Thursday, 25 September 2014

Expat issues: How to open a bank account in Spain

**Updated November 2015**

After you arrive in Spain, one of the first things you’ll need to do is open a bank account. To open an account as a resident, you need a NIE (Número de Identidad de Extranjeros, or national identity number for foreigners). I had hoped to write my second expat issues post on how to get a NIE, but on further investigation, it seems like in the ten years since I got mine the process has changed a bit, and whether or not you need to make an appointment to get one varies from area to area.  I suggest you read the information here which explains the process of form-filling and obtaining this vital number from your local Oficina de Extranjeros. Getting a NIE should be your first brush with Spanish bureaucracy, as it’s needed for most official transactions, such as registering with a doctor, working legally and of course, opening a bank account.

I don't think that man bag's big enough for your special documentation folder, is it

Choosing your bank

The best way to open an account in Spain is to go to your chosen bank in person. But before you just casually wander in off the street, do a bit of research: not all banks are created equally. Although a few UK banks now offer premium accounts with a monthly charge for perks like travel insurance, many Spanish banks charge their customers for basic transactions. You can pay an annual fee for having a debit card, you can pay to transfer money to another account, and you may even have to pay to cash a cheque into your own account. For this reason, it’s important to look into what comisiones different banks charge. A number of them (Santander, La Caixa, BBVA) waive fees if you pay your monthly nómina (wage) into the account. Be careful to read the small print and be sure about the lack of commission before you sign up: sometimes these offers apply to online only accounts, so if branch access is important to you, shop around. ING's Cuenta Nómina is commission-free and lets you transfer money back to the UK free of charge too. It has several high-street branches with long opening hours, but far fewer than most banks. New kid on the block EVO also offers commission-free accounts that allow you to withdraw cash for free anywhere in the world. If you won't have monthly earnings going into your account, Ing Direct also offers a Cuenta sin Nómina which is charge-free.

No matter which bank you choose though, there’s a charge you’re unlikely to avoid. Most high-street banks charge customers to withdraw money from another bank’s cashpoints. There are 3 groups of banks, Servired, 4B and Euro6000. If you withdraw money from another bank in that group, it costs less than if you were to withdraw from a bank outside your group, but unless you bank with relatively rare Citibank, Evo Banco or Arquia (I don’t recall ever seeing a branch of the latter), you need to make sure you know key cashpoints around your town. Spain could learn a lot from the Link system, let me tell you (and my British friends who’ve been dragged round Madrid in search of my bank would definitely agree).

Opening your account

So, now you’ve chosen your bank, go armed with all the paperwork you possibly need (and more). Take your passport, NIE and work and rental contracts if you have them. But don’t just go into any old branch: make sure you go into one that’s going to be convenient for you, for example close to your home or office. Certain transactions (such as setting up a regular payment or closing an account) can only be done in your branch, so take that into consideration. You’ll need to queue up and let the cashier know that you want to open an account (abrir una cuenta), at which point, if you’re lucky, he or she will transform from a snarling harridan into a smooth charmer and indicate that you go and talk to their colleague at a mesa. The process of opening an account involves a lot of signing and photocopying, but is very straightforward. Also ask if they can set up your internet banking access while you’re there: sometimes they can give you passwords in the branch rather than waiting for them to arrive by post. They will inevitably attempt to also sell you various types of insurance, but that aside, make the most of these moments: they'll be your best experience of Spanish banking. Oh, apart from when I opened my first ever account way back in 2004 and the advisor was surreptitiously smoking. Perhaps he thought I wasn't going to notice the odour, the plume of smoke curling around his head and the cigarette in his below-desk-level hand. I did. Sorry, Angel.

Banking in Spain
It’s once you’ve opened an account that the real fun begins. Banking shows Spanish bureaucracy at its worst. Unless you want to age dramatically or enjoy bitter arguments with strangers, I recommend that you do as much of your banking online as possible. I find every visit to the bank fraught with potential disaster. When you’ve actually got through the door (strangely challenging at Santander, but I’ll let you experience that for yourself), there will inevitably be a considerable queue. Once you’ve quien-es-la-ultima’d your way into it, be patient. Very patient. When you finally reach the front of the queue, watch the cashier’s demeanour change as he bids a cheery goodbye to María in front of you and sees your smiling little guiri face. Anything you want seems to be too complicated for the cashier, even if you have a) gone to your branch and b) turned up armed with your special file of every scrap of Spain-related documentation you have. Let’s take this example scenario.

‘Hello, buenas tardes, my card doesn’t work when I try to shop online. Please could you help?’
 ‘But it works?’
‘Well no, when I try to buy things online it doesn’t work [insert details of appropriate error messages here]'.
‘But you can withdraw money?’
Cashier shrugs. ‘Well I don’t know what to do about it. I suppose you could go and wait and talk to someone at a mesa’.
Crestfallen, you realize you only have ten minutes of your lunch break left and there are already three people in the mesa queue staring daggers at you. So you request a phone number to call instead. Cashier eventually scribbles down something barely decipherable. When you call it, the number doesn’t even exist.

This is, for me, an average banking experience. I've come to view it as par for the course. It's certainly nothing compared to the time I almost got thrown out of a bank.* So, if you take one thing away from this post, it should be the merits of online banking. Oh, and if someone mentions a firma electrónica: it’s not an electronic version of a signature as one might think; it’s what we guiris would call a password. There, I’ve saved you from another pointlessly frustrating conversation.

As you may have gathered, banking is my bureaucracy nemesis. What are your best (or erm, worst) stories about banking in Spain?

*I am ever so slightly prone to exaggeration. I wanted to set up a monthly payment for my rent. After a tense stand-off in which I was made to go home to get my NIE, a piece of paper which can’t be used as identification, even though I had my passport, driving license and bank card, the situation escalated to the point where I was asked if I wanted to speak to the manager. I politely declined. That was the day I got my head round the firma electrónica and registered for online banking.

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