International banks: Your guide to opening an account

TransferWise
05.22.20
9 minute read

If you’re headed abroad for work or study - or even if you’re planning that extended trip of a lifetime overseas - you might decide it’s worth getting an international bank account. International accounts can make it easier to manage your money across different currencies, and cut down on banking costs.

This guide contains all you need to know, including an international banks list featuring top international banks to consider, and details of the documents required in different destination countries.

We will also take a look at the Transferwise multi-currency account as a smart way to manage across dozens of different currencies, with no ongoing fees or charges to worry about - perfect if you travel frequently, or will be working during your time abroad.

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Who needs an international bank account?

Let’s start with the basics. If you’re going abroad on a short vacation or work trip, you can probably get by with your regular debit or credit card, for in store purchases and ATM withdrawals.

There are often some fees to pay including ATM charges, foreign transaction fees and cash advance costs for credit card use.

However, over a short trip, you can usually limit these costs with smart ATM use, avoiding dynamic currency conversion, and by limiting expensive transactions like credit card cash advances.


However, if you’re spending more than a few months abroad - either in one place or traveling - you’ll find these extra costs soon mount up. In this case, getting an international or multi-currency account can definitely save you money.

Having an international bank account can help in a few ways. Firstly, you’ll cut foreign transaction and withdrawal fees. But you’ll also be able to limit the impact of exchange rate fluctuations, by locking in cash in your foreign account when the rate is good.

Make a start by getting to know a bit about exchange rates where you’re headed. Use an online currency converter to check out the mid-market exchange rate, and use this as a benchmark when comparing exchange rates offered by your bank or other currency services. Getting a good exchange rate can make a big difference to how much you have to spend, so looking for a provider which uses the mid-market rate is a good plan.

If you choose to open a bank account in your destination, you could save by using a provider like TransferWise to send foreign currency to your account. TransferWise uses the mid-market exchange rate with no markup, and low fees. Or, alternatively you might consider getting a TransferWise multi-currency account to hold dozens of different currencies, switch between them using the mid-market rate, and spend abroad with your linked card with no foreign transaction fee.

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Banks around the world

Let’s take a look at some of the largest banks in some popular destination countries, to start your research:

Country Banks Currency
Australia Commonwealth Bank, ANZ Banking Group Australian dollar
Canada TD Bank, Scotia Bank Canadian dollar
China ICBC, Bank of China Yuan
France BNP Paribas, Credit Agricole Euro
Germany Deutsche Bank Euro
Japan Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Japan Post Bank Yen
Mexico Banamex, Bank of America Peso
Spain Santander Euro
United Kingdom HSBC, Barclays Pound

International banks in USA with branches abroad

Banking is a global industry, so you might well find you can open an account with a bank with branches in your destination country before leaving the US. Here are a few key international banks to consider.

HSBC

HSBC operates in 64 countries and territories, across Europe, Asia, the Americas, Africa and the Middle East¹.

There are over 200 HSBC branches across the US, and an extensive network of ATMs here and overseas². You can open an international account in 30 different territories, allowing you to get an account set up before you move, using your local credit history in the US. If you’re a premier customer you’ll find there are no fees for this service, although other account types do come with transaction and service charges.³

Charles Schwab

It’s possible to open a Charles Schwab account in the US which comes with no opening fees, no foreign transaction fees and unlimited rebates on international withdrawals. Accounts can be opened online provided you have all the documents required.

You can also open a Charles Schwab account once you move, in certain countries - but it’s worth noting that some international accounts are intended for investors and require high minimum deposits of the equivalent of $25,000. ⁴ ⁵

Citibank

Citibank has a network of over 4,000 branches and 30,000 ATMs globally, covering 42 countries. There are neat perks for customers including global deals and discounts and the opportunity to get emergency money from a Citibank branch if you get stuck without your card⁶.

As with other global banks, you might choose to open an account at a local Citibank before you leave, or with a branch in your destination country. Terms and conditions of accounts will vary, so check out both options before you decide.

The Global ATM Alliance

Another option when choosing how to manage your money when you’re overseas, is to get an account with a bank which is in the Global ATM Alliance. This is a network of banks which work together to offer fee free ATM withdrawals for their customers. If you hold an account with one of these banks, you may be able to access free withdrawals from partner banks based abroad - saving you money.

It’s worth noting that not all banking brands offer free withdrawals at all ATMs - some might limit the number of participating countries. There are also frequent changes to the list of participating banks, so it’s worth checking with your regular bank if you’re unsure⁷. Check the options for your destination before you travel.

Bank Key countries served
Bank of America USA
Barclays UK, Spain, Pakistan, Portugal, Gibraltar
BNP Paribas and affiliates France, Turkey, Ukraine, Poland, Morocco
Banca Nazionale del Lavoro Italy
Deutsche Bank Germany, Poland, Belgium, India, Spain
Scotiabank Canada, Mexico, Chile, Peru
Westpac Australia, New Zealand

Best banks for international travel

Choosing the best bank for your international travels can seem daunting. You’ll want to consider the costs and convenience of the accounts you look at, taking special care to read the terms and conditions of accounts offered from overseas brands.

Be aware that some fees which are not used frequently in the US may be common with foreign banks - and some of the fees you expect to pay here might not apply abroad. Taking some time to read through the key features, fees and limitations of a range of accounts will pay off.


Best international banks: How to choose

Still not sure which account type to opt for. Here are another few pointers.

Travelling around or spending time in one country

If you’re moving around a lot while overseas, you’ll want an account which has a linked card that doesn’t have ATM fees, has no foreign transaction fee and offers a good exchange rate.

The TransferWise multi-currency account** could be a good fit**. As a true multi-currency account you can hold dozens of currencies in the same place, and switch using the mid-market exchange rate when you need to. With local bank details to allow you to receive payments free from the US, UK, euro area, Poland, Australia and New Zealand, this card might also suit if you’re on a working break and need to receive payments in foreign currencies as you travel.

Larger or smaller countries

Your options - when it comes to banking - may be influenced by the type of country or countries you’re visiting. In smaller countries you might have fewer choices when it comes to international bank accounts and ATM availability.

Check out how locals and settled expatriates tend to manage their day to day finances - you might discover that online services are the norm for bill payments and so on. In this case, selecting a bank with intuitive and comprehensive online banking options might be the best bet.

Does your US bank have a branch overseas?

As we have mentioned, banking is a truly global industry. Check if your regular bank has operations overseas, or world with recommended partners. You might find it easiest to get accounts with these linked banks if so.


What do you need to open an account?

The exact requirements to open a bank account abroad will vary, but you can expect to be asked for the following in almost any country:

  • Proof of ID such as a passport or driving license
  • Proof of residency - often a utility bill or official correspondence from a government agency
  • Minimum opening deposit if required by the account type
  • Visa or other documents to prove your legal right to remain in the country
  • Proof of student status or employment

It’s important to note that if you hold over USD10,000 in total in foreign bank accounts at any point in a given year, you need to file a report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts - known as FBAR⁸. Filing is done online annually - and you’ll need to enrol and get a user ID to get started.⁹

Let’s take a more detailed look at the type of documents required to open a bank account in the following countries:

Mexico - valid photo ID and proof of residence, as well as your visa. Learn more about how to open a bank account in Mexico, here.

China - passport and proof of address, opening deposit and an employment pass, student pass or work permit. Learn more about how to open a bank account in China, here

France - proof of ID and address, visa if required, and proof of employment. Learn more about how to open a bank account in France, here

Germany - passport or ID document, proof you have registered your address, proof of employment or student status. Learn more about how to open a bank account in Germany, here

Italy - proof of identity and address, tax registration code, certificate of residence. Learn more about how to open a bank account in Italy, here

Spain - proof of ID, address and employment, and a foreign ID number (NIE) if relevant. Learn more about how to open a bank account in Spain, here

**The UK - ** Proof of ID and residence. Learn more about how to open a bank account in the UK, here

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International money transfer

If you’re living, studying or working overseas, you’ll almost certainly need to send money either to or from your new home. Maybe you have bills to pay back in the US after you leave, or perhaps you’re covering the costs of your rent or tuition fees from an account held at home, and need to receive it locally in your new international account.

These international transfers usually use the SWIFT payment network. To make a SWIFT payment, you’ll need a SWIFT/BIC code, which is a unique identifier which helps make sure your payment arrives safely. Find this number on your bank statement, or look it up using this SWIFT code tool.

SWIFT transfers are safe and well established - but they can be fairly slow, and tend to be expensive. You won’t always know exactly what the fees are until the payment has been processed, as intermediaries which handle the payment can deduct fees as they process it.

If you need a fast, cheap and reliable alternative to a SWIFT transfer, try a provider like TransferWise.

TransferWise payments use the mid-market exchange rate with just a simple, upfront fee to pay. You will know in advance exactly how much will be received, and the money will be delivered directly into your account for convenience. This can work out much cheaper - and quicker - than using a SWIFT payment.

Getting the right tools in place to manage your money when you live abroad will save you time and money. Check out all your options for international bank accounts, including flexible online alternatives like the TransferWise multi-currency account, to see if you can save.


Sources:

  1. HSBC Home page
  2. HSBC ATM Locations & Services
  3. HSBC Open an International Bank Account
  4. Charles Schwab Open an Account
  5. Charles Schwab Online Checking Account with Free Checks and ATM Fee Rebates | Schwab Bank
  6. Citibank Offshore Banking, Global Bank Account, Open Offshore Account
  7. The Global ATM Alliance
  8. FinCEN Report Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts
  9. FinCEN How Do I File the FBAR?

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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