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Cross-border banking and the expat experience

Sabine Fichaux is HSBC’s Head of International Banking for HSBC’s Retail Banking and Wealth Management Group, a division of HSBC Bank USA, N.A., and a subsidiary of HSBC Holdings plc (NYSE: HSBC), one of the world’s largest banking and financial services organizations.


Moving to a new country provides an opportunity to experience different cultures, enjoy a better quality of life or increase one’s earnings. One of the keys to an enjoyable experience, particularly in the first few weeks in a new land, is choosing a bank that can meet the financial needs of expatriates and their families. 

Differences in international consumer banking

Moving to a new land is a daunting task, as I know from personal experience. And having access to funds and credit can have a large impact.

A starting point for any cross-border move is recognizing that, in most countries, before a new account can be created, banks need to comply with a variety of government regulations that fall into the category of “know your customer” (“KYC” for short). To complicate matters, this process takes different forms depending on where one settles, and it can even differ among banks in the same country. Some banks will require minimal paperwork to activate an account while others require extensive documentation that attests to employment history, credit history, sources of non-wage income and previous banking relationships.

A step many people moving to a new country never consider: initiating the opening of a new bank account even before arriving in that country. While every bank’s enrollment procedure will differ, many of the required documents can probably be accessed and signed online. Having a local account established upon arriving in a new country greatly simplifies the process of getting paid on time by one’s employer and makes it easier to cover the range of expenses that inevitably arise in connection with any cross-border relocation.

Taking into account local habits

During my 18 years with HSBC, I have worked in Paris, London, Jersey in the Channel Islands and New York City (my current base). With each move, I have had to establish new bank accounts and services, reminding me that even a move between two countries that have similar economic profiles can involve stark differences.

For example, credit cards are widely used in the United Kingdom, but not in France. Similarly, personal checks (cheques) are common in the United States, but rare in many European countries. And while some US full-time employees are paid every two weeks, many employees in Europe are paid monthly. The US also has a bewildering array of factors that influence take-home pay, including tax policy and the health insurance offered by one’s employer. 

Considerations for expatriates choosing a bank: Some questions to ask

  • How does the bank cater to people with the kind of complex financial profiles that are often found among expatriates?
  • Does the bank also have a presence in the individual’s home country?
  • Can the bank draw on the individual’s banking history to establish a credit profile that’s often needed to get a credit card or home loan in the new country? (And does the bank offer such loans to people newly arrived in the US?)
  • What kinds of transactions can be conducted online?
  • Is the bank equipped to receive financial transfers from institutions in other countries and are they done quickly? 

Helping with more than money

It’s also important to choose a bank with employees who can help new customers navigate a financial landscape that may be dramatically different from what they’re accustomed to. This may involve guidance on matters that are not directly tied to the bank. For example, when I was preparing to move to New York, I learned that non-US citizens who will be employed in the country must acquire a social security number, which is issued by the US federal government, and acquiring one can be a cumbersome process. So can applying for a driver’s license. Banks that have many non-US citizens as customers would think to provide insight on these matters.   

Similarly, expatriates may not be comfortable speaking or reading the language of the country they’ve moved to. Are there bank staff who speak a language the customer understands? And are bank documents available in that language?

I’ve been fortunate to live an expat life for much of the past decade, filled with exciting new opportunities to see what the world has to offer. For every expatriate, regardless of country, it’s critical to choose a bank that offers a panoply of tailored cross-border services. Making the right choice will help foster financial security as well as the ability to maximize the opportunities connected to expatriate life.     

Photo by Bea Merry for HSBC

Read more on HSBC’s Beyond Banking: Decode the increasingly complex world of managing your money.


Disclosure: HSBC commissioned this article. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of HSBC. 

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