The Expat’s Guide to Opening a Bank Account in Europe

As I recently discovered, European banking is completely different from U.S. banking. When I first arrived in France, I was completely baffled: How do you open a bank account in Europe?

And while I have a Charles Schwab debit card that allows me to pay abroad with no international transaction fees, I recently decided that I need a French bank account for a few reasons:

I am working as an au pair in Paris and need somewhere to deposit the money I am earning.

I need a card with a “chip” in it. (See the small silver box on the left side of the card below?) There are many places in Europe where you can’t swipe with your card (like the Paris métro for example), and must pay with a card that has a chip.

French Credit CardIn Europe, the debit and credit card system works very differently. There are basically two cards: ATM cards and credit cards. An ATM card can only take cash out of an ATM and can’t make purchases. A credit card can charge credit as well as take cash out of the ATM; it’s like a combination of a debit and credit card.


Advice for opening an account in Europe:

  • Schedule an appointment with an English-speaking banker. Sit down with him or her and talk about your options, and make sure to read the fine print regarding online banking, monthly charges, etc.
  • Even if you speak the local language fluently, bring along a local because you may not understand all the banking terms or contract differences between your own country.
  • Bring along your passport, your proof of residence (like a utility bill or rental agreement, or  bring your host’s proof of residence if you’re staying with a family) and any kind of paperwork that proves you are working or studying in Europe.
  • Open the bank account once you get to Europe; it will be easier than opening it from your home country.
  • Make sure that your bank charges a flat fee as opposed to a percentage when transferring funds to a non-Euro bank account, so that when you leave the country for good the bank charges you around 20 euros to transfer your money into your bank account back home, as opposed to taking a percentage. Imagine losing 3% of all of your money!
  • Choose a bank that’s close to your house or apartment because in Europe you have to go into the bank more often than in the U.S.
  • Study abroad students can also open bank accounts in Europe, they just need to bring proof that they are in fact studying abroad.


What I learned about French banking, and especially CIC, the bank I chose:

I decided to open a bank account with French bank CIC simply because it’s close to my house and because the lady I work for banks there. Luckily the bank’s policies are quite fair (besides the absurd charge to access my bank account online) so I think I made a good choice.

  • At all banks in France you are assigned a pin code for your ATM or credit card, and can’t choose one like in the United States.
  • In France I have found that the best way to transfer my money into and out of the country is by using the Xendpay money transfer service. It’s so easy!
  • CIC charges no ATM withdrawal fees anywhere within the Eurozone (any country that uses the Euro). Even if you withdrawal at a non-CIC ATM there will be no charges. If you are paying or taking money out of an ATM outside of the Eurozone, the bank will charge you a fee (i.e. if you were in the U.K., United States, etc.)
  • CIC charges for online access to your bank account, but if you pay 2.50 euros a month you get unlimited access so that’s what I chose to do.
  • At CIC sends you your PIN code in the mail, but you have to come into the bank to pick up your new card.
  • At CIC you can’t overdraft your account (the card will be denied once it has no money left).
  • CIC charges about 20 euros to transfer funds to a non-Euro account.


Am I missing any important points? If you have opened a bank account abroad what was your experience like?

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

26 thoughts on “The Expat’s Guide to Opening a Bank Account in Europe”

  1. That’s true. The US banking differs a lot from the European system. I didn’t know you have to pay 2.50 euros a month you get unlimited access. It’s free in UK and Poland.

  2. This is a great post. Very relevant content. I’ve been thinking about opening a foreign account as well, mainly with a bank that I see in multiple countries like HSBC or ANZ. Going to share this, itis helpful!

  3. I think it’s ridiculous you have to pay like 20 euros for a card first of all (in France) and then they charge you anywhere from 5-20+ euros/month just to have the account open. That was a major shock to me. Like they’re doing you a favor by keeping your money. I know that many accounts in the US have fees as well (although most banks offer free checking!), but you get SERVICE. Great hours, free online banking, customer svc, etc. In France, I just can’t get over the fact that I have to pay the bank for an account. Oh well, there are worse things. ;-)

    • No I agree! Luckily it seems my card is only 2.50 euros a month, so that’s like less than a coffee in my neighborhood. But still, I totally know what you mean.

    • Ugh I know! But they don’t charge you for ATM withdrawal fees, so I think my bank at home actually cost me more because sometimes I had to go to non-Chase ATMS!

  4. This is a super interesting article. I made the mistake of leaving quite a few thousand pounds in a British bank account when I moved back home to New Zealand. I had transferred a chunk of money from my NZ accounts when I moved to the UK (to pay my apartment deposit). The GBP tanked against the NZD so I ended up losing money because I didn’t transfer the deposit money back to NZ when I left.

    • Oh no, I’m always scared of that happening! I would have guess that pounds would be one of the world’s safest currencies… typos fixed as well.

  5. I’ve recently moved to Germany, and I know what you mean about having to go to the bank so much more often here! Back home I usually put everything on my credit card, but Germans seem to love paying in cash!

  6. Ashley does any European country allow you to open a bank account if you are a traveler. I,ll be traveling back and forth to Europe and would like to set up an account with cash in it and have an ATM card.

    • Actually I don’t know but I don’t think so because you usually need proof of a residence. It might be easier just to use a credit card with a chip-in pin (like the Chase Sapphire Preferred) and then use a Charles Schwab debit card- it refunds all ATM fees and charges you none. hope that helps!

  7. Ashley, do you know how a student living in the U.S. can open a bank account in France from abroad before arriving?

  8. It’s probably worth pointing out that these comments are about the French banking system. There’s quite a lot of variation in how banking works across different European countries. There’s no “European system”.

    For example, over here in the UK most current accounts are completely free as long as you have a non-negative balance, and you don’t pay to use other banks’ ATMs. Cheques are hardly ever used now, and unlike in France they can be easily cancelled so are not a guaranteed form of payment. We used to have things called “cheque guarantee cards” (usually combined with the debit/ATM card) to make them guaranteed up to a certain limit, but this no longer exists.

  9. Chase is actually $12/month if you do not have $500 direct deposit every month. I was nannying for a while so I had no direct deposit. It was a pain. Anyway, can I keep my chase account and use it in Paris? I am saving money for my year abroad and i would have to transfer the money to a new bank account. I’m not sure how I would do that. What is the better option?

    • Wow, Chase has gotten even more expensive. You can use your Chase card in Paris but you’ll be charged A TON- I wouldn’t recommend it. I would definitely transfer your money to a Schwab account- no foreign transaction fees and they refund charges from other banks. When I’m traveling Schwab will deposit $30 or so dollars at the end of every month- the best!

  10. Hey Ashley, a bit late considering the date of yoir first post but I’d like to ‘repair’ a minor wrong in your post. Every European bank card (aka debit card for US readers) are capable to make payments in every shop/restaurant that features electronic payments, everywhere in the world where Maestro (the umbrella system) is accepted. Again using your French ATM card is free to e.g. pay for your coffee in Germany, Netherlands or Greece without additional fees.
    Actually: the European payment system is the most effective (cheap) in the world. This is why many Europeans don’t use creditcards: ATM cards are cheaper to use, accepted everywhere (even in the US and other continents against a cheaper fee then creditcard use), and most Europeans don’t want to live in debt.
    By the way: new cards are now equipped with an RFC chip which make wireless payments possible. Amounts less then 25 euro don’t need pin confirmation which expedites transactions by another 6 seconds.
    Pretty neat ;).
    Should one of the readers want to have a bank account in the Netherlands: students bank free of charge at most banks. I find the ING bank most innovative with their app and transfer validation system. Even for non-students it’s the cheapest bank in NL.

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