Archive for the ‘International Banking’ Category

Transferring money around internationally in an economic way

Not so long ago there were all kinds of restrictions on transferring money abroad due to currency controls that lots of countries had in place. They’re almost all gone now and it has become more of a natural thing for “ordinary people” to need to transfer money abroad.

Most of the time it’s due to holidays, of course, but an increasing number of us are becoming small scale international jet setters with homes in more than one country and with both of those come a need to transfer money abroad.

Holidays usually involve a different category of currency conversion in that you are on the spot when you need the money, the amounts involved are smaller and you probably don’t have a local bank account. However, whilst the amounts may be smaller individually, added up over the years they will come to quite a hefty sum. Also, many of those who holiday in the same country each year may be considering the purchase of a property there and so have that local account too.

Most people ignore the costs of all those international transactions to their detriment. One friend of mine found that almost 10% of his entire salary was going in such bank charges simply because he was living abroad and using his “home” account in exactly the same way that he always had ie lifting small amounts frequently.

Saving money on those transactions is usually fairly easy. If you don’t want to change your bank, check out exactly how they charge for use of credit, debit and cash cards abroad. You will usually find that debit and cash cards are more economic ways of getting cash than credit cards are in that you won’t be paying interest on the money. However, that’s not to say that they are cheap. Typically a withdrawal of £100 in the local currency will cost you £4 to £5 but note that this includes a fixed transaction charge so withdrawing £20 will cost you around £2 ie 10% whereas £200 would be about £7 ie 3.5%. You can eliminate these charges altogether if you use the UKs Nationwide Flexaccount as it has neither transaction fees nor foreign exchange charges.

It’s slightly better if you buy things, usually. Using a typical Mastercard or Visa card will only incur the foreign exchange charge ie buying £100 of goods will cost you £2.75 and that £20 item would be 70p. Therefore you should buy things with the card directly rather than lifting the cash to pay for them.

What about larger amounts ie if you’re living abroad or have a holiday home abroad? Well, if you follow our advice and get the Nationwide Flexaccount you can lift £500 per day which means that it’s quite viable to use that card in conjunction with a local bank account to transfer amounts equivalent to several thousand pounds. You certainly couldn’t buy a house in that way but it’s enough to fund the payments for electicity bills and the like.

If you are talking thousands, then the usual way is to ask your bank to do a SWIFT transfer. This will cost around £25 plus there’s a currency exchange charge (which isn’t widely available). However, that too can be eliminated in some circumstances. For example, if you bank with HSBC then you can do free transfers to an HSBC account elsewhere in the world but the HSBC Premier account that you need to avail of this costs £20/month (unless you have £50,000 or more on deposit with them) so it’s not as useful as it first appears. However, if you are buying in Spain, the Halifax run to a free account which offers free transfers from Halifax UK accounts to Halifax Spain ones. What’s less obvious is that this route gives you a pretty much free way from pounds sterling to euros anywhere in Europe as banks are required to transfer euros at the same level of charges in other European countries as they do domestically ie to get euros in an account in France, you could transfer from the Halifax UK to Halifax Spain and from there to a French bank.

Other options include the use of the specialised money transfer services such as HiFX (there are lots of similar services around.

Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.

Opening a non-resident bank account: the general requirements

When I put on my post about opening an American bank as a non-resident, I was amazed at the number of people who checked it out and of those quite a number would like to know how to open a Swiss account.

Opening accounts in both America and Switzerland used to be very easy but with increasing anti-terrorism legislation around the world many banks felt that they could no longer cope with the additional identity checks that the legislation seems to require of them. I say “seems” because it doesn’t really require any more of them than it does of someone living next door to the branch but they generally don’t make a whole lot of money on non-resident accounts anyway so it’s easier for them to use “the law” as an excuse to say no to non-residents.

However, for most “normal” countries all you actually need is a proof of address (ie an electricity or landline phone bill) plus a copy of your passport (usually this must be certified). More obscure countries sometimes ask for an apostile which is more of a hassle to provide.

For America, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, the only things required are the proof of address and passport. In the case of America, 9/11 has meant that the banks prepared to open an account with minimal hassle has reduced drastically but includes Bank of America, Citibank, HSBC and, the ever-present, e-trade. Aside from e-trade, it’s easier to open an account with one of these banks if you already have an account with them in your own country and you may have one already as Bank of America issues a lot of credit cards in Europe under the MBNA name.

In the case of the UK, it’s easier to open a non-resident account with one of the branches in the offshore islands (Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man or Gibraltar) as they are more accustomed to dealing with non-resident accounts. Don’t worry about that “offshore” tag as those islands banking systems are fully integrated with the mainland.

For Switzerland it’s generally fairly easy though some banks will now refuse non-resident accounts due to the expense of running them whilst others will charge you extra. You cannot open an account with SwissPoste these days, despite numerous websites listing it as a possibility and indeed charging you for the privilege of providing you with the information. The major banks (UBS, Credit Suisse) will still permit non-resident accounts and are unlikely to stop doing so as a large proportion of their client-base is non-resident but now charge around SF 75 per year to maintain the accounts if you’re non-resident. However, if you just want a Swiss account by far the best appears to be via SwissQuote which is a free multi-currency account and offers the option of a debit card too (there’s a charge for the debit card).

What are Certified & Apostilles? To get a document certified, you usually just need to go along to your bank and have them stamp the copy and write “original seen” on it. Sometimes banks ask for it to be certified by a lawyer but usually a bank is sufficient for them. An apostille is a certification that the person doing the original certification is known and what’s asked for usually is a “state-level” apostille. This means, usually, that you need to send off your passport to the department of your home government which deals with international affairs (usually called the State Department but is the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in the UK) who will provide you with an apostilled copy.

If you’re interesting in more details on these options, either subscribe to this category here (international-banking) or check out the information on our Expat Banking site. I’ll be slowly but surely working through the various countries here and on that site, the next being Switzerland and after that probably the offshore British islands.

Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.

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Indicators of peace

Northern Ireland hasn’t been in the international news much lately but that’s not really an indication of peace as such, more an indication that violence isn’t happening which isn’t quite the same thing (welcome as non-violence always is, of course).

In fact the first indications of the arrival of peace was on its way started quite a number of years ago and, to my mind, was the arrival of the supermarket chain Tesco in 1997.  Prior to that the only UK supermarket chain operating in Northern Ireland was Marks & Spencer which had opened in 1967, 2 years prior to the start of the troubles, and hadn’t bothered expanding much since then. Nothing really says that peace is coming quite like big chunks of cash being invested.

However, the more certain arrival of peace (as opposed merely to reducing violence) was really only in the last few years and that has been marked in two very noticeable ways. Firstly the investments being made in the local economy are massive these days: you can’t drive more than a mile or two in Belfast without seeing building works of some kind. That’s also an aspect of the second point which is that there has been a large scale migration to Northern Ireland by everyone from the Poles to those that left because of the violence. Combine those two and the booming of the economy is very noticeable.

One very obvious side-effect of that mass immigration is that the house prices are going through the roof (hence the building work everywhere, of course) which is effectively a catching up on rises that didn’t happen in the last 30 years. The banks don’t seem to know what has hit them and mortgages are now available for up to 8 time salary (vs the maximum of 3 times just 3 or 4 years ago).

Anyway, at least Northern Ireland can now stand as an example of what it’s like when you do get to the end of the violence. Hopefully, it’ll provide an encouraging example to areas of the world that are still immersed in a culture of violence such as Colombia.

Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.

Opening a bank account in France as a resident and as a non-resident

If you are intending to buy a property in France at some point, it’s pretty much essential to open a French bank account before you get to the point of purchase. 

For non-residents, the internet banking companies are not an option. Indeed, they are, on the whole, not an option unless you have been resident in France for a year or two as they ask for proof of French income. An exception to this is Ing although that’s purely a savings account and also requires you to already have a French account.

If you bank with HSBC, the easiest option for you is to open an account with HSBC in France. Those with Premier accounts can ask their relationship manager to do this but otherwise it’s best just to pop into an HSBC branch whilst you are in France (they’re not currently set up to open non-resident accounts outside the Premier arrangement). Although with Premier accounts in two countries you get free transfers between them, HSBC France is one of the highest charging banks in France so this may not be the best option for you.

Before starting the opening process, you should have a look at the French banking practices section of our Living in France guide.

Both Barclays and LloydsTSB offer a French service. However, their branches are clustered around Paris and the Cote d’Azur and not particularly cheap.

A number of French banks offer English speaking services and, on the whole, these are much cheaper than those on offer from the British banks (the American banks in France only cater for high net-worth individuals and not suitable for most people).

Of these, the most popular is Britline which is a English speaking phone & internet banking branch of Credit Agricole based in Normandy. The service from them is excellent but the services of most other branches of Credit Agricole is between dire and truly dreadful; you can however use the Britline across France so usually don’t need to bother with the local branches. Credit Agricole is a regional bank so, unless you live in Normandy, your local Credit Agricole is a different bank from Britline which limits the facilities available in branches if you’re using Britline as your bank but in practice this merely means that you can’t use the automated deposit machines.

More generally useable is Banque Populaire which has a number of English speaking branches in various regions around France although the most targetted at the English speaking community is that in the Cote d’Azur. This is also a regional bank so you can expect some limitations to the services on offer through your local Banque Populaire. The biggest plus of this is that the service in the branches is, on the whole, much better than Credit Agricole and the charges are significantly less too.

The two national banks,  BNP Paribas and Societé Générale, also have a number of English speaking branches but they don’t promote these actively. An account opened with any of these can be used anywhere in France with the same level of services as they are not regional banks. The other plus point is that they are much larger banks and therefore offer a much wider range of services.

To open accounts in any of the above, use the contact details here and they’ll send you the necessary forms (you can’t open any non-resident accounts online in France). In terms of documentation, all that is normally required is a photocopy of your passport and an original electricity bill. If you are opening the account some time in advance of needing to use it, don’t bother getting a debit card as these cost from EUR 20 to EUR 200 per year. It’s quite easy to stick to using cheques in France as everyone takes them with proof of ID (passport or driving license). Finally, don’t be caught out by inactivity fees which are around EUR 50 per year if you don’t use the account.

If you are moving to France, do not wait until you are in France before you try opening an account here as you won’t be able to provide the proof of address required for several months. If the account is opened before you move, you can simply change the address which in turn will provide you the required proof of French address required to get a French mobile phone. Opening an account whilst you are living in France is, for the most part, a nightmare best avoided involving making appointments with your conseilleur and getting signed up for expensive and useless additional services which are next to impossible to cancel afterwards.

Before opening your account, you should read the French banking practices section of our Living in France guide.

This is part of our series on international banking which covers how to open and use accounts in various jurisdictions around the world including America, Switzerland and various offshore banking centers such as the Channel Islands, Isle of Mann and Bermuda.

Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.

Opening a bank account in America as a non-resident alien

100 dollar billSo what are your options if you find yourself in need of an American bank account yet don’t actually want to visit America to open one?

There are three basic options that are known to work:

1. Form an American company and then open the account for it. This option is obviously a bit over the top if you’re only making $50 a month from your online empire although it’s probably the best way to go if you’re making a living online.

2. Try opening an account with a bank that operates both in America and your own country. The two most common options for this are HSBC and Citibank as they seem to operate in more countries than most.

3. Open a brokerage account with one of the brokers catering to non-residents.

In practice, the third option is by far the simplest for most people. Most American brokerage firms operating overseas cater exclusively for high net-worth clients (ie assets of $100,000 and more) but two offer accounts for the masses. Schwab has a minimum of $10,000, Etrade has a minimum of $1,000 although you can open it with zero cash upfront. How come the brokers can manage to give you a bank account when nobody else seems to be able to? Simply because the brokerage outfits operate as integrated international organisations whereas the banks don’t (eg Citibank USA isn’t the same as Citibank UK).

The etrade account is free for the first 12 months. After that, it costs $40 per quarter unless you meet their requirements which are either 1) $10,000 balance or 2) $1000 in automated credits per month or 3) one share trade during the period. If you don’t have the $10k and don’t have the $1k going in, then it is cheaper to buy or sell some shares than pay the $40. Our American bank account kit contains all the information you need to do this.

The second option isn’t quite so popular mainly because it isn’t as well known. The easiest way is if you have a premium account with either Citibank or HSBC in your own country as your relationship manager will be able to do it for you. These services are CitiGold and HSBC Premier but the downside is that the rough requirements for them is that you have $50,000 on deposit with them, or have an income of $75,000 or have a mortgage of $200,000 with them (roughly; the requirements vary depending on the country). It has recently become a good deal more difficult to persue this option.

Next easiest (and more economical) is to phone Citibank or HSBC in America and they’ll open an ordinary account for you on presentation of the appropriate ID and, sometimes, a bank reference. Citibank seems more geared up for this: call their International Personal Banking people on 001-813-604-3000. The latest information is that the banks are making this option almost impossible to use.

That’s just saved you between $5 and $250 which is about the going rate to buy the relevant information as above. Swiss bank accounts are slightly more difficult but definitely not worth paying the $1000 or more that I’ve seen quoted to provide you with the information. I’ll be covering Swiss banks in a later article, but if you can’t wait, pop a comment on this post and I’ll pass the information on to you (free!), likewise for other countries.

Don’t forget though that the first question you should ask yourself is: why do I need an American bank account? Google will only make payments into an American account if you live there and Citibank offers a US$ account in the UK (and other countries) which will let you deposit US$ cheques free of charge. It’s really only Paypal that requires such an account and even then that’s only if you live in one of the countries for which they don’t support withdrawals direct to your bank account.

This is part of our series on international banking which covers how to open and use accounts in various jurisdictions around the world including France, Switzerland and various offshore banking centers such as the Channel Islands, Isle of Mann and Bermuda.

An updated version of this article is on our expat banking site which also includes access to the detailed opening instructions that many people have asked for.

Copyright © 2004-2014 by Foreign Perspectives. All rights reserved.

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