Opening up a bank account in France as a foreigner is no easy feat. Unlike the other European countries I’ve lived in – in which I simply went to the bank and walked out an hour later with an account – opening my bank account in Paris took a whopping NINE WEEKS and a ton of tears and legwork.
It was necessary. In France, if you don’t have a bank account, you may as well not exist. Without one, you can’t get a phone plan, rent an apartment, or have a legitimate job. That’s why it’s imperative that if you are going to live or work in France, you must open an account up as soon as possible.
“Choosing” a French Bank
As a foreigner in Paris it’s not really you that gets to choose the bank – it’s the other way around.
When I first moved to Paris, I went to every bank in the city, from Barclays to BNP Paribas to Société Générale. After showing them my visa, I was given a multitude of different reasons why they couldn’t set up an account for me: “It’s for French citizens only”, “We can’t open up an account for someone whose visa is only one year”, “You need a carte de séjour to qualify”. Every bank had a different story, with some of them being okay with one aspect of my status while another said it made things impossible.
It was no longer a case of my picking and choosing my bank of choice. I just wanted to find one that would accept me at all!
The Right to a Bank Account
As my experience – and the experience of nearly every other foreigner I know living here – attests to, opening up a bank account in France is a complicated affair. That said, the truth of the matter is, if you are a French resident, you have the right to a bank account.
If you hold a visa or resident permit for France and are rejected by a bank, you can ask for a lettre de refus, an official letter which states that the bank has declined your request to open up an account. The bank doesn’t have to write down why they rejected you, but they are required by law to get this letter to you immediately and without delay.
Once you have the letter, you can take it along with a piece of ID and proof of residence to your local Banque de France office. There, you can fill out a form requesting a bank account under the droit du compte.
After a few days, you’ll receive a letter from the Banque de France that designates a bank that is required by law to open up an account for you. From there, you simply have to take the letter and other required documents to the bank mentioned in the letter.
When it comes to French banks, if you just need a standard bank account, you can’t really go wrong no matter who you choose. For practicality’s sake, if there is a bank associated with your bank back home, or one tied to your workplace, you should go for that one. However, if you aren’t after anything special, it doesn’t make much difference.
The main banks in Paris are:
- AXA Banque
- Banque Populaire
- Caisse d’Epergne
- Crédit Agricole
- Crédit Lyonnais (LCL)
- Crédit Mutuel
- Société Générale
However, there are three alternatives to the traditional banks in Paris: post offices, tobacco shops, and online banks.
La Banque Postale is a subsidiary of France’s La Poste, which has the perks of being convenient and having branches in even the smallest of French towns.
Compte-Nickel is an incredibly basic bank account that you can open up at any of the tobacco shops around Paris. It is open to everyone and anyone and can be set up in minutes. It also requires the least paperwork of the bunch.
There are also a number of strictly online bank accounts that you can open. However, even if it’s online, you will still be required to submit a dossier full of the same documents as all of the other traditional banks.
Which brings us to…
What Documents You Need to Open Up a Bank Account in France
For most everything official you do in France, you are required to bring a dossier containing all the necessary proof and documentation. How many papers you need and what kinds depends on your status.
Everyone is required to bring the following when opening up a bank account:
- A passport
- Proof of residence (either a long-term visa or carte de séjour)
- Proof of address that contains your name or your landlord’s name (such as a telephone bill or electricity bill – a rental contract signed between you and your landlord will not suffice)
For students, you will also need to show proof of enrollment in whatever school you’re attending.
For workers, you will also need to show a work or internship contract and proof of payment (such as a payslip or, if you are freelance, an invoice you created for your client). You will need to report your monthly income and have the papers to back up your claim.
A conundrum that many newcomers to Paris face is that they can’t rent an apartment without a bank account, and they can’t open up a bank account with a proof of address.
The best advice I can give in this troubling situation is to kindly ask a French colleague, friend, or what have you if they can write a letter stating that you are staying with them and accompany it with a scan of their ID and proof of their own address (for example, a recent water bill).
If you go this route, be sure to update your address to your actual one after you find an apartment.
Once you’ve been deemed as eligible to open up a bank account, the bank will schedule a meeting with your future conseiller (personal advisor) to set it all up. This typically lasts one or two hours. During it, your advisor will go over the documents in your dossier with you, get some additional information, and – if the meeting is successful – provide you with your new bank details and help you select a debit card.
This will be the first of many meetings with your personal advisor, as in France your account is closely managed by a single person. If you want to do something such as order a chequebook, change the phone number connected to your account, make a large bank transfer, and so on, you will have to do it through your bank advisor. These requests can either be made online (you have a direct message system set up with your advisor) or in person.
Cards, Chequebooks, and Online Banking
Once you’ve been approved, you will receive several separate envelopes at your French address or at your bank branch over the course of a few weeks. This includes your online bank password (you receive your login number directly from your advisor), your debit card, and your debit card’s PIN code.
Once you get into your online account, you can do things such as request a chequebook and open up a savings account.
This may all sound really boring, but when you spend weeks fighting to open up a bank account, every single bit of progress will be thrilling, and getting your RIB will feel like winning the Tour de France.
Bonne chance !