within a day. If you need to open a French bank account, don’t listen to the naysayers or the people who say it's too difficult and want to charge an arm and a leg to help you set up an account. Just go to the closest bank in France and ask.