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The best banks for Americans living in France

Many foreigners in France - particularly pensioners - need to keep a bank account in their home country, but not all banks will offer accounts to people living abroad.

The best banks for Americans living in France
A photo taken on February 5, 2013 in Marseille shows credit cards. French police has arrested, early this morning in Paris and in several French and overseas departments, 22 people in connection with the trade of credit cards numbers on internet. AFP PHOTO / ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT / AFP)

Most people who move to France get a French bank account – but many also maintain accounts with banks in their home countries to receive income in the form of pensions, property rentals, salary, or to hold savings and pay bills.

Americans can have problems opening a French account because of the Fatca legislation – here’s what you can do if you are having issues with French banks. 

But having a US bank account can be vital too, especially for pensioners, as some pension providers will not pay into a bank account in another country.

Others just prefer the convenience of having a US bank account and debit card to use on visits home in order to avoid extra transaction fees.

Here are the options.

International accounts

Many banks offer ‘international accounts’ aimed at those who have moved to other countries.

The major drawback is the cost; many accounts have a minimum deposit level or stipulate a minimum annual income, so they may not be suitable for pensioners, people on a low income, or those who just want to use their account for a few basic functions while keeping most of their income/assets in their French account.

Most expat/international accounts also charge a monthly fee and some charge transfer fees on top of that. 

They’re really aimed at ‘high net worth’ customers (ie rich) so they’re often not suitable for people who have lower means or have retired to France.

Internet banks 

The last few years has seen a proliferation of new internet banks, which offer online-only services and operate across Europe.

The advantage of these is that you can sign up with a French address and then carry out transactions in another country.

Many people use internet bank accounts – Wise (formerly the money-transfer service Transferwise, now set up as a bank), Revolut or Starling are notable examples – when they first move to France before they set up French accounts.

Internet banks can offer a long-term solution for people who struggle to open a French account, but the further advantage of these is that customers can set up accounts in different currencies and depending on the bank and its licencing you may also be account to get an account number and IBAN for your home country as well as a European IBAN.

It means you can use the account for business back home, but also transfer money quickly and easily to/from France. It might give a better deal on exchange rates than receiving a pension in dollars and then spending in euros in France.

The disadvantage for some people is their lack of a physical presence so in case of a question or a problem contact can only be made by phone or – more usually – via email or chatbot. Many internet banks also do not issue cheque books or accept queues, which can be a problem for some customers.

READ ALSO The best UK banks for Brits in France

There’s a tendency to assume that internet-only banks are less secure, which isn’t necessarily the case, but if there are problems it can be harder to get redress. 

French banks

Most people living in France already have a French account for daily life, but can you use this for all your financial affairs?

It depends on your situation. Pension providers may only pay into a home account, while if you still have financial liabilities in another country, such as a mortgage, you may need to keep an account in that country. 

Keeping a home address

Many non-EU residents in France get around the problem by using a ‘care of’ address back home in order to retain their bank account – usually either the address of a property that they own or the home of a relative.

Whether this is allowed is a bit of a grey area. Opening a new account may be difficult, but existing accounts may be kept open. Some banks – especially British ones – seem to be keen on checking whether their customers are permanent residents while US banks don’t seem to care as much.

Basically you can’t lie to your bank if they ask you outright where your full-time residence or tax residence is, but not all banks ask this. 

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PROPERTY

MAP: Where in France can you buy property for less than €100k?

While French cities such as Paris are notoriously expensive, there are many areas outside the cities where it is still possible to buy spacious homes for less than €100,000 - particularly if you don't mind a bit of renovation.

MAP: Where in France can you buy property for less than €100k?

We decided to look at where in France you could afford a property on a budget of €100,000, and it turns out there are some bargains to be had.

There are a lot of caveats while searching for property, and many local variables in place, but our search does show some of the areas to concentrate on if you have a limited budget.

We used the Notaires de France immobilier website in August 2022, and we specified that the property should have at least five rooms (including kitchen and bathroom) and a floor space of at least 100 square metres.

We also discounted any property that was for sale under the viager system – a complicated purchase method which allows the resident to release equity on their property gradually, as the buyer puts down a lump sum in advance and then pays what is effectively a rent for the rest of the seller’s lifetime, while allowing them to remain in the property.

READ ALSO Viager: The French property system that can lead to a bargain

For a five-room, 100 square metre property at under €100,000, you won’t find anywhere in the Île-de-France region, where the proximity of Paris pushes up property prices. The city itself is famously expensive, but much of the greater Paris region is within commuting distance, which means pricier property. 

Equally the island of Corsica – where prices are pushed up by its popularity as a tourist destination – showed no properties for sale while the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur – which includes the French Riviera – showed only 1 property under €100,000.

The very presence of Bordeaux, meanwhile, takes the entire département of Gironde out of this equation – but that doesn’t mean that the southwest is completely out of the running. A total of 25 properties came up in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region. One property was on the market for a mere €20,000 – but it was, as the Notaires’ brochure noted, in need of “complete renovation”.

Neighbouring Occitanie, meanwhile, showed 12 further properties in the bracket.

By far the most properties on the day of our search – 67 – were to be found in the Grand Est region of eastern France. The eastern part of France overall comes out best for property bargains, with the north-east region of Hauts-de-France showing 38 properties and and Bourgogne-Franche-Comté displaying 25.

Further south, however, the presence of the Alps – another popular tourist destination – pushed up prices in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region which showed just three results.

The below map shows our search results, with darker colours indicating more cheap properties.

Property buying tips 

In order to make a comparison, we focused our search on properties advertised online, but if you have a specific area in mind it's well worth making friends with a few local real estate agents and perhaps also the mayor, since it's common for properties not to be advertised online.

Most of the truly 'bargain' properties are described as being "in need of renovation" - which is real estate speak for a complete wreck.

If you don't mind doing a bit of work you can often pick up property for low prices, but you need to do a clear-eyed assessment of exactly how much work you are willing and able to do, and what the cost is likely to be - there's no point getting a "cheap" house and then spending three times the purchase price on renovations.

READ ALSO 'Double your budget and make friends with the mayor' - tips for French property renovation

That said, there were plenty of properties at or near the €100,000 mark that were perfectly liveable or needed only relatively minor renovations.

You also need to pay attention to the location, as the sub-€100,000 properties are often in remote areas or very small villages with limited access to amenities. While this lifestyle suits many people, bear in mind that owning a car is a requirement and you may end up paying extra for certain services.

Finally remember that government help, in the form of loans and grants, is available for environmentally friendly improvements, such as insulation or glazing.

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