French bank accounts: what foreigners need to know

 Robert Kent of Kentingtons explains that you must pay for most services - even for basic ones 

Facade of the Banque de France building in Angouleme
The Banque de France has the power to 'blacklist'” people and prevent them from opening or using a bank account in France
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A current account is the most essential service that a bank can offer, but can bring unwelcome surprises to people used to UK or US banks.

For those looking to relocate to France, a French bank account is often not just a convenience, but a necessity for paying utility bills and other vital services.

Indeed, any payment method other than direct debit or prélèvement from a French bank account is often not accepted. 

Paying for a French account

Before you open a French bank account, be aware of the potential pitfalls that can complicate your life. 

A significant difference between French and, for example, UK banking is that in France you must pay for most services, even basic ones such as having a current account or debit card. 

While some banks offer free accounts, they usually come with conditions – a minimum income or a regular deposit, for example.

Otherwise, you can expect to pay monthly or annual fees for your account, card, chequebook (still commonly used in France), and online banking access. 

These fees vary depending on the bank and type of account, and add up to a significant amount over time. In contrast, most UK banks offer free current accounts if you stay in credit. 

Read more:  CA Britline: is it a good bank for Britons with homes in France?

Frustrating direct debits

One of the most frustrating aspects of banking in France is the lack of control over direct debits, known as a prélèvement automatique.

This is not to be confused with a virement permanent, which is the equivalent of a standing order in the UK. It pays a fixed amount, typically each month, and the service provider has no access to your account. 

Unlike in the UK, where you can set up, modify, or cancel direct debits online or by phone, in France you must rely on the service provider to cancel the payments.

This gets interesting when you have a debit you cannot identify.

I have encountered some French banks that have been unhelpful in dealing with unknown debits, insisting it must be a client error (needless to say, switching banks is advisable in this case). 

Problems can also arise where the company applying the debit is known – for example if the service has been cancelled but they continue taking money. 

This means you can find yourself at the mercy of the service debiting your account, and cancelling these payments can take weeks or even months.

This is not always the case, as some clients have told us that writing to the bank worked just fine, and digital banks will even allow you to cancel them within their app. However, it is good to appreciate the potential challenges. 

Given these issues, it can be preferable to limit prélèvement payments as much as possible if using one of the high street banks. 

They are usually essential for utilities such as water and electricity, but, if possible, do everything else by virement or card payment. You may even choose your services based on how you can pay, giving you control over stopping payments. 

Read more:  How easy is it to change bank in France?

Role of the Banque de France

Another issue that can cause headaches for UK nationals in France is the Banque de France, the central bank that regulates the banking system. 

The Banque de France has the power to “blacklist” anyone who has unpaid debts, bounced cheques (known as a chèque en bois – literally a wooden cheque), or fraudulent transactions and prevent them from opening or using a bank account in France.

This can happen even if the debt is small or disputed, or if the bank account is not in your name but in your spouse's or partners. 

Banque de France can also seize assets or income to repay your debts without any court order or prior notice. 

Getting off the blacklist can be difficult and time-consuming and can affect your credit rating and your ability to access other financial services.

You can also be caught out by ignoring a contentious tax bill. Do not be shocked when the French FISC dips into your account and takes the money! 

Read more: French banking rules: when can officials freeze your account?

Consider your options

If you are a UK or US national who wants to bank in France, you should research and compare different banks and offers before deciding.

You should also be careful and vigilant with your transactions and statements and avoid any situation that could put you in trouble with Banque de France. 

You may also like to consider using an online or international bank operating in France as back-up if you experience any issues.

Kentingtons are a leading wealth management company providing tax and financial advice to UK nationals moving to, or currently living in France.