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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.

Member comments

  1. So much to learn, so much to remember! I’m planning to use my Schwab debit card for all cash needs plus my American Airlines/Barclay Mastercard where possible. Must I really have a French bank account if I can finesse my financials with out-of-country accounts?
    One thing I am concerned about is phone service. Have you covered that? I plan to look for a home in the area south of Montpellier.

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For members

SCHOOLS

‘Section internationales’: How do France’s bilingual secondary schools work?

For foreign parents in France looking at secondary school options for their children one option to consider is the bilingual 'international sections' in certain state schools. But how do they work?

'Section internationales': How do France's bilingual secondary schools work?

What is an ‘international section’

Essentially international sections in French secondary schools allow students to learn a modern foreign language, such as English or German in much more depth than a standard state secondary. These sections also facilitate the integration of foreign students into the French school system.

There are about 200 ‘International’ establishments (primary schools, colleges and high schools) around France offering international sections in 16 languages.

Most are state run, so for many foreign families they are a much cheaper alternative to private schools, though it should be noted that some of the international sections are fee-paying.

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Even state establishments can charge for enrolment into their international sections. Fees are usually in the region of €1,000 to €2,000 per year (although that’s still cheap compared to somewhere like the American school of Paris which charges between €20,000 and €35,000 a year)

American and British sections are particularly popular – and, as a result are usually the most expensive, while less-popular German sections are less costly. 

Why do they exist?

These sections are ideal for the children of immigrant families, as well as those where one parent is of foreign origin. Syllabuses are set up and developed by French educational authorities and those of the partner country.

In addition to lessons dedicated to modern languages, students benefit from lessons in another subject given in a foreign language. The international sections promote the discovery of the culture and civilisation of the countries associated with the section.

Top tips for raising a bilingual child in France

What languages are available?

According to the government website, 19 languages are available. But that’s not strictly accurate as it then lists American, British and Australian as separate ‘languages’, along with Portuguese and Brazilian. It’s more accurate to say these establishments offer education in 16 languages.

It’s more accurate to say that there are 19 “sections”, dedicated to learning with a linguistic and cultural education slant in favour of the following nations/languages:

American, Arabic, Australian, Brazilian, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, English, Franco-Moroccan, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Russian.

In total, there are two Australian schools, 20 American ones, over 50 British schools – most in Paris and the Ile-de-France (Versailles is very popular)

So, what’s studied – and what qualifications do you get?

As well as usual collège-level classes in core subjects, such as maths, history and the sciences, students have four hours of classes in the language, including literary studies, of their choice.

From troisième (age 14), an additional two hours of classes per week cover that country’s history and geography and moral and civic education – the latter is replaced by maths for those studying in Chinese sections.

They can obtain the diplôme national du brevet with the mention “série collège, option internationale”. The dedicated brevet includes two specific tests: history-geography and foreign language.

At lycée, students study four hours of foreign literature per week, as well as two hours of history-geography in the language of the section (maths for the Chinese section) as well as two hours of French as they study towards an OIB (option internationale du bac), often at the same time as a standard French bac.

How to enrol

The first step is to contact the collège you wish your child to attend. This should take place no later than January before the September rentree you want your child to go to the collège.

If you live in France, and your child is attending an école primaire or élémentaire, you should do this in the January of the year they would move up to collège.

Be aware, that some schools require potential students to pass a language test – written and oral – before they can enter an international section. A child wishing to enter sixth grade must be able to read books of the level of Harry Potter in English, to enter the international school of Sèvres’ British section, while another has said that only 20 percent of candidates achieve the grade that would allow them entry into an international section.

Find a school

You will find sections internationales de collège at educational academies across the country. For a full list, with contact details, click here.

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