When I studied abroad in 2010, the thought of opening a bank account didn't even cross my mind -- there was no information out there nor was it provided by my abroad program. We all just would have weekly-ish runs to the ATM that was outside our apartment and withdrew what we needed at the time. That meant we all had Euros stashed around the house and we still paid withdrawal fees every time we hit the ATM. This method worked but it definitely wasn't efficient.
Ask your professors and staff in your study abroad program or colleagues at your internship where they bank.
When I was doing some research for this article, I found it so interesting to find much more information for internationals opening a US bank account than a US citizen opening an international one. It seems the general opinion of US "abroad life" is that you take your money with you in cash and then spend fees every time you want to get cash out of an ATM. We’d like to change that by giving you information on how to open a bank account while interning or studying abroad.
If you're interning abroad, you might even need a bank account to receive a monthly stipend (or salary if you're lucky enough to have one) and pay rent. So, if you've recognized the need to open a bank account in Europe while interning abroad, read on to find out how to do it.
What Documents Do you Need to Open an Account?
Document requirements will vary depending on the country you are studying in. For example, the documents in the UK are very general but in Italy, on top of the documents you need for London, you also would need a Codice Fiscale (tax code).
There are four documents that are commonplace:
- Proof of identity (your passport)
- Valid student visa or work visa
- Letter from your university saying you are currently enrolled
- Evidence that you have a local address (usually a rental contract) or, if you don’t have an apartment yet, proof that you will be living in the country for a given amount of time (this sometimes can be the university letter)
Here are a few countries and their requirements, just so you can get a better idea:
|Country||Requirements to open a bank account|
Choosing a Bank
My best advice is to ask your professors and staff in your study abroad program or colleagues at your internship where they bank. They will have local information and may even be able to recommend a specific banker to speak to. Here are some other tips that you need to think about:
Make sure to read the fine print
There is a lot of boring reading when it comes to opening a bank account and selecting the right one. If you aren’t a math person, your brain will corrode over things like overdraft percentages, interest rates and account fees -- but stay strong. These are important.
There are many accounts that will offer freebies to entice you into picking them, but a free railcard, though really awesome, may not be attached to the account that is right for you.
Write out a financial plan for your entire time abroad and really think about what you will be using the money for. Are you bad at keeping track of your finances and may need a high overdraft? Is that railcard just going to be the cherry on top of your already awesome new debit card or will it distract you from an even lower set of fees?
Find one close to home
Location is key in European banking. Even if that great student account deal is in your city, if the only branches are a 45 minute hike away on the opposite side, you are probably not going to like it that much when its terrible weather and you actually have to trudge to the building of the bank and walk into it when you need to deposit money.
No Wendy’s parking lot ATM deposit drops here, folks. Much of banking in the EU is still done inside the bank. Thus, when looking at student accounts, the one that is good and is right around the corner from your apartment will make it much more comfortable and less stressful -- especially if there are ever any problems.
Language is also a large factor when in a foreign language city. Most banks in larger cities in Europe do have at least one employee that can speak enough English to lead you through this process. Though the language barrier may make things a bit more difficult, think of it as a learning experience. Learn the basics of banking to help you get started. Make sure to find out if someone can speak English (or you can get a translator) before you get set on a certain account.
The Process of Opening an Account
When you have finally chosen a bank, you can walk in and let them know you would like to open a student account. Through research, maybe you already have one selected. If you didn’t get that far, you can still ask them and go over the options there in their office.
To get even more respect in a foreign language, learn the phrase for how to ask to open an account in that language, and then ask if there is anyone able to speak English. This little act of courtesy will get you extremely far -- just because you are showing you are attempting to live by the local norms.
Not every student will need to open up a bank account while studying or interning in Europe.
Though banking is pretty standard in definition worldwide, the methods of banking in each country can vary drastically. Opening an account could be as easy as it is in the US, or it could be a quest. Bottom line -- the most important thing you can bring to that banker’s cubicle is patience.
Remember, though these services are offered to students, you are still foreign and this process could be pretty foreign to the teller as well. Be patient, ask questions, and you’ll have that ATM card in your hand in no time.
When you leave, the process of closing your account will be pretty similar. You'll have to go in person to the bank and request to close it.
But Do I Really Need an Account?
Not every student will need to open up a bank account while studying or interning in Europe. This is especially true if you're there for under a month -- don't bother.
If you know you won't be receiving a paycheck of any kind, have prepaid your housing through your program provider, and have a backup credit card / alternate form of getting money if something goes wrong, it's probably not worth the hassle.
However, there are a couple of reasons why opening an account would be helpful or necessary:
In many countries in the EU will allow students to work on their student visa for up to twenty hours a week. So, yes, you can work while studying abroad.
If you're an intern, well, we really hope that you are getting some compensation out of your work hours!
Either way, having an account allows the company to pay you as if you are a local, it gets you the money legally, safely, and you see how paychecks and the entire system works in another country.
In Italy it is now illegal to pay for rent over 1,000 Euros in cash -- this came into effect to prevent tax evasion so it is actually protecting you from crazy landlords more than hurting you.
But it still makes splitting the rent with roommates a bit more interesting. If you go the old-school route, each person in the apartment would have to take turns doing an international wire transfer from their home accounts (which includes heavy exchange fees) and then collect cash from the rest of the housemates.
If you are the one with the bank account, you take that cash from your roommates, deposit it into your handy-dandy EU bank, and ask them to make the transfer to your landlord for you with NO international fees. Done. Easy. You win.
If you plan on traveling on the weekends, a European card with a pin is just plain better than a wad of cash. Plain and simple. Plus if it gets stolen, you don’t lose anything but the card!
The security benefits are not just when you travel either. Even in your abroad city, you will have to take out cash for certain things every once in awhile (many countries use cash much more than cards in everyday life -- you’ll get used to it). Now that I work for a study abroad program, one of the largest problems I see my students have is:
- Having their US debit or credit cards become blocked because there was miscommunication of the account.
- Having their card information stolen by using sketchy ATM’s that someone has rigged to steal information.
What this results in is a student that has no access to money abroad. Then to fix the issue, you have to make a lengthy international call to your bank in the US, have a new card issued, and then you have to get it overseas.
No one wants to spend their internship or study abroad trip in Europe thinking or worrying about money.
Let me tell you right now that that chick in customer service in Texas somewhere is not going to know how to formulate her computer to get that card to your address across oceans. You may never even see your card. True story -- learn from my mistakes, dear young travelers.
Banking Tips if You Don't Open an Account
If, after all this, you decide you don't want to open a bank account abroad, here are a few tips to help you:
1. Add a trusted family member to your American bank account
To mitigate any sort of lost debit card situation, I'd recommend adding a parent or other trusted family member to your bank account so they can request a new debit card on your behalf and mail it to you in a secure fashion if something ever happens.
2. Always have Skype credit
In case you need to call your bank back home, always have at least $20 Skype credit so you can make phone calls. It's cheaper than having to call from your European phone.
3. You can call your home bank to have withdrawal limits lifted temporarily
This is especially helpful if you need to pay a rental deposit and cash is your only option. Call your bank and have them temporarily lift your withdrawal limit the day before you do so.
4. Consider a bank that will reimburse your foreign ATM / transaction fees
HSBC, which has banks in both the U.S. and throughout Europe, will give you the option to take out money without a foreign transaction fee. Nerdwallet has a much more comprehensive list of international ATM fees by bank.
Enjoy Your Internship or Study Abroad Trip!
No one wants to spend their internship or study abroad trip in Europe thinking or worrying about money. Hopefully, with this big logistical factor out of the way, you won't have to!