If you're new to the U.S., opening a bank account offers security for your funds and a way to begin creating a financial footprint in this country.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly gave private businesses in the U.S. the right to contract with foreign individuals or groups, making it easier for new residents of the U.S. to bank here. But the USA Patriot Act, passed after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, made it more difficult for foreigners to open accounts or engage in monetary transactions in the U.S., or even to do business with American financial institutions when abroad.

Under the Act, banks and credit unions must follow stricter guidelines when verifying identity of an account applicant who is non-American. Here's what that means if you're a non-citizen resident seeking to become "banked" in the U.S. for the first time.


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What You Need To Know

While you are permitted to open an account, the rules are different for non-citizens.

You'll need more ID than an American customer.

Foreign or not, applicants for a bank account must at least verify their name, date of birth, and physical address (from, say, a utility bill). Foreign-born customers will also need to show photo identification that includes a numeric identity. That can include a valid passport, another government-issued ID from your home country, or the alien identification number from a green card, work visa, or student ID. In most instances, photocopies are not accepted.

A Social Security Number is desirable, but not essential.

An SSN generally isn't required to open a checking or savings account in this country. However, if you don't yet have one, its absence may increase the bank's scrutiny of your other documentation. Certain resident and nonresident aliens who are unable to obtain Social Security numbers may file form W-7 with the IRS to get an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN), which may also be accepted by the bank.

Requirements vary by institution.

The laws governing bank accounts for foreigners are federal, but their application is local. Banks and credit unions differ in the documents and process they demand from non-Americans who are opening accounts. Check in advance on what's required before you begin the process, especially since you'll almost certainly be applying in person at a brick-and-mortar location.

Online applications are challenging at best.

Even if you're able to begin your account application online, it's likely you'll be required to appear in person at a bank branch to complete it. Heightened security after 2001 led to the near-elimination of online applications for foreign accounts, due to the fear of terrorism-related money laundering. That all but blocks you from applying to one of many online-only banks because it will be very difficult for them to properly verify your documentation.

You must make a minimum deposit.

These, too, vary by institution, but are usually modest; between $5 and $50 is customary for regular savings accounts. If you're opening the account with a large cash deposit (again, the definition of "large" may differ by bank) or with money from a wire transfer, you may need to show proof of funds.

The Bottom Line

Opening a bank account as a foreign national involves more effort, and perhaps more stress, than for an American citizen, especially for those who lack resident-alien status. If you're still living in your home country, consider seeking out a U.S-based multinational bank that has branches where you live and opening an account with them before you leave. Such a move at a foreign branch bank provides international applicants with the opportunity to build up a business relationship with the institution that should simplify applying for an U.S. account at one of its branches in this country.