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

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
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.

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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