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BANK

Everything you need to know about setting up a bank account in France

Opening a bank account in a new country is always confusing, and even more so if you’re not fluent in the language. The types of accounts, fees and jargon are likely to be different, and there are extra challenges for newcomers in setting up an account in France, as Jill Starley-Grainger explains.

Everything you need to know about setting up a bank account in France
This could be your last option if you are having trouble opening an account. Photo: Bertrand Guay/AFP

So for newbies in France, here’s our guide to what to look for when deciding on a bank, what you’ll need to open an account, and what to do if your application is refused.

The three main types of French banks

The first thing you need to decide is which types of bank you want to use. 

Traditional French bank

This is your local branch, the one you’ll pass on the way to pick up your croissant. You can go in, talk to a real human and try to convince them you’re not a criminal and they should give you an account (although you’ll likely need to make an appointment).

In many banks, there will not be an English-speaker working in the branch, so be prepared to speak French and have a translation app or look up key words in advance if your French is still a work-in-progress.

And be prepared to pay. At these banks, you can expect to pay for almost every service, from the luxury of having a debit card to access your money to fees charged for withdrawals and deposits, and all sorts in between. 

There are hundreds of banks, but among the biggest are BNP Paribas, Crédit Agricole, Société Générale, Crédit Mutuel, BPCE, La Banque Postale and HSBC.

Virtually all traditional banks offer online banking, but the services they offer may be a little more basic than you are used to with fewer services available online. The offer varies, so if you are heavily dependent on internet banking for your work or personal life check out exactly what services your chosen bank offers online.

Traditional French bank with English/international service

If the above appeals, but you’d either like to sort your account before you arrive in France, or you feel your French language skills aren’t up to par, then a few banks have a dedicated English-language service or services for internationals that can sometimes open an account for you before you arrive.

These banks usually have an English-language website and English speakers at the end of the phone to talk you through everything, and they will allow different forms of evidence to open an account. But they also have similar or higher fees than traditional banks.

Popular banks that offer this service are Britline by Crédit Agricole, HSBC and AXA International. In regions with a high population of English-speaking immigrants, local banks often also offer an English phone line, too.

App-based banks and banking alternatives

If you’re comfortable using a phone app, then the new raft of app-based banks are well worth looking into. Fees will typically be lower than the traditional banks – and often nothing, depending on your needs. 

But bear in mind they might not offer everything you need, such as a chequebook or overdraft facility. 

Many of these banks are entirely digital, so if you need a service that requires a face-to-face transaction, you will often have to go to a random place to do it, such as the tabac. 

But several ‘app-only banks’ are actually arms of traditional banks, so they can be a good middle ground, giving you lower fees, but also a local branch that can handle some basic transactions when required.

A few app-only French banks are Hello, Monabanq, Boursorama, Orange, Nickel and Fortuneo, while N26, Starling and Monese are some non-French options. 

Popular banking alternatives include Revolut and Wise (formerly Transferwise), both of which offer a type of pre-paid debit card and some banking services.

Things to be aware of 

Cheques

If you’ve barely pulled out cash or a cheque for years, then you’re in for a shock in France. Many places will accept nothing other than cash or cheque – and that includes for some very large transactions, such as a deposit for a car rental or self-catering accommodation. Although the pandemic has ushered in more online payments and contactless card payments, do not assume your plastic will cover everything.

You might also be sent cheques in the post by companies who happily take money directly from your bank account or credit card – such as utility company or an online shop – but will send you a cheque when they owe you money.

Some app-only banks and banking alternatives don’t offer cheques or allow them to be paid in, so look into this when deciding.

Fees and extras

Each bank’s fees can also be confusing and sometimes nonsensical, so look at them carefully before signing up. 

Some charge you if you use your debit card, while others charge you if you don’t use it. Some charge for cheque deposits, and others for cash withdrawals. And many traditional banks charge you for the luxury of having a debit card.

With most traditional banks, you’ll also pay for simply having a basic account with no perks, even if you never use it. 

And if your French isn’t great, you could easily sign up for various types insurance without realising it.

IBAN

The International Bank Account Number (IBAN) issue can be a headache for people who use non-traditional or non-French banks. 

There is no reason you can’t use these banks, and legally, French companies are meant to set up direct debits and automated payments to any EU-registered bank. But in reality, many won’t. 

From major utility providers to government services, if your IBAN doesn’t start with ‘FR’ – showing it’s a bank based in France – then you’ll often be required to use cash, cheques or debit cards to make every payment, or it will take you several hours of phone calls, emails, printing and posting of documents to get them to accept your non-French IBAN.

RIB

Once you get your account you will get a relevé d’identité bancaire, known as a RIB. This is a print out (or online version) which gives all the details of your account, including IBAN and account number and whenever you set up a direct debit or payment you will need to provide this to the person or organisation that the money is going to. 

What you need to open a French bank account

Actually setting up the account can be difficult if you’ve only just arrived as many banks will only open an account for you with proof of your address, but on the other hand many landlords will not rent to you until you have a bank account, creating something of a Catch-22.

As with all administrative tasks in France, be prepared to take a massive folder of documents with you when you go to open your account.

Most banks will ask for;

  • proof of your right to residency
  • proof of address in France
  • proof of income
  • proof of your identity

The exact documents that each bank will accept as proof of these varies, so make sure you check before your appointment but commonly accepted ones are passport, birth certificate, visa, lease agreement, job offer letter, payslips, recent utility bills and recent tax returns.

However as a newcomer you may not have recent tax returns, payslips or proof of address.

Some banks will accept you before you have a rental lease or deeds to a home in France, but your choice will be more limited. The traditional banks with an English-speaking or international service are your best bet, as well as some of the app-only banks and their alternatives, mentioned above.

What to do if you have problems opening a bank account in France

In France, any resident has a right to a basic bank account, regardless of your nationality. However for this to apply you must be a resident, so if you haven’t established residency yet, this won’t apply to you.

The legal right to a bank account doesn’t mean it’s always easy to open one.

Foreign nationals trying to open French bank accounts are often rejected for reasons that aren’t specified – just a ‘sorry, we can’t open an account for you’. 

Many Americans have reported struggling to gain acceptance at banks due the filing requirements of FATCA , while there have been some reports of Brits finding it more difficult since Brexit, although these have so far mostly been isolated cases.

For some people it might just be a case of shopping around. However, if you’ve tried several banks and have no luck, ask your preferred bank to provide an official letter with the reason. Ask them to either give it to you directly or to send it to the Banque de France, copying you in. Anecdotally, many people report that the request alone can be enough for the bank to decide it will offer you an account after all. 

If that doesn’t work, French residents can ask Banque de France to force a bank to open an account for you by registering a Droit au compte (right to an account) here. The downside is that it might not be the bank you would choose. But at least you’ll have an account.

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CRIME

What to do if you are arrested in France

Everything you need to know if you find yourself in handcuffs in France.

What to do if you are arrested in France

France’s legal system is born out of its Code Civil, and for criminal proceedings, the relevant legal infrastructure is the Code pénal.

The way the system works is very different to many anglophone countries, so if you are arrested do not expect events to follow the pattern you would expect in your home country.

Here are some of the scenarios you might find yourself in, and what to expect:

The police have stopped me:

There are a few scenarios here, they could give you an amende (fine), it could just be a contrôle d’identité (ID check) or contrôle routière (traffic stop) or you could be under arrest. 

READ ALSO Your questions answered: Legal rights as a foreigner in France

Fine – If they have stopped you to give you an amende, this is likely because you committed a minor infraction. 

This could be a traffic related offence – maybe you went through a red-light while riding your bicycle – or a minor crime such as littering.

The amount of the fine will depend on the severity of the infraction, which is at the discretion of the police officer. In most scenarios, the officer will ask for proof of identity, your address, and then the fine will be sent to your home. You’d be advised to pay it right away, because if you delay the fee can be increased.

Be aware that police officers will not ask you to hand over cash on the spot. It’s unfortunately true that scammers prey on tourists by pretending to be police and asking for cash ‘fines’ – a legitimate officer will not ask for this.

If you’re on public transport, transport police such as the Paris-based RATP Sûreté are also empowered to stop you and to issue fines if you have committed an offence such as travelling without a ticket. 

READ ALSO ‘Don’t mess with French cops’ – Tips for dealing with police in France

ID check – The other scenario where you could be stopped by a police officer is during a contrôle d’identité (identity check). This is when a police officer stops to check your identity, and it can only happen under certain conditions: they suspect you have committed or will commit a crime, you are in a ‘dangerous’ location where crime is known to occur, the public prosecutor has ordered an area to be watched, or you are operating a motorised vehicle (contrôle routière).

If you refuse to provide proof of identity, the police can find you guilty of refusing to obey or find you guilty of contempt and rebellion. If you do not have documents on your person to prove your identity, the officer can take you to the police station to check your identity there.

Many activists and NGOs argue that police practice racial profiling when they perform ID checks and it’s unfortunately the case that these ‘random’ checks do seem to happen more frequently to people of colour.  

Arrests – Finally, an officer might arrest you.

The French criminal code allows police to arrest and detain (for a limited period of time) any person against whom there exists one or more plausible reasons to suspect that they have committed or attempted to commit a criminal offence – this is at the discretion of the officer so it can cover a pretty broad range of circumstances.

Detention

The French police are allowed to detain you if the police suspect you have committed or could commit a crime that is punishable by jail time. This means they cannot detain you for something that is punishable simply by a fine, but no arrest warrant is required in order to detain you.

If police detain you, you need to be aware of your rights: 

  • Right to interpretation and translation if needed
  • Right to information (you have the right to know the exact legal definition of what you’ve been accused of)
  • Right to legal assistance (from the moment of arrest)
  • Right to have someone, such as a family member, be made aware of your arrest
  • Right to have an opportunity to communicate with your family
  • Right to be in contact with your country’s consulate and receive visits if you are arrested outside your home country
  • Right to the presumption of innocence
  • Right to remain silent and the right against self-incrimination
  • Right to be present at your trial
  • Right to consult police documents related to the investigation such as: the transcript of police interviews, medical certificates and notice of the rights in custody

In most circumstances you can only be held a maximum of 24 hours.

This can be extended if the crime you’re accused of is punishable of more than a year in prison. If so, the initial period of custody can be increased by 24 hours (up to 48 hours in total). In order for it to be extended, a public prosecutor must deem it necessary.

If the crime you are accused of is punishable by more than 10 years in prison, or relates to organised crime, initial detention can be up to four days, while those suspected of terror offences can be detained for a maximum of 144 hours (six days).

Court hearing

If the offence you are accused of is too serious to be dealt with by way of a fine, you will need to appear before a court.

If you’ve found yourself in this unfortunate situation, you should know that your hearing could either take place immediately at the end of your time in police custody or it could be sometime in the distant future – maybe even years later if it’s a complex matter.

The location of your hearing will depend on the severity of your offence: petty offences (contraventions) are typically dealt with in police courts (tribunal de police) or ‘jurisdictions of proximity’ (juridiction de proximité).

For misdemeanour crimes such as theft, you would likely go to a correctional court (tribunal correctionnel), and for the most serious offences such as rape or violent crimes you would be tried in a criminal court called a cour d’assises or la cour criminelle

If you have a ‘fast-tracked proceeding’ (comparutions immediates), this is because the public prosecutor has chosen this avenue.

Typically, it only happens in very straightforward cases, and it would involve your case being heard immediately at the end of your time in police custody (garde à vue). You cannot request a fast-tracked proceeding yourself. You should be advised that in these situations, it means that there is very little time to prepare a defence. You can request more time, and of course, you can request a lawyer. A fast-tracked proceeding will happen in the tribunel correctionnel.

There is also the option of a “Comparution sur reconnaissance préalable de culpabilité” (CRPC), which is a pre-trial guilty plea procedure. In order to go through this procedure, you must have the assistance of a lawyer

Ongoing detention

If your offence is too serious for an immediate court hearing, you will need to wait for a court date.

In most cases you will be released from custody while you wait for the hearing under contrôle judiciaire, which is similar to bail and often involves certain conditions such as not attempting to contact the victim or witnesses in the case.

In certain circumstances the judge can institute a caution, which is a sum of money that must be paid to ensure that the person be present at the proceedings, but paying money for bail is much less common in France than it is in the USA.

If you are a foreigner you will likely have your passport taken and be forbidden from leaving the country. If you do not have a permanent residence in France, the court can assign you one and demand that you stay in France until your hearing date.

If you commit further offences, or try to contact witnesses or victims while waiting for your hearing, or breach any of the conditions, you are likely to be brought back into custody.

I want to contact my embassy

You have the right to contact your embassy at any point after an arrest, though you will need to expressly request this, they will not be automatically contacted when you are arrested.

The role of the Embassy is much more limited than many people think – the Embassy is there to ensure that you are not being mistreated because of your nationality. As long as you are being given the same rights as a French national in the same scenario, The Embassy will not intervene on your behalf.

The Embassy does not have the power to tell a court whether you’re guilty or innocent, to provide legal advice, to serve as an official interpreter or translator, or to pay any legal, medical, or other fees.

They can, however, help you to find the above services, and most embassies have a list of English-speaking lawyers. 

If you have been incarcerated, depending on the country you come from, the French government might be required to inform your country of your incarceration. For US citizens, this requirement exists with your permission, and for UK citizens the obligation to inform exists even without your permission.

I would like legal assistance

You can request a lawyer at any time when in police custody in France.

As mentioned above, your embassy is a great resource for finding an English-speaking lawyer. Most embassy websites will have extensive directories for lawyers.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How to find a lawyer in France

You can also check the local “tribunal d’instance” (your local courthouse), your département’s bar association (le batonnier/ Barreau), or consult websites, such as AngloInfo, which compile directories of English-speaking lawyers. 

If you cannot afford legal representation and need legal aid, you must be able to prove that you are low income. You can contact the Maison de Justice, which is the courthouse. Your département or region should have a website explaining the legal aids near you. This is Paris’ for example, HERE

Key Vocabulary

Appeal: appel

Bail: contrôle judiciaire

Bar Association: l’ordre des avocats/ barreau

Charge/Indictment: Accusations

Embassy: Ambassade

File: Dossier

Investigative Judge: Juge d’instruction

Judge: Juge or Magistrat

Lawyer: Avocat – keep in mind, when addressing a lawyer you should use the honorific Maître (the same title applies for male and female lawyers)

Judgment: Jugement

Legal Aid: Aide juridictionelle

Criminal offence: infractions

Felony: un crime

Misdemeanour: un délit

Petty crime: contravention

Police Custody: garde à vue

Public Prosecutor: Procureur de la République

Sentence: Peine

Warrant: Mandat

Witness: Témoin

Expert help for this article was provided by Maitre Matthieu Chirez, who is a practicing lawyer at J.P. Karsenty & Associates and is specialised in criminal law. You can access the firm’s website HERE.

Please note that this article is not a substitute for legal advice and if you find yourself in trouble with the French legal system you should always get professional help.

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