From the bustling capital of Nairobi, to the glorious beaches and wildlife reserves, Kenya is full of adventure. It’s also full of opportunity, thanks to its rapidly developing economy and service industry. That means that many new expats are moving, to join the already established ranks of foreigners who came to Kenya to make a new life for themselves. Whether it’s joining friends and family, building your career, or simply kicking back with a Tusker lager to watch the legendary African sunset, there’s plenty of reason you might want to settle in Kenya.
If you’re thinking of moving to Kenya as an expat, one of the first things you'll need is a local bank account. This guide gives you all you need to know about how to get set up with the Kenyan bank account that’s right for you.
Theoretically banks can offer financial products to non-residents, although each bank decides for itself which accounts it makes available and the conditions attached to them. This means that in some cases the restrictions placed on opening accounts might make it hard to do so in practise if you’re not a resident.
So for example, to open a Standard Chartered current account, you don't have to be a legal resident of Kenya, but you do need to prove your home address¹, and hold a Kenyan mobile phone number². For Barclays, on the other hand, you can bring any sort of photo ID if you don’t have a Kenyan ID card, but you do need a KRA PIN, which will prove that you’re registered to pay your taxes in Kenya³. For other banks, you might find that you need a reference or an ‘introducer’ - someone who holds an account with the bank already and can vouch for your good character⁴.
If you’re not a resident of Kenya it’s a good idea to check the different account types on offer at different banks, and then decide which is best for your situation.
In most cases, to open a bank account with full functionality, you’ll have to visit your local branch to submit an application with supporting documents. Usually, you'll need to make an appointment before visiting, submit your paperwork and return in a few days to collect your card and PIN number.
For some accounts which don't offer the full range of services you might be able to apply online - for example, a KCB M-Benki account offers some services which might be useful, however, this account isn’t a good replacement for a current account and comes with limited functionality and some charges for simple services⁵.
Check the specific requirements of your chosen bank branch before you visit.
The paperwork needed by Kenyan banks varies depending on the bank and the account type, so it pays to check exactly what’s needed before your appointment.
If you’re opening a traditional account you’re likely to need documents including some of the following:
- Passport or another proof of ID such as a national identity card and a copy of this document¹
- Proof of your home address¹
- Passport size photograph - occasionally more than one is needed⁶
- Application from⁷
- Reference from an employer or an intermediary who already holds an account with the bank and will act as your ‘introducer⁴
- KRA PIN to prove you’re registered to pay tax³
In most cases, unless you’re opening a mobile only account like the KCB M-Benki account, you’ll have to to visit a bank in person, and take along the required documents. It’s usually possible to start your application online, but you’ll find you’re asked to go along to the bank to show your paperwork before your account can be activated⁸.
When you choose which bank to use, you’ll need to know what fees will be applied to the transactions you make. These vary according to the account you choose, so it's a good idea to read all the small print.
For example, Standard Chartered accounts are split into different types, with different fee structures. For some accounts you pay a fixed monthly fee - around KES 1,000 or USD $15 for most options - and get some services such as ATM withdrawals for free⁹. And for other accounts, there’s no fixed monthly charge, but there are individual costs for each transaction, such as withdrawing cash or setting up a standing order. There are also some accounts which have lower charges but other terms attached, such as always paying your salary into that account, or taking a credit card. Because there are many options so it's smart to think about what you need your account to do for you before you choose. If you're making frequent withdrawals, for example, a fixed fee account might be better value in the long run, than an account with no monthly charges.
Even if this doesn’t apply to you, every bank will have charges for some services, such as withdrawing cash from an overseas ATM, or making international transfers. Even if these look pretty small, they can add up quickly.
Many Kenyan banks will charge you if you withdraw cash from an ATM which isn't in their network. Some of the most basic accounts on offer, which don’t have a monthly maintenance fee, might even charge for withdrawals from any ATM, regardless of the network.
These fees vary according to the bank and the account. For example, Standard Chartered offers accounts which charge nothing for withdrawal from any Visa ATM, others which charge nothing from Standard Chartered ATMs only, and some which charge for all withdrawals⁹. In general, the accounts with higher monthly fees come with more perks, which will include free ATM withdrawals at least within the bank’s own network.
Some of the popular Kenyan banks are also parts of global banking houses, meaning that you might be able to get cheap or free ATM withdrawals from the same network, even outside of Kenya¹⁰. However, if you’re using your Kenyan card abroad, or if you choose to use your home bank card in Kenya, you have to look out for excess charges applied due to dynamic currency conversion (DCC). That’s when you’re asked if you’d like to be charged in your home currency or the local currency - hint: local is always best. You can read more about DCC - and how to avoid it, here.
All banks offer a variety of different products - so before you decide which bank and which specific account you want, you should read the small print about account fees.
It’s pretty normal to find that there’s a monthly maintenance fee for accounts, although these are often then offset against other services¹¹. So you might get an overdraft facility, or some ATM withdrawals for free as part of this fee. Some accounts insist on a minimum balance which you must maintain and most have a minimum opening balance you must pay in when you open¹².
There’s a huge choice of account types available in Kenya. Which is best for you will depend very much on how you intend to use the account once it’s active.
If you’re living in Kenya as an expat, you might need to transfer money to your local account from abroad - or vice versa. For example, you usually need a minimum deposit simply to open an account in Kenya, which can be paid by an international bank transfer in some cases.
Making international bank transfers shouldn’t be too much of a hassle, but it can be costly. Often your home bank won't offer the best deal. They usually add an administration fee and apply poor exchange rates instead of using the real mid-market rate. That’s how banks take their cut, and can make a profit on your international transfer.
If you need to transfer money to your account in Kenya - or need to move cash from Kenya to another account elsewhere, you do have options other than your usual bank. In fact, you can get a cheaper - and quicker - international money transfer through a specialist service like TransferWise. TransferWise offers safe and efficient money transfers and uses only the mid-market rate for international transfers, adding just a small, transparent fee. Find out more about the mid-market rate and check how fair your bank’s offer really is.
Kenya has a developed banking sector, with plenty of choice in banking brands. Banks available include well known global brands like Barclays, and local and regional institutions which operate in Kenya, and around the East African region. If you already hold an account with Barclays or Standard Chartered, for example, you might find it easier to transfer your account to the local branch of these international banks. However, even if you don’t, many banks work in partnership with a local bank in Kenya, which might offer you some additional benefit for transferring. Check with your local bank before you decide where to open your new Kenyan account.
Some of the largest retail banks in Kenya, are:
Equity Bank Kenya
Standard Chartered Kenya
Co-operative Bank of Kenya
This established bank has 173 branches throughout Kenya, with some 38 in the capital alone.
Helpful products they offer:
- Wide variety of accounts including currency accounts and savings products
- Loans for various circumstances
- Credit, debit and prepaid cards provided through various partners including Visa, MasterCard, Amex and Diners Club
Standard Chartered Kenya - sometimes referred to as Stanchart, is a subsidiary of the global Standard Chartered bank, based in London. The Kenyan arm of this institution is the fourth largest bank in the country.
Helpful products they offer:
- Wide variety of accounts and loan products
- Savings accounts including foreign currency accounts
- Overdraft facilities on some current account products
- Credit and debit cards
Despite being a reasonably new bank in Kenya, DNB has the largest ATM network in the country, and over 250 branches. KCB also operates elsewhere on the region, which could be helpful if you plan to travel in East Africa and need access to your account. In Kenya alone, over 7 million people hold accounts with KCB.
Helpful products they offer:
- Variety of accounts, for different customer needs
- Credit and debit cards
- App and online services for mobile payments
Barclays Kenya is a subsidiary of the UK based Barclays Bank. You can carry out some transactions at local post offices for convenience
Helpful products they offer:
- ATMs and branches across the whole region
- Good range of products including loans and insurance
- Free, online banking
- Specialist premium and student accounts available
For anyone who lives and works abroad, or enjoys travelling frequently, managing your money across multiple currencies can be a challenge. One great option to help your money to be as flexible as you are, is a Borderless multi currency account from TransferWise. A Borderless account lets you hold your money in multiple different currencies, including KES, EUR, USD and GBP. You can then simply convert your cash as and when you need it, using the real exchange rate always offered by TransferWise. Soon, you’ll also be able to get a debit card to use in ATMs and to make payments.
There are no monthly account fees, and because you get local bank account numbers which can be used in the eurozone and the UK, you can bank like a local wherever in the world you are. Accessing - and spending - your money has never been so easy.
You have a number of different options open to you when it comes to getting set up in Kenya with a new bank account. You can choose either a local or Borderless account, depending on your circumstances, and with a KES account, you’ll find it much easier to do things like set up local services. Even better, life is cheaper with a local account, so you can just get on with enjoying your new life in Kenya, without worrying that you’re paying over the odds.
This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.
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