MONEY TRAVEL TIPS:
Means and Benefits of Opening a Foreign Local Bank Account
Since 1998 I’ve spent a majority of my time in SE Asia, sometimes venturing out to Australia, Europe or nearby Asian countries. I rarely return to the USA where my primary bank account is located. So a few years ago I realized it would be wise and useful to also have a bank account close to where I’m generally living and traveling. I came up with many reasons why it would be helpful to have another source of money nearby, particularly for emergency situations.
I set out to open a bank account first in Thailand, then Malaysia and then Singapore. I visited every major bank, where I was repeatedly told that, no, I could not open an account. They did not want my money nor my business!
I was completely astounded. I’d assumed that any bank, anywhere, would be more than happy to accept new customers and eagerly allow them to deposit money into their bank. Not so! (Or perhaps many banks would like to accept foreign customers but they’re not legally allowed to.)
I discovered that since 9-11 banks all over the world have stringently tightened up regulations. Specifically, they’ve made it quite difficult for non-nationals to open bank accounts. Nowadays, in order to open a bank account in most countries, foreigners generally must have a work visa and/or resident visa for that country along with a local address. A mere tourist visa doesn’t cut it most times.
However, if you’re going to be traveling / living in a single country or region of the world for a long period of time (several months or several years) it could be very useful and comforting to have a bank account in the area. Here are some reasons I wanted to have a bank account in SE Asia:
Benefits of having a local bank account:
* have a safe place to store a chunk of money nearby rather than carrying around a lot of cash
* have a second source of money nearby that I can easily access, especially in case of emergency
* have a second source of money that I can access in person or via a secondary ATM card
* have online banking for the account, so I can transfer money online and/or make online purchases like flights
* the ability to wire money from overseas to a local account
* the ability to wire money from my local foreign account back to my home account
-*as long as I have an ATM card on the account, I can access that money from anywhere in world
* the ability to use my ATM / debit card to buy things at specified national or regional stores and/or hotels
If you’re working in a country legally, by which I mean you hold a work visa, you’re sponsored by a company, and/or you have a resident visa, then you can generally easily and legally open a bank checking or savings account in that country.
My recommendation: by all means do so! Take advantage of the opportunity, especially since it’s otherwise quite difficult to open a foreign bank account. If at some point you stop working in that country, keep your account, especially if you’re going to live / travel in that region. You never know when it might be helpful.
On the other hand, if you’re simply traveling in a region on tourist visas, not working, then you’re probably going to have trouble opening a bank account, just like I did. Fortunately, it is possible in some countries to legitimately get around the general rules. Here are some options / ideas that might allow you to open a bank account.
Several countries around the world have banks offering off-shore accounts which allow foreigners to open accounts, sometimes even without a local address or work visa. In Asia, Singapore and Hong Kong each have 1 or 2 banks with off-shore accounts. Other places in the world are Jersey Islands, off the coast of England, and several Caribbean nations, among other places. Google ‘offshore accounts’ to locate places in your travel region.
A few difficulties: The minimal balance for offshore accounts is usually pretty high. Until recently, the minimal for my account in Singapore was $1000 US or equivalent. That was quite manageable. But a couple years later, it suddenly jumped to $25,000 US. Talk about big leaps! I could not maintain that minimum and had to empty my account. Accounts that fall below the minimum any month are charged hefty fees.
Secondly, make sure you check your own country’s legal policies about holding offshore accounts. For one thing, you’ll be legally obligated to report any earnings / interest made on those accounts to your own government at tax time. You might also legally have to report that you own the account and there could be other regulations you must follow.
Have a local national vouch for you
I was eventually allowed to open a bank account in Thailand while holding a tourist visa by having a local Thai friend accompany me to the bank, vouch for me, and let me use her home address. That was great. I suddenly had a place to safely hold cash, use internet banking to manage my account, and access my money via an ATM card.
Deposit a large sum of money
I have a long-term traveling friend who was able to open a bank account in Malaysia by depositing a large sum of money. He dressed up professionally and visited the bank. Initially his request to open a bank account was declined by the regular bank teller. He then asked to speak to the manager, who also initially declined his request. But because he was prepared, on the spot, to deposit a significant chunk of cash (which he’d withdrawn from his home account) the bank decided to let him open an account after all.
A few other notes about bank accounts in foreign countries
Bank accounts in foreign countries don’t always work the same as those in your home country. Policies about online banking, phone banking services and ATM / debit cards might be quite different. Make sure you ask about each of the services you’re interested in using. For each service, you might have to fill out some forms and have your account ‘approved’ for that option.
Don’t just assume you’ll get an ATM card attached to your account. Ask beforehand. Usually your account can have one, but you might have to apply, fill out forms, and follow specific bank procedures. Also make sure you know what kind of account(s) your ATM card will work for. Find out if you can you use it on a checking account, ‘current’ account, savings account or some other specific account.
Also don’t just assume you’ll automatically have internet banking for your account. If you want internet banking, ask for it. They probably have the option, but again you’ll have to fill out particular forms and be approved before internet banking will be switched on for your account.
Your ATM card may or may not work for online transactions. Ask what the policies are.
Your ATM card may or may not work as a debit card at stores and hotels. If it does, it may only be valid at particular stores in that country or that region which accept it. Find out the details.
As I suspected, having a bank account in the vicinity of my travels is often very helpful and also gives me a sense of security. It’s probably only worthwhile if you’re going to be traveling / living in a region for a few months or longer.
Have you ever successfully opened a bank account in a foreign country?
If so, what were the bank policies and requirements for opening the account?
Do you have any other tips or suggestions for legitimately opening a bank account in foreign countries?
You might also find my other money tips posts useful: