A project I started in the first few weeks after we arrived in Carcassonne was setting up a French bank account. This wasn’t the same as those people you read about in the news with numbered foreign bank accounts in Switzerland, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, or Luxembourg as a tax dodge. Our intentions is to follow the financial rules and to stay under the $10,000 maximum balance in a foreign account that would require a FBAR, or “Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts,” Treasury Form TD F 90-22.1 be filed with the US IRS.
We wanted a French bank account for three common sense reasons.
The first reason was that to minimize foreign transaction and conversion fees from our US bank. An international wire transfer currently has a flat $35.00 fee compared to being “nickel and dimed” with withdrawals and conversion fees every time we patronize French ATMs and businesses with our US bank cards. Being on a fixed income we want to minimize the monthly fees that we can control. It would be less expensive for us to transfer one larger amount of cash into a French bank account and use a local debit card for purchases.
Secondly is that France was one of the innovators of the “Chip and Pin” style, EMV credit/debit card. (EMV is Europay – Mastercard – Visa, a global standard for integrated circuit cards and “IC” card capable “point of sale terminals” and ATMs used to authenticate credit and debit card transactions.) While a traditional US style cards will work in many ATMs and at some businesses in France, many businesses will only accept the “Chip and PIN” style card or not understand how to “swipe” a traditional US card. We wanted greater flexibility in our day-to-day life and our US bank is not issuing “Chip and PIN” cards yet. Regular US cards (with some exceptions) are not scheduled to transition to “Chip and PIN” EMV technology until 2015-2017. On their recent visit to France, Adam and Liz found their US cards worked at the ATM but not in restaurants or clubs.
Finally, there are times when technology fails and an ATM or business does not get a response back from international data lines and computers with US-based cards. We wanted a back-up in the event of sunspots, earthquakes, satellite outages, volcanos, undersea cable breaks, or the “Blue Screen of Death.” I like “belt and suspender” redundancy. We also wanted a backup in case our US card is lost or stolen.
The process of setting up a French bank account took about 12 weeks for us to complete from beginning to end. Because our US bank is Bank of America, we selected French bank BNP Paribas (the fourth largest bank in the world) who is Bank of America’s foreign partner in France. Because of this affiliation, Bank of America will waive some fees.
We made an appointment at the local BNP and met with a very helpful bilingual bank officer. The only snag was that she was bilingual in French and Spanish. (We are very close to Spain in Carcassonne.) Between our rudimentary French, my old police Spanish, basic Italian, Google Translate, and our bank officer’s very basic English we started the process for a bank account with the “Chip and PIN” style debit cards referred to as Carte Bleue. We left the meeting with the paperwork started, but we needed to return with additional documentation of our residency.
Between our first and second appointment to the bank we had our meeting with OFII (L’Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration – French Immigration) which (after a medical exam, chest x-ray, and application review) granted us our Titre de Sejour (resident permits) to upgrade our original visas.
On our second appointment at the bank we brought photocopies of our Titre de Sejour and a detailed copy of our lease with rent receipts to prove our residency in Carcassonne. What our bank officer normally needed by bank policy was also a utility bill (gas, electricity, a land-line telephone) as further proof of residency at the address. We explained (often using pantomime, Italian, and pidgin French) that all the utilities were in our landlord’s name and without a local bank account we could not start a utility account. After conferring with her bank manager the solution was found to send us a registered letter at our address to sign and return as final proof of residency. A very elegant and helpful solution. We appreciated that the bank’s management could “think outside the box” and work with our odd circumstances. In anticipation of the final approval by the bank manager, our bank officer finished the paperwork, assigned us an account number, and told us to return once the registered letter was signed to pick up the bank cards.
The registered letter arrived three days later which we signed and had the receipt sent back to the bank. Soon after claim tickets for our Carte Bleue debit cards arrived in the mail along with “Welcome Customer” letters from BNP.
Now for the confusing part. We went to the back to pick up the cards and were told that they hadn’t arrived from the manufacturer yet and to come back in a week. A week later we were told the same thing. The third week we were getting worried that with our inadequate French, we had missed a step in the process. Should we have made an initial deposit into the account before the bank would release the cards? The fourth week later we spoke with our Bank Officer who was able to convey that because of the internal electronics it takes the manufacturer four to six weeks to make the cards and asked us to be patient and the bank would call us when the cards arrived.
In the mean time our son Adam and his fiancée Liz arrived for a visit and we put the bank cards concerns on hold and had a great visit with them. The day after Adam and Liz left, we received a call from the bank (I stumbled through the telephone conversation in French) that our cards had arrived. After a short walk to the bank (with lunch on the way) we were proud owners of our Cartes Bleue and had officially established a functioning bank account in France. It took two appointments over six weeks and six weeks of waiting for the cards to be manufacturer and arrive at the bank.
Another small step in establishing our expat life in Europe. Now we will work on the online International Transfer process with Bank of America. We expect to have everything set up, validated, and our first wire transfer completed by the middle of August – just in time for our Camino trip!