How To Open A French Bank Account As A British Expat
How to navigate the complications of opening a French bank account as a British national living in France.
Moving abroad is always a challenge causing varying levels of stress, no matter where in the world you choose to live. You’re leaving behind familiar faces, scenery, and driving on the left-hand side of the road, to live somewhere decidedly different. Arriving in the country of our closest neighbours, France, is this experience in a nutshell – it is the country where dining on snails is acceptable after all – and, at first, everything is somewhat unusual. Therefore, it is reassuring to know that the typical straightforward processes of moving stay the same, and the first port of call is to ensure you can contact people, therefore by buying a French sim card, and to have access to your money by opening a French bank account.
Opening a bank account, however, it isn’t entirely complication-free, but that is why I have written this guide to advise you on how to open a bank account in France as a UK expat.
Why do I need to open a French bank account?
Bank accounts are not a legal requirement in France, and if you already have an international bank account such as Wise, then the answer to this question is not as obvious as it first seems. International bank accounts both convert and transfer all currencies, and the bank cards allow you to withdraw money for free, so why is a French bank account so urgent?
It depends on your situation. If you are employed and are imminently starting work, you need a French bank account for your employer to pay you.
If you are self-employed, you will need a French bank account to register on the self-employment system URSSAF, and to pay tax.
If you are unemployed and planning to look for work, you will need to apply on the unemployment system, Pôle Emploi, which requires a French bank account.
In a lot of situations, these required bank accounts need to be based on French soil. Furthermore, if you plan to rent or buy a property, a bank account based in France will only make the process easier.
However, to tide you over until you are settled in France, Wise is an excellent choice for an international bank account and card. It can provide you with a bank account IBAN so you can transfer funds, continue to be paid, and use your money while you are in France.
What type of bank account should I open?
There are three different kinds of bank account to choose from in France:
- Current account (compte courant) – a basic bank account for daily usage and is the most common type of bank account. With this you can make online transfers, pay with a debit card, and set up standing orders. Depending on the bank, there are different account options whether you’re a student or a non-resident.
- General savings account (livret) – an account to store funds which you don’t tend to use, and allows easy transfers to and from your current account. You can also open a livret A which is a tax-free savings account, however, there are some restrictions.
- Long-term savings account (compte à terme or compte d’épargne logement) – a higher interest savings account for bigger spends e.g. buying a house.
- You can also set up a joint bank account if you wish, either as ‘et’ where both of your signatures are required for payments, or ‘ou’ where either one of you can sign.
Which French bank is best?
There are national and regional banks in France, as well as international banks such as HSBC.
National banks: These banks are located all over the country and tend to cater to international clients, so the staff are more likely to speak English. Often, they are open on Saturdays until lunchtime. These banks include:
- BNP Paribas
- Société Générale
- La Banque Postale
Regional banks: These banks are also known as mutual banks. They are similar to national banks however they may offer less international or expat-related services. There is more variety between these banks’ services and fees. The banks include:
- BPCE – a merge between Caisse d’Epargne and Bank Populaire, although both continue to operate as separate entities in their retail branches.
- Crédit Agricole
- Crédit Mutuel
- International banks: These are banks you will no doubt recognise including:
- Deutsche Bank
- Axa Banque
It is worthwhile taking a look through this list of banks and checking each one with regard to what services they offer, including local and international bank transfers, debit or credit cards, online and mobile banking, ease of access, English-speaking services, and money-saving schemes including pensions.
How do I open a French bank account?
Some bank accounts, including La Banque Postale, have easy-to-use portals to open an account online, however, most banks require a meeting in person. To do so, you need to arrange an appointment with a local branch. A lot of these local branches may not have English-speaking staff, so you may need to take a friendly translator with you. During Covid-19, there were further complications as only one person could enter the meeting room with the supervisor.
You will be asked to bring certain identification documents with you.
Which documents do I need to open a French bank account?
You will need evidence of:
- Your identity: this can include your passport or a French resident’s permit, if you have one.
- Your address: a rental contract or utility bill, however this can cause difficulties because you can’t rent a property without a bank account!
- Your residence status: proof of your visa. If you don’t have a visa or a resident’s permit, this can add some further complications.
- Your income: this is often not included on other lists, however, it is highly likely the bank advisors will ask for proof of income, and you may be turned away if you are a job seeker.
As you can see from the above, there are some hoops to jump through. It is best to be prepared for every eventuality, so even if you can’t provide proof of address, include a sworn declaration from a friend or family member that you live with them – this is called an attestation d’hébergement – as well as a copy of their ID. Create a dossier of documents which includes as much relevant information as you can, covering any gaps in your evidence.
Is there anything unusual about French bank accounts?
Yes! Going back to the general obstacles and quirks of moving to a new country, bank accounts in France are one of those oddities.
It is common for French banks to charge fees. This can include a monthly service charge, or for the use of your debit or credit card. The amount depends on the bank and/or the card. The government website has this useful tool which can help you compare the fees of each bank. When I first saw the withdrawal of €8.35 from my account I thought I had been victim to a very precise and limited scam, but no, they charge you every month for use of the account.
Banks also close at lunch time – in France, they love their leisurely lunches. As you go about adjusting to French life and dealing with the bureaucracy, you will find you are often asked for your RIB. This is the phrase for your bank account details and stands for relevé d’identité bancaire. This is easy to access on your online account and should include the name of the bank, its address, your bank account number and sort code, the IBAN and BIC numbers, and your own address. It is incredibly useful to include this in your dossier of documents for administration.
Another thing to keep in mind is that, even if you need access to your bank account quickly, the bank will send you all the documentation in their own time! Delivery of your debit card can take months, so make sure you have a substitute to use in the interim.
The Bottom Line
From my own experience, opening a bank account in France was a challenge! I didn’t have a visa, resident’s permit, or proof of income, and without a proof of address, I took an attestation d’hébergement. If anyone is in a similar situation to this, first I must reassure you that it does work itself out! Secondly, there are expat agencies which can help by providing guidance and advice, making arrangements and taking care of paperwork. While there are costs involved, it is worth weighing up the expense with the complications of working alone, especially if you can’t speak French.
Finally, sign up to an international internet banking service such as Wise or Revolut. These online mobile accounts allow you to have access to your money while you adjust to a new home and country. Currency conversion costs are minimal, plus the debit cards are free to use abroad. Thanks to Wise, I was able to access money easily while I waited for my French bank account, and it really eased the moving transition, giving me one less thing to think about. Now all I need to remember is on which side of the road to drive!