Having a bank account in France is a real sign of residency. With a bank account, you can have a cell phone plan, an internet plan, and an apartment in France, not to mention you can use it to pay for things without getting charged a foreign transaction fee.
Because a bank account is the key to so many doors in France, it is not exactly easy to obtain. Here, some insight:
If you are a student, chances are your study abroad program has an agreement with a local bank. In Toulouse, for example, the University of California students all set up accounts with Banque Populaire. For the American University in Paris, the local BNP branch is used to working with American students.
If you have come to France to work, check with your company. They may have an agreement with a bank already or you can get recommendations from your colleagues.
In the case that there is not a bank already set up for you to go to, it is a good idea to research banks online before approaching one in person. Common French banks include Banque Populaire, BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole, HSBC and Société Générale to name a few. In Paris, we chose Paribas because of the ease of access: there are Paribas ATMs and banks on every corner. In New York we had Bank of America, which has an agreement with BNP that the respective clients of each can use the other’s ATMs without the foreign transaction fee.
Once in France, find a branch of the bank you have chosen that’s convenient for you and bring your passport, lease, and a bill in your name if possible (gas, telephone, electricity). For many foreigners arriving in France, it is either too early to have received any bills yet, or the bill is not in their name because utilities are included in the rent. This happens often with short-term rentals. Be prepared to simply show your documents to the banker and make an appointment to come back to sign all the paperwork.
When my husband and I went into a branch of Paribas in our neighborhood, the woman there was not helpful. Even though we had a lease and a letter from my husband’s company stating that he was an employee with an open-ended contract (CDI) at their Paris location, she refused to help us because we did not have a utility bill. If this happens to you, just say “merci” and leave. My advice is to simply try another branch. Chances are you will eventually find someone that is willing to help you.
Several days later after we had gathered up our courage again, my husband and I entered a different branch of Paribas. When we told the man at the desk that we wanted to open a bank account, he was very professional and invited us into his office right away. The banker made copies of our passports and our lease and gave us an appointment for the next morning. He even offered to conduct the appointment in English if it was easier for us. Because we did not have a utility bill, he took the liberty of sending a certified letter to our address in order to confirm that we lived there.
The next day, we came back to sign all the paperwork. We found out that our banker had an American brother in law and loved to travel, which probably explains why he was so willing to help us. He took us through each document and made sure we understood what we were signing. We requested 2 cartes bleues or checking cards (we opened a joint checking account) a chéquier and RIBs (Relevé d’Identite Banquaire). A RIB functions like a voided check and is required to start a cell phone or internet plan or to initiate direct deposit. Once you have a bank account and are able to access it online, you can print RIBs out yourself. You can also chose if you would like your purchases debited immediately (after 48 hours), or if you would like them all debited at the end of the month. This depends on your budget, when you are paid and how you organize your finances. As soon as he received the confirmation of our address, he assured us, the banker would be able to order the debit cards. At that point he would call us so we could come and pick them up, the entire process taking 7-10 days. Sure enough, on Saturday, 8 days after our appointment, we merrily went to the bank and picked up our cartes bleues and our chéquier.
Note: In France, the process of opening a bank account takes much longer than in the states, where you are handed a debit card and given a $10,000 line of credit within the hour. French bank accounts do not come with credit cards. It is something you must apply for separately and seems to be used much less by the French than by Americans. If American banks didn’t give credit cards to people so readily without explaining how they work, maybe fewer Americans would be swimming in credit card debt. The French do not tend to live above their means because it isn’t an option, which sounds like a safe concept to me.
© 2011 Pasa’s Paris