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Stephen Heiner in Paris: Expats, get a French bank account before renewing your visa

(Editor’s note: This advice column on getting a French bank account was originally posted on Stephen Heiner’s “The American in Paris” website. It’s reposted here with the permission of the author. See more below about his immigration consulting services in the “about the author” section.)

A friend recently wrote an account of her experience getting a bank account in France and it reminded me to do an update of my various thoughts on this topic beyond my first time getting a personal account, a business account, and the legislation which is the reason for difficulties Americans face on this front: FATCA.

The most important reason to get a French account is that it’s the only way you may hit a snag on your renewal. Not having a French account signals a lack of integration into society. You may be able to squeak by with something else, which readers have received inconsistent results with, so the advice I give is to do what definitely works, not “let’s try this.”

Hope is not a strategy, and certainly a poor idea when it comes to renewing visas in France.

While major French banks are understandably reluctant to give a U.S. citizen a bank account because of the high cost of compliance with FATCA, if you hold a residence card (whether a sticker in your passport or the hard card in your wallet), you can, respectfully and calmly, demand a bank account as a right.

Yes, there are low-cost online banks that have no branches like Boursorama that will eject you from the application process the minute they find out you are a United States citizen, (Trust me, I tried.)

My recommendations, based on personal experience, are BNP Paribas and Societe Generale, in that order. They both have excellent online banking in the form of web access and brilliant native apps for your smart phones. My counselors have always been available when I’ve needed help and my cards consistently work in countries all over the world, often offering an extra layer of security by needing me to verify purchases over a certain amount via entering my password on the app on my phone.

What I’ve been told secondhand by readers is that both LCL and HSBC are also willing to grant accounts to U.S. citizens, and feel free to pitch your bank of choice in the comments below.

When you stop in at a bank you’ll almost always be making an appointment for a future date, as the bankers are often booked some time in advance. If you don’t feel comfortable speaking the entire time in French, make sure to ask for someone who does speak English, and many of the staff do.

They will often provide you with a list of what to bring, which will include, but not be limited to:

• Passport
• Carte de Sejour (1st year visa holders – this is the sticker in your passport, everyone else – it’s the hard card)
• EDF or ADH and/or lease
• Proof of income
• Most Recent Tax Filings – both US and French

Expect to pay around 15-20 euros per month for even a basic checking account.  It’s part of the deal.

They also won’t let you pick your PIN, but I’ve found this to be a smart policy, because it doesn’t allow a thief who correctly guesses one pin access to all your cards, which Americas tend to use the same PIN for.

An intermediate step in the right direction, if you want to be able to easily transfer in Euros, pay your rent, etc., is a free Borderless Account from Transferwise that allows you to hold multiple currencies with no monthly rate and even includes a free contactless debit card. But it is not clear to me that statements from a Borderless Account will pass muster with French immigration and no reader has yet let me know that such a strategy works.

The euro-denominated account in the Borderless Account is based in Germany.  I absolutely love Transferwise and use it for other transactions outside of my personal and business ones, which I use my French accounts for.

About the author:

Singaporean-born American Stephen Heiner has been living in Paris since 2013, a what he hopes to be a permanent home after living in Asia and the United States for most of his life. While he has an undergraduate degree in literature, he also has an MBA, and he’s very much the man who enjoys studying financial statements as much as he enjoys reading essays by G.K. Chesterton or James Howard Kuntsler.

He visits his family in the US and Singapore each year, but in the meantime enjoys his dream city, which he finally had a chance to move to after selling a company he built over a number of years.  You can find him on twitter and instagram @stephenheiner.

You can also follow his immigration journey on www.theamericaninparis.com, where he also offers consulting to those interested in relocating to and/or making a life in France.

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