Preparing to travel or live outside the United States? You may want to bank abroad as well. In our increasingly globalized world, opening an overseas bank account is easier than ever.
Who needs an international bank account?
Anyone spending significant time abroad—for a job, a course of study, a fellowship program, or another reason—should consider opening an account in that country.
Travelers can often use their credit or debit cards anywhere in the world. But banks charge fees for international transactions.
The fees may not be more than 3% to 5% per transaction, but they’ll add up. Exchange rates in a new country’s currency can also affect the value of your dollar.
Withdrawing cash? You’ll also get hit with a foreign ATM fee.
For the occasional international trip this isn’t a big deal. But for three months or longer in a new country, opening a local bank account in addition to your US bank can save you major cash.
Three best banks with branches in the US and abroad
HSBC is based in the United Kingdom with international branches in more than 30 countries around the world, including countries in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.
- Consistently rated one of the easiest banks for travelers to use. You can open an account before you get to the new country.
- A mobile app simplifies wire transfers—you can move cash from one HSBC account to another, even if you opened the accounts in different countries.
- There is a foreign transaction fee for debit card purchases, unless you upgrade to Premier Checking.
Charles Schwab’s international accounts operate in the UK, Ireland, France, Italy, Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, Hong Kong, Australia, Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia.
- Global card usage is free—if you plan to give your ATM card a workout, this is one of the best international banks. Schwab even refunds ATM fees!
- No foreign transaction fees, monthly/yearly fees, or currency exchange rate markups. Your only added expense on debit card purchases is the exchange rate difference.
- You need to be a United States resident with a US address.
- Accounts can be opened online.
Citibank has perhaps the largest global reach of any major bank, operating in over 30 countries with thousands of branches worldwide. See the full list here.
- You can access ATMs 24 hours a day in participating countries for free.
- Wire transfers between Citibank accounts in different countries are also free. You can wire money from an outside account for next-day delivery (the bank sets the exchange rate).
The Global ATM Alliance
For fans of no-fee ATMs, the Global ATM Alliance is a group of banks offering international customers free access to the ATMs of any participating bank. If your main goal is to avoid debit card fees while traveling, one of these banks may be a good choice.
The no-fee option only applies in countries where the bank operates (for instance, you can use a BNP Paribas ATM for free in France, since it’s a French bank, but not in Spain).
Participating banks and countries:
|Bank of America
|United Kingdom, France, Spain, Portugal, Pakistan, Gibraltar, Ghana, Kenya, other countries in Africa
|Germany, Poland, Belgium, India, Spain, Portugal, Italy
|Canada, Caribbean, Peru, Chile, Mexico
|Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands
|Bank of Nanjing
|Hong Kong, Singapore
Choosing the right overseas bank for you
Traveling vs. staying in place
The best choice will depend somewhat on your travel plans. If you’re hopping from country to country, you might want a bank with no-fee ATMs in a number of locations. If you’re staying in one place, try to pick a bank with a good conversion rate for that country’s currency.
Large countries vs. small countries
Travelers to the United Kingdom, the European Union, China, or other busy areas of the world will have plenty of options.
Travelers to smaller or less frequently visited countries might lack local choices. If this is the case for you, check out banks that let you complete most or all of your transactions online.
US banks with branches overseas
Does your United States bank have a branch overseas? If so, find out what you will and won’t have to adjust to access your account abroad. Each bank’s regulations will vary.
Opening an account
Specific document requirements differ from country to country. But no matter where you are you’ll need:
- Proof of Identity. Bring your passport and driver’s license or state ID. Many banks require two forms of ID (a student ID may or may not count, but a birth certificate most likely will).
- Proof of Residency. You may need proof of residency in the United States, proof of an address in the foreign country, or both. A recent utility bill, lease agreement or an ID with your address should work.
- Startup Funds. Banks often have minimum startup funds required for deposit (think around $500-1000).
- A student or work visa if you need one for the country.
- A university letter or proof of school enrollment.
- A letter of employment or employment contract.
If you deposit over $10,000 into a foreign bank account you’re required to file a Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts with the IRS.
Here are the requirements in a few countries, to give you an idea:
- Mexico—ID, proof of residence, and immigrant or non-immigrant visa
- France—proof of residence, French address, university letter (if enrolled), and in some cases a letter from your previous bank
- Germany—passport, student ID and registration confirmation (if enrolled)
- Italy—passport, valid visa, evidence of local address, and a codice fiscale or fiscal code which you can request from a tax office or the Italian embassy
- Spain—passport, foreign ID number and certificate, proof of local residence, and a university letter (if enrolled)
- England—passport, valid visa, proof of local residence and residence at home, and a university letter (if enrolled)
The easiest way to move cash from a domestic account to an overseas one is via wire transfer.
There are two codes banks use for international transactions, and you’ll need one of each.
The SWIFT code is a type of Bank Identifier Code (BIC) used to identify banks around the world. Your SWIFT or BIC code usually shows up on your account statements. You can also look up your code using this SWIFT code finder.
The IBAN or International Bank Account Number is an identifier for your particular bank account. These codes are most frequently used in the European Union—otherwise, not all countries require them. It should be included on your bank statements along with the SWIFT code. Look for the code starting with two capital letters (these identify your country).
Transferring money does require fees for each transaction. To keep the fees to a minimum, you can use a transferring service like TransferWise for inexpensive exchange rates.
The sooner you can take care of these details, the better. Having money easily accessible will make your international adventure go much more smoothly!
If you plan on spending a significant time abroad (we’re saying three months), you should seriously consider opening an account abroad. That can help you avoid heavy foreign transaction fees you’d meet if you used a credit card.