Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Opening a US bank account for non-US citizens

This my account of what happened to me, including my interpretations of the material that I found online.  I originally wrote about this topic informally in the personal blog that I write for fun about being a British expat in America called: From Sheep toAlligators, but I thought that it would be useful to write a more formal account of my experience of opening a US bank account as a non-US citizen on this blog too, as it was very much part of the US immigration process for me.


As far as I understand it, certainly in comparison to my home country of the UK, the USA had relatively relaxed rules regarding non-US citizens opening bank accounts up until the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001.  After the attacks, new legislation was introduced to make it harder for people such as terrorists to have money sent to them from abroad.  This new financial legislation formed part of the Patriot Act and effects the opening a US bank account for non-US citizens.  Each bank then got their solicitors to draw up new rules which complied with the new legislation.

Advance preparation

I did some research before we went to the bank that I wished to join.  Basically, there are banks that allow non-US citizens to hold accounts and banks that don’t.  From my research on the internet, it said that I could join my wife’s bank as a joint account holder using a passport as proof of I.D. and I didn’t need a Social Security Number, which was good as I didn’t have one at that point in time.  However, other research I did said that whatever the bank’s rules, in practice, you often end up being asked for an SSN.  So my wife rang up her bank’s customer service to check the rules on proof of I.D.  She was then passed from department to department, none of whom could tell her what the rules were.  Eventually she got through to someone at the head office who told her the rules, which were the same as I’d read on the bank’s website.

Practical problems

One of the big problems is that the person who actually serves you in the bank generally doesn’t have much experience of non-US citizens opening an account and doesn’t understand the bank’s policy and they insist that you should have Social Security Number.  They are afraid that they might be breaking the Patriot Act, not necessarily knowing that the Patriot Act is actually vague on this matter and that it is the bank’s solicitors who interpret the law and actually make the specific rules that they are supposed to be following.

The bank worker who dealt with us was young and very anxious and seemed confused.  She disappeared for a long time and held a conference with the deputy manager.  Then I was rejected.  This was despite my wife and I explaining about reading the relevant rules on the bank’s website and what we were told by their Head Office over the phone.  Unfortunately, our experience was very common according to the accounts that I read from expats and legal experts on the internet.  It was still an upsetting experience though.

Eventual success

I could have gone to another bank and believe me I was sorely tempted to take my business elsewhere, but I wanted a joint account with my wife so it seemed like too much trouble.  In the end I took a deep breath and applied for a Social Security Number (which I would have had to obtain sooner or later anyway).  It took a few weeks to get one.  Then my wife and I went back to her bank again.  We chose a different branch this time, however, as we were still upset about being rejected previously.  This time our bank worker seemed much more confident and friendly.  We gave him all the relevant info, including my new Social Security Number.  He did disappear for a time, but we were reasonably confident that everything would work out and sure enough, we were given the green light.


  1. I am so glad that we haven't experienced this problem - like you say I guess it varies from bank to bank. When I arrived here in the US, my then fiance and I went down to the local branch of our bank, spoke to a fantastic young assistant who just asked us both to sign a form, took a copy of my passport and that was it, one joint account sorted. After my fiance and I married, I rang the same assistant and we both went back down to the bank with our marriage certificate, and a new card arrived in the post for me a few days later...

    I had no clue that you could apply for a SSN prior to the adjustment of status being given - I will have to check into that one because that would be very useful because now we have married I have changed my name but consequently have no photo id.

    Lou :-)

  2. I did not open a joint bank account with my fiance (though she was not my fiance at the time), I only opened a bank account for myself with citibank in California. I done this with absolutely no problems whatsoever. It took me a total of about 25 minutes and I walked out with a temporary eftpos card, with my debit card sent to me in the mail within a couple of weeks. I was only in the US on a VWP. The only issues since that time was a couple of times when I could not recall my bank number, it was impossible for them to find my account just via my name and address (yes that is quite ridiculous), so I needed either my bank number, card number or my SSN (which of course I could not provide as I did not have one). Other than that, I had a working checking account with days of being in the country.

  3. @mateinone - I can believe that - I was told by the bank that it would've been easier for me to open an account as a non-resident, ie been in the country temporarily on a Visa Waiver!

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