Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Bank accounts for American residents after FATCA

One of the things I can buy
with ease now, wipes clearly
designed for Nutella crêpes
I seldom provide practical advice in these pages, but after the 6-week saga / marathon / epic tale of opening a bank account... as American citizens... who are also residents in America... and (bizarrely enough this mattered) married people... after FATCA, I reason that if I can shave a couple of days off of the saga for anyone else, then yea for the blog. A tiny perfect storm developed in that a) the American laws changed and b) French banking does not react well to change. FATCA (possibly the most perfect acronym ever for a bill seeking to prevent rich Americans from tax-evading their money by putting it in foreign accounts (note: we are not these people!)) was passed four years ago, but went into effect in France last month. We had the dubious honor of being the first Americans at our local branch of PNB Paribas to open an account since FATCA. Lord. Our bankers were all young and beautiful and totally flustered but consummate professionals and gave us all sorts of incorrect information (no, we did not need to go get a utility bill from our American home notarized at the American Embassy in Paris!) until we worked it all out. We almost gave up several times, but the banking fees were eating up our savings, which are already going so fast, and if you don't have a microchip credit card here, you are nothing (seriously: you often can't make purchases, and you're relegated to long lines with others condemned to an existence without "la puce" (the louse - the endearing nickname given to microchips around here)). SO, at the end of the live-long day, here is what you need to open a bank account in France as an American citizen and resident after FATCA (at least at PNB Paribas which is a major federal bank - other banks will have their own quirks, but these should serve you well):

  • A W-9 form printed, duly filled out and signed within 3 months of your handing in your documents to open a bank account. The French bank will file this with the American government. You need not report your French bank account (via Form 8938) unless you have more than $50,000 in your French bank account (we have laughably less than that in our account, but gotta dance anyway). I point this out lest anyone get freaked out that they're going to be taxed on their French bank account because they're handing in a W-9. You won't, unless it's more than $50,000.
  • A letter of good standing from your American bank. Turns out banks have these on file (!), but the bank requires that the letter have your full name, your date of birth, and your street address in the United States. If you're a couple sharing an account, both of you need to have all of your information in the letter. You can get it notarized for good measure. As with all documents submitted for anything official in France: letterhead and a strong signature are key.
  • A utility bill from your home in the States from the past 3 months. There's a magic lapse time here of 3 months. So your bill can't be older than that. Just print it out (electric or gas are most common), in color if possible, and you're good. This somehow serves as proof that you are not only an American citizen, but an American resident as well. Because you pay your bills.
  • An attestation that you live in France. This can be a French utility bill (not more than 3 months old!) or, this is what we used and it worked very well, an attestation (they have forms) of your renters' insurance, which, of course, you are obligated to purchase if renting in France. A receipt for the rent from your landlady will not cover it.
  • A photocopy of your passport. But go ahead and bring your actual passport, they'll want to make their own photocopy.
NOW, if you're unfortunate enough to have succumbed to the sentimental act of getting married (instead of just PACSing yourself, for crying out loud - oh wait, we can't: America is insane and has made marriage a legal battleground so civil unions guaranteeing the civil rights of people who love each other are not the norm), you need to have an original of your marriage certificate. This was the one that threw us the most - may I just here and now sing the praises of the Cook County Records Office in Chicago: I made my request Thursday evening, it was there Monday afternoon. 

Racy items from Lindt are
 now more available!
Once you have all of these nice, neat things, in crisp originals, none more than 3 months old, you can make your rendez-vous with your banker and your bank account can then be set up. This takes about two hours and you sign as much paperwork as you would to buy a house. I am way too far into this description to be kidding. Page after page, "lu and approuvé" (read and approved) and then, our favorite, because (lousy sentimentalists!) we are married, we had to sign a page basically of mutual accountability for the account (if Mac goes crazy and buys All The Art, I am responsible for the debt) which had us testify that we were "solidifié et indivisible" (solidified and indivisible, which my beloved sister-in-law, newly horrified at learning of my love for a certain dish, compared to aspic). 

End of the first lesson
Congratulations! Your bank account is now open. But it is not yet approved. Ah, ah, ah! That takes a while, and things that were deemed ok to not have in the original (our hip young banker had told us to e-mail him a PDF of the renters' insurance attestation - ha!), turn out needed in the original. Finally, five visits and multiple e-mails later and the magic day comes when your codes come in the mail, and then you get the phone call to come pick up your cards (in person, with a passport). I would just like to point out that we're not idiots. We're both decently savvy (ok, I'm downright retentive) when it comes to preparing documents and dossiers, and we've opened an account in France before (but it was with Crédit Agricole which is a regional bank and we would have had to go back to Brittany to FATCA up our account over there). But FATCA changed the game and it was a wild ride. It's over now, "tout s'arrange" (things work themselves out) and my happiness at having our finances a little less chaotic almost makes me think this was no big deal. Except that it was - and for just a simple, the simplest, checking account. What, pray tell, does one do when one is a business, or anyone deemed "unusual"? I can't even ask that question without getting into some pretty existential waters. So back to the joy.  Today, with my open and approved, solidified and indivisible French bank account, I, an American citizen who is also a resident of America, withdrew money, I paid for books at Gibert Joseph, and, the most wondrous of all, I wrote a check for the fencing team. Was it all about avoiding ATM fees and "la puce"? In the end, no (I mean yes, but, more sentimentally), it was about moving through this country with a little more ease, and a little more of the wonder that the bureaucratic epic can become the cultural everyday.


  1. Do not close that account. Ever. I've been paying a quarterly fee for my German account for 30 years. But I have not have to endure any shenanigans either.

  2. I shall fear no fees! Your word is law ( and priceless good counsel!).

  3. Oh my goodness, I had no idea how important the chip is in my new credit card I just got. This is the funniest story I have read in a long time. I love how you described it and love even more that it is all resolved. Holy Toledo!! See you soon!!

  4. The microchip is awesome! No more reliance on the magnetic strip - it's like moving to CDs from cassette tapes. :-) Can't wait to see you!