Living in France: French banking & finance, offshore banking and retaining UK bank accounts

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International banking raises issues that rarely arise when you confine your transactions to one country and we'll be covering these over the next couple of weeks.

If you are moving to France to live, you might think that you may as well either close or at least tidy up your finances in the UK before you leave. Resist this temptation! It can be much more difficult to open UK accounts when you are living in France and if you have closed everything you may find it virtually impossible to open any account in the UK.

The banking scene in France is completely different from that in the UK. Whereas there are the "big four" in the UK, France doesn't really have any truly big banks and the majority of French "banks" are what would be considered relatively small regional building societies in the UK. As with small building societies, the range of products is quite limited.


Banking in the UK

Even if you are intending to live the rest of your life in France, you should resist the temptation to close any UK bank accounts or credit cards. The only exception to this is, possibly, for those accounts/cards which have an annual fee. In addition to the accounts which you already have, you may find it useful to open some others as the international dimension changes how you use accounts. For instance, if you have a holiday home in France you'll obviously be transferring money from pounds into euros much more than you were previously.

The range of accounts in the UK is massive and therefore we can only give an indication of those that you might find useful here; the reference version of this guide will be more comprehensive:

The Nationwide Building Society Flexaccount (cheque account) is a must. It gives you entirely free transfers from pounds to euro and, at the moment, is the only truly free currency exchange service. Their credit card comes close behind with free exchange on purchases.

Beyond that, if you are going to live in France, it's useful to open credit cards with a number of card issuers. In general, you will not be able to do this if you are living in France and neither can you easily get credit facilities in France so it's useful to have a number of UK cards as a fallback should you need it. The main issuers are Capital One, the Co-Operative, GE, Halifax, HSBC, LloydsTSB, MBNA, Nationwide and Royal Bank of Scotland (most other cards are rebranded versions of these eg Sainsbury is really Halifax). It's worth getting an American Express credit card too as you can transfer the account to France, although as the charges in France are considerably higher you may not want to do that right away.

Cheque accounts are also useful to have. If you qualify for the HSBC Premier service, they'll open an equivalent account with HSBC France for you which has the additional advantage that you get free transfers between your UK and French accounts with them. Barclays and LloydsTSB offer a similar (but more expensive) service though their branches are largely confined to Paris and the Cote d'Azur. The Barclays account offers withdrawals with no transaction charge at BNP-Paribas machines in France (you are still charged 2.75% on the exchange rate). I used to recommend Citibank a lot but they have increased their charges substantially and it's not as clearly a useful account for expats as it once was.

The Nationwide account is excellent if you are in France and need to transfer relatively small amounts of money from the UK but the 500 per day (about 750€) limit means that it's not practical for large amounts such as for your house purchase. You can use your own bank for this but the charges are generally quite high and the exchange rate isn't particularly good either in most cases. To transfer more than a few thousand euros you are best to open an account with one of the specialist companies such as Moneybookers; if you are going to be making regular transfers (eg paying for a French mortgage from a UK account) then HIFX offers a facility for this.

If you are retaining your house in the UK as we recommend, then you will probably need to change the mortgage to a buy to let one. It's best to do this before you leave the UK as there are a relatively small number of brokers who deal with overseas clients.

The field of investments in the UK is even wider than the range of banks. However, most seem prepared to change your address to an overseas one. However, if you don't yet have a UK broker or similar it's worthwhile opening an account with one before you leave as few will open accounts for overseas clients. We'll cover it in more detail later but at this point it's worth mentioning that having a SIPP (Self-invested personal pension) account open is also useful.

If you've not yet ventured into this arena, a few useful accounts to have are the Halifax sharebuilder (which lets you buy shares monthly), Fidelity's Funds Marketplace (which lets you buy numerous unit trusts) and TD Waterhouse brokerage. All are free to open.

As always, you can find links to sites we have mentioned in the Foreign Perspectives directory along with other similar outfits which we haven't had the space to mention here and the reference version of this entry on our Living in France pages is more complete.

Although you can open offshore bank accounts after you leave, it's best to open your choice from the above before you leave the UK as it can be difficult or even impossible to do it after you leave.


Offshore banking

Offshore banks are banks that operate in various tax havens around the world. The most familiar in the UK are the Channel Islands and the Isle of Mann but there are many based in small islands in the Caribbean.

If you're moving abroad, it can be useful to have an account with one of these banks both to simplify your taxes a little and for the additional services that many of them offer to the expat community. None of the legitimate centres offer taxfree interest on your accounts these days but offer you two options for the interest on your accounts: 1) a withholding tax roughly equivalent to the tax that you would normally pay in your country of residence and 2) no tax but they report your income to the authorities in your country of residence.

Although no longer taxfree, the additional services that many of these banks offer can still make them worthwhile. Even the simplest of them are much more familiar with international bank transfers than a normal high street bank could be expected to be but most go beyond that offering multi-currency accounts, debit cards in a range of currencies and often expat advisory services.

On the whole, the range of services on offer increases in proportion to the increase in the minimum income that the banks ask for. A reasonable compromise with this seems to be Cater Allen (owned by Abbey National) which offers accounts and debit cards in pounds, euro and dollars for an opening balance of 5000.

Most people will think of Switzerland in terms of "offshore" banking, but is there anything special about it? The banks there are generally more aware of the needs of international clients but this generally comes at a price. By and large, unless you have fairly sizeable amounts of money (say 25,000€ upwards) to deposit or invest, they probably aren't worth it.

We've included a list of the main banks operating in this arena in the directory which should let you choose the perfect combination of prices and services for you.


French banks

Most French banks are what would be termed building societies in the UK and consequently the banking scene is fairly different in nature in France.

There are only two proper banks, Societe Generale and BNP Paribas. These both operate nationwide networks but their branches are largely confined to the towns so they may not be entirely practical if you live in an isolated village.

As in other countries the Post Office and co-operative movement operate their own banks offering some advantageous accounts which we'll be covering separately.

The majority of banks are effectively small regional building societies. For example, the Credit Agricole you see in Normandy is a totally different outfit to that which you'll see in Paris. Although it is possible to open an account in one region and operate it via the branches in another region, this will entail delays in having your deposits credited and limits the facilities you have access to. So, I can't use the deposit machines in Perpignan with the card from my account in Normandy.

The other banks worth looking into are those of the various supermarkets. By and large these are re-branded versions of some of the banks covered above but not always, for example Auchan operates its own bank. Generally speaking, the charges for these accounts are lower.

The main postal banks are those operated by Axa (a full-service bank) and Ing (savings accounts only).

One difficulty that you will have in opening any of the accounts is that you are usually required to provide proof of income. If you are living in France, they will ask for proof of a French income and this can take several years to acquire so it's generally better to open an account with one of the banks before you move here or very shortly after you get here.


Post Office and Co-Operative banks in France

For historic reasons, the various post offices and co-operative banking organisations in Europe maintain loose connections with their opposite numbers in other countries and it's therefore often useful to open accounts with these organisations before you move.

For instance, the co-operative bank offer a service called Tipanet which offers quite cheap international money transfers: around 8 as compared to the 25 that a normal bank would charge you. In the UK, it's the Co-Operative Bank that does this, in France it's Banque Populaire. The co-operative movement is quite frequently used by various unions and in France Banque Populaire offers special deals to public servants.

The post office links are even more widespread and various special arrangements exist between considerable numbers of national post offices for their account holders. However, information on these isn't widely distributed and it can take a little searching to find out about them. One advantage that almost all give you is that a post office account effectively gives you government issued proof of address once your first statement arrives.


French banking practices

French banking practices are very different from those in the UK in several key areas and it's those differences that we'll concentrate on here.


In the UK, a bank advisor is there to do things like advise you what to invest your money in and to sell you insurance but in France Conseilleurs don't do anything as complex as that and are required to do really simple stuff like changing a direct debit or opening a savings account. This wouldn't be so bad but you always need to make an appointment to see "your" advisor because, for reasons which escape me, the others that may be there on the day you go in can't do that kind of simple task for you. Of course, this approach means that each advisor is clogged up with work at the trivial end of the scale. If you want to open a savings account in the UK, you fill in a form, hand in ID and cash and the cashier opens it there and then. Here it can take several weeks to open even the simplest account. So, 'tis best to develop a relationship with your advisor here as you'll be making untold numbers of appointments to see them.

Overdrafts in the UK are "permanent" in that there is no problem in running an account that is constantly in the red. In France, you can only be overdrawn for 10 days per month and for the rest of the month the account must be in credit. That said, you can get a permanent overdraft facility from some of the proper banks. They all seem to implement this by giving you a credit card which is linked to your current account; when you are overdrawn outside the 10 day limit an automatic cash advance from this card takes you back into credit. French banks don't charge cash advance fees so in practical terms this gives you something that works very like a UK overdraft.

Debit cards come in two basic varieties: immediate debit or deferred debit. Immediate debit operates just like a UK debit card ie purchases are charged to your account right away. With deferred debit, your purchases are charged to your account at the end of the month. In both cases there is a spending limit of around EUR 3000 per month and a withdrawal limit of EUR 300 per week.

Credit cards are quite rare in France at the moment but operate much the same as in the UK with the exceptions that there is no cash advance fee and they charge per transaction for all international purchases. Interest rates are generally higher than in the UK too. The other difference is that the amount you repay per month isn't a set percentage but goes in bands eg EUR 15 or EUR 30 per month.

Store cards are available but usually require proof of your French income so can't be obtained until a year or two after you get here. The one exception that we've found is Auchan which offers you it's store card about a year after you sign up for it's loyalty card and doesn't require anything beyond a passport.



French finance

If you're used to the wide variation of mortgage offers in the UK, the French marketplace is child's play.

As far as we can tell, mortgages are fixed or variable rate and are all the repayment type.

If you are buying your house "subject to mortgage", you will need to see the bank before you see the notary as you will need to say "subject to obtaining a mortgage from X bank at Y% over Z years". If this isn't added to the "compris" then you will lose your deposit if you can't get a mortgage.

French investments are incredibly simple too. The only problem with them is that you need to buy them through an advisor which is even more of a pain than trying to do something banking-related through your bank advisor. Due to this and the very limited range available, it's best to continue to do your investing through companies in the UK.



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