Opening a Bank Account

Branching Out - Opening a Bank Account

Opening a bank account should be a simple matter. Local conditions can complicate things. Retiring abroad brings many surprises no matter how well you plan, pre-investigate or research the move. Some things just can’t be rehearsed. Often some assumptions are so much a part of your experience that you would not think to question them. They are matters of universal truth or practice, or so you believe. The following account is predominantly factual from the writer’s own experience. It is a cautionary tale.

You arrive full of optimism at the capital city and begin your new adventure. You’ve been here before. There are no surprises. The weather is good. Your hotel, where you will stay for first couple of days, is fine, as usual. Taxis provide a good service. Public transport is not something to worry about. When you move up country to your chosen small town it won’t be needed. Your immediate need is opening a bank account. It is expensive to live off of your credit card.

At the Bank

The first morning after arrival you go to the bank. You know which one. It was recommended by your home town bank. You have all the documents you need for identification, a letter of recommendation, a formal banker’s reference and cash. It is not local cash but a well respected foreign currency. It is US dollars. Nothing can go wrong. Opening a bank account will be a five minute job.

All Is Possible

The first small stumbling block is that although English is a “National Language” it is neither well spoken nor understood by the bank staff. You get your point across and you start to fill in the forms for opening a bank account. You know now that it won’t be a five minute job but an hour or so should see it done. It took only a few moments to get to a staff member because you went in at opening time. After completing the form you see that you are now at the back of a thirty minute queue. You learn that the ATM machine outside is not working so everyone who needs cash has to come in to the bank. You notice that every member of staff can dispense cash. Not just those behind the tellers’ stations but all those who sit at desks also. You will have no relief from the congestion just because yours is the administrative exercise of opening a bank account.

Possibilities Reducing

At the desk again you immediately notice it is a different person on duty. You explain that opening a bank account is what you want to do. You offer the completed form, your ID documents and letters of introduction. All are collected and taken into a back office. On the return of the staff member you are asked if you have certified copies of the documents and of the data page of the passport and the page showing the immigration stamp endorsed on arrival which confirms your permanent residence status. You have only a certified copy of the data page of the passport but even this is unsatisfactory. All certifications of copies must be done by a local attorney. For reasons of security and to avoid accusations of commercial collusion and corruption the bank cannot suggest an attorney to whom you should go. You are assured that there are many lawyers in town.

The five minute job of opening a bank account has so far taken a couple of hours and you are not yet at the starting line. The hotel reception has no idea where the nearest attorney’s office can be found. The problem is turned over to the Bell Hop who haggles with a taxi driver and then invites you to board to be taken to a lawyer.

To The Lawyer

You watch more of you meagre supply of local money tick away on the meter but you do get to an attorney. The lawyer is in court but he will return in about half an hour. You have no idea where you are or where another lawyer might be so you wait. He returns after an hour and is happy to certify your documents. Your mood brightens. The five minute job of opening a bank account may yet be accomplished, perhaps, today. The attorney does not take credit cards nor foreign currency and you have insufficient local money. The “certification service” is not free as it is back home. You are directed to a money changer a couple of blocks away.

Taxis - A learning Curve

You have had a success and you even manage to hail a taxi. The driver has never heard of your hotel. You go back to the attorney’s office for help. The receptionist also does not know the hotel. The attorney does and he gives the driver instructions. A kilometer or so along the way you tell the driver he has forgotten to turn on his meter. “Do not worry.” he says, “I will give you a good price.”

The “good price” is over twice the metered fare you paid for the outward trip. You ask the Bell Hop to organize payment by the hotel and to have it added to the ultimate bill. This is not possible. Reception does not hold cash. The restaurant manger is spotted as he is leaving the premises and is called over. He agrees to add the fare to the lunch bill and to give you the cash need. You were not going to have lunch but there is no alternative. You confirm the fare to find that it has increased by half because of the waiting time. You sign the restaurant bill, add your room number and hand over the “change” to the driver.

Your tense mood eases when you return to the restaurant and order the proverbial “stiff” drink before eating. A scruffy staff member, a cleaner not a waiter, tells you that the restaurant has closed and even the smorgasbord has been cleared away. Once more you have very little local cash, you paid for but did not get lunch and the “fare” was good, very good, but only for the driver. You haven’t the funds to go elsewhere. With a wry smile to yourself you start back for the bank confident that nothing else can go wrong. Opening a bank account will be accomplished this afternoon.

Back at the Bank

The ATM machine is working again and the bank is less crowded. At the desk you offer all of the newly certified documents with an air of confidence. The teller/attendant returns from the back office smiling. You feel relieved. It is confirmed that you do not need a passbook. A debit card will be satisfactory. You can have a “no-name” card in a couple of days but to have one bearing your name will take a week. This is not a worry. Once the foreign currency is deposited for opening the bank account you can draw enough money for a few days. There is an address problem. It must be a local address for the bank to be able to post the card to you. It is not possible to send the card to the branch in the town where you will live because you do not have an account there. This is an odd comment but you let it pass. The up-country address is not good enough. The only solution is to give the hotel address.

Hope Fades

The account is set up and you are asked for an initial deposit. The teller’s face falls as you offer the wad of US dollars. The deposit must be in local currency for opening a bank account. Foreign currency must be “sent for collection” and that would take a few weeks.

“Go to a money changer.” you are told. As with the attorney and for the same reasons the bank cannot direct you to one. “There are many in town.” the teller advises.

“Don’t they send currency for collection?” you enquire.

“Their business. Their problem.” says the teller.

Leaving the documents and your passport with the teller you start walking the streets until you spot a money changer and change most of your dollars into local notes.

Back at the bank you quickly get an account number and a receipt for the opening deposit. The teller is all smiles as she accompanies you to the door. She says “Good bye.” and locks the door behind you. This five minute job has taken all day!

Your Branch?

A week or so later you call at the bank branch in the up country town in which you have decided to live. After explaining that you have opened an account with the bank you offer identification and ask if you can make a withdrawal over the counter because your card has not yet arrived.

“I am sorry Sir.” the teller advises. “Without a passbook you can only withdraw at the your own branch.”

“Where is that? I live in town. This my bank. Will this not be be my branch? you ask.

“It is where you opened your account.” says the teller.

“But that’s in the Capital.” you protest.

 “Yes Sir.” the teller confirms. The Branch Manager confirms the information. He also suggests that the card will never arrive in town. The hotel will hold it for a week or so and then return it to the bank.

It slowly dawns on you that this bank is branch centric. Branches do not work with each other except very peripherally. Later you will think of reasons why this should be and why you cannot do anything and everything at any branch as you could back home. Not least of these is the fragile state of communications in the country, especially the internet, which makes the centralized keeping of accounts impossible.

“I am sorry Sir. We cannot change US dollars. We don’t have the facilities to send them for collection. Also unfortunately the town is too small to have a money changer.”

“What can I do?”

“Go to your own branch.” says the Manager.

“What is the exchange rate?” you ask just out of interest.

“You should ask your own branch.” the Manager replies. “If you have the minimum deposit for opening a bank account you could do that at this branch. A passbook account would be easy but you will have to have all of the right documents and certified copies.”

“I suppose the town is too small to have a local lawyer?”

 “Again, unfortunately, that is also right.” He smiles, knowingly. You know and he knows that opening a bank account here, eventually, will be a necessity.

Sanity Gone

You scrape together enough local money for the ‘bus fare and the next day you head back to “your own branch.” You have discovered that you have an account at a branch not an account at a bank. Your mind runs through the changes you will have to make locally and overseas. All of the regular transfer arrangements that you made with the bank back “home” will have to be changed.

Back at the bank - Again!

At “your own branch” you are welcomed. You were expected. The card, returned from the hotel, is handed to you. There is no provision in the bank’s systems to transfer your account to another branch. If the account is closed the card will be cancelled. A new account will have to be opened at the up country branch and another card ordered there. You will have, for a while, two accounts at different branches which do not communicate with each other. You go to the lawyer for another set of certified copies as before. You get the impression he was also expecting you.

Baldness Impending

Starting Again

The next day you go to your home branch of the bank. At least you know the drill for opening a bank account. This should not take long. You are wrong of course. It is a bank holiday. On your “Golden Rule” pre-settling trips you had not taken notice of such a detail. “Branching Out” is probably not a local expression that has any meaning you think in irritation.

It is so frustrating. It is so foreign. But isn’t this why you retired here?


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