Opening a bank account in France is rarely simple. Here's how to make the process less stressful.
1) Bring a proof of address
Nobody in France takes you at your word that you live where you say you live: you always have to provide a document called a 'justificatif de domicile' which can, for example, be a utility bill (electricity or gas) or proof of rental insurance.
The document must be less than three months old. If you're living in someone else's apartment, either as a short term rental or as a guest, you'll have to provide copies of their utility bills, a copy of their ID card, and a signed statement saying that you're living with them. Beware: even a rent receipt and a lease often won't count as official documents if they're handwritten by the landlord.
Also, students should provide a proof of enrollment in a French school, and bank accounts in your home country to prove you have money to put in your account. Employees need copies of their work contract and possibly a recent pay slip, and they'll help you get direct deposit set up from your employer.
Photo: Ken Teegardin/Flickr
2) Pick your nearest bank
You are required to open your bank account at the branch of your bank closest to your residence or closest to your school/employer. If you work full-time, use the branch closest to your employer so you can go during regular business hours, as you can only perform certain banking operations in your own branch, through your personal banker. You can, however, easily change your address and your bank branch if you move or switch employers. You just have to provide a new justificatif de domicile or work contract.
Want to withdraw a large amount of cash before a trip abroad, or make an international wire transfer without online banking access? You have to go through your personal banker. Need to order a new checkbook or bank card? Your banker also has to do that. The reason for this tightly controlled setting is that bank employees in France can be held personally responsible if you commit crimes such as money laundering with your account, so it's in their best interest to make sure you only go through one person who oversees your account and your transactions.
Photo: Ken Teegardin/Flickr
3) Know your rights
As a visitor without a job or school enrollment, you may have more difficulty opening an account, but you have the right to open a bank account if you're a French resident. People on long stay visitor's visas can have difficulty, especially if they're American, as recent FATCA (Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act) legislation requires international banks to report American citizens' bank information to the IRS.
If denied an account, ask for a 'lettre de refus', stating that the bank in question has declined to open an account for you. The bank is required by law to provide this letter 'without delay,' but they don't have to provide a reason for not opening the account.
Then, you can take the refusal letter, along with a copy of your ID and proof of residence, to the local Banque de France office, and fill out a simple form requesting an account under the 'droit au compte'. Within a few days, the Banque de France will provide you with a letter designating a bank that is required by law to open an account for you, and you take that letter and your accompanying documents there to open your account.
This applies to anyone who has the right to reside in France - except if you're an 'interdit bancaire' - someone whose account was closed for consistently overdrawing and not reimbursing the bank. To be removed from the Banque de France's files on being an 'interdit bancaire,' you'll have to pay off your debt and request removal from the list.
Photo: Simon Cunningham/Flickr
4) Inescapable bank fees
While many banks in the US and UK have free checking, that concept does not really exist in France, especially since you're required to interact so often with your personal banker and can't complete all of your transactions online. You may pay a small fee for 'tenue de compte', or keeping the account open, as well as a monthly fee for your debit card.
The debit card fee will depend on the options you choose: the weekly and monthly limits for cash withdrawal and debit transactions, the amount of insurance protection on the card, overdraft protection, and your choice between 'débit immédiat' - when your account is debited immediately for purchases, and 'débit différé', when your card is debited at the end of your month. You can choose between the basic cards with low limits, or gold and platinum visas that often offer perks like travel insurance.
If you're a student, you'll often get a discount, and even if you're not, many banks offer a 50 percent discount on rates for the first year. There are also online banks with reduced fees, but you may still be required to have an account in a brick-and-morter bank to open an account with them.
5) Debit card: Your new best friend
The French media keep predicting that cash will die out within a few years, and the French Assemblée seems to be trying to make it happen. In France, paying for something in cash often equals untaxed income: so, tax fraud and money laundering. A recent law reduced the amount that people can pay in cash for purchases from €3,000 to €1,000, and it's not unheard of for other Europeans from more cash-friendly countries to be stopped and questioned for trying to pay with large bills.
It seems that French people rarely carry cash, then, and while most stores have low limits for debit card use, people will often pay for lunch or a coffee with a card rather than cash.
Depending on your monthly expenses, then, you'll have to ensure that your card's monthly limit for debit transactions is high enough to cover your costs. If your card's limit is €1,000 every 30 days, you won't be able to spend more than €1,000 in any 30-day period. Your personal banker can raise the limit if you have an exceptional purchase to make, but it's best to choose a card with a limit slightly higher than you need.
Allison Lounes is a consultant assisting English speakers with administrative tasks and visa issues in France. She runs the Paris Unraveled website.