Opening a U.S. bank account. Part 1: Overview of the banking system and opening a U.S. account online

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Can a non-citizen and non-resident open a bank account in the United States? Yes, they can. The process will definitely be more difficult for non-citizens, but anything is possible.

In our article, we will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the U.S. banking system, ways to open an account remotely. In the second part of this article, we will discuss opening a U.S. bank account with a personal presence in the country and opening a commercial account for an American LLC.

Despite the fact that the U.S. is a technologically advanced country, its banking world still lives by the rules of the old school. There is a dislike of multicurrency, high fees for foreign transactions, and lovers of Privat24 may be surprised by the weak functionality of online banking.

Let’s start the discussion with the features of the U.S. banking system, its pros and cons.

Peculiarities of the U.S. banking system and its attitude to non-residents

For the vast majority of Americans, a bank account is a major tool for financial security. According to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation’s 2019 data, nearly 95% of households are part of the “banking” population. Importantly, this is the highest rate ever recorded in the last 10 years of such studies.

Why such a high percentage? If you are a U.S. resident and want to open a bank account, all you have to do is provide a form of government ID and proof of address. That’s it. But what about non-U.S. residents?

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly gave private businesses in the United States the right to contract with foreign individuals or groups of individuals, making it easier for non-U.S. residents to bank in America.

But…

On September 11, 2001, everything changed. The USA Patriot Act, passed after the terrorist attacks, made it difficult for foreigners to open accounts or engage in monetary transactions in the United States, or even to do business with American financial institutions abroad.

The Act requires banks and credit unions to follow stricter rules when verifying the identity of an applicant for a non-U.S. account. Title III, entitled “International Money Laundering Abatement and Financial Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001” was particularly “problematic” for non-residents.

When we are talking about the U.S. banking system, it is important to understand a few important nuances.

First: a non-U.S. resident will be required to provide many more documents

When opening an account, a non-resident will need the following set of documents:

  • Social Security Number (SSN) or Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN)
  • Passport or identification card
  • U.S. address and proof of address (eg, utility bill)
  • In some cases: minimum deposit
  • In some cases: a U.S. phone number to access online banking.

A non-resident does not have a Social Security number and an address in the United States. With individual tax identification number, however, the situation is easier – it is realistic to get it for non-residents and even without visiting the country, and in one of the coming materials we will explain in detail how to do it (follow our blog, or even better – subscribe to its updates).

But even having an ITIN does not radically change the situation. When dealing with non-residents, banks will be looking to compensate for missing documents, so they can be sure that they will open an account by fulfilling all the requirements of KYC (the rule “know your customer”) and AML (Anti-Money Laundering). Taking all of the above into account, only a very small number of banks are willing to work with non-residents.

Second: bank requirements can vary from state to state or even between branches

Th laws governing bank accounts for aliens are federal, but their application is local. Therefore, the requirements for documents required to open an account may vary from bank to bank, state to state, and even branch to branch.

According to TD Bank support (which, as of 2021, still works with non-residents), all you have to do is bring your passport to the bank branch. But branches in New York State will also require a utility bill with your name on it to a U.S. address. The same TD Bank, but a branch in New Jersey has no such requirement.

Third: banking rules are constantly changing

For example, JPMorgan Chase – the largest (in terms of assets) bank holding company in the U.S., previously successfully working with non-residents, will now refuse to take a foreigner.

Therefore, the information below is current only as of the date of its publication. We strongly recommend that you contact the bank and its specific branch where you plan to open an account before visiting it.

Be sure to call in advance to clarify the requirements for the necessary documents. Check the following information:

  • Do you need an ITIN?
  • Do you need a U.S. address? What is the bank’s preference for you to confirm it? Will the bank accept a lease agreement?
  • What is the minimum deposit required to open an account?
  • Do you have to somehow prove the source of your funds?
  • Will the bank accept any document you are going to provide? 

If you do not have all this information and go to the bank directly, you could end up being disqualified from reapplying to the branch. This happens sometimes, too.

Opening a U.S. account for a non-resident can be a challenge. The USA Patriot Act makes it difficult for foreigners to participate in monetary transactions in the United States.

The United States as a banking jurisdiction

Before we move on to a discussion of specific banks dealing with non-residents, let’s go over the pros and cons of the U.S. banking system. Traditionally, let’s start with the pros.

Advantages of the U.S. banking system

1. High reputation of the USA as a banking jurisdiction

The USA has the highest reputation as a banking jurisdiction. Receiving large payments from U.S. accounts or sending large payments to U.S. accounts is so common that banks do not ask many questions. In turn, this makes it much easier to deal with banks in typical offshore jurisdictions such as Panama, Georgia, Cyprus or others.

The USA is well connected in the global financial system, and other countries tend to trust money coming out of the U.S. People tend to ask fewer questions about transfers from the U.S. than, say, from Belize.

2. Lack of automatic exchange of information

In 2014, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) created the Common Reporting Standard (CRS) as an information standard for the automatic exchange of information to combat tax evasion.

Since then, most of the G20, as well as most traditional offshore jurisdictions, have exchanged information according to this standard. Here is the information that banks typically disclose:

  • First and last name of the account holder
  • Address
  • Date of birth
  • Place of birth
  • Country of tax residency
  • Tax Identification Number
  • Account details
  • Total account balance/value of accounts calculated as of the end of the calendar year, including any interest (excluding the balance of any excluded accounts)

And now for the best part: as of 2021, the United States is the only country in the world (among developed countries) that has not yet ratified this treaty and has no plans to do so any time soon. There is no automatic exchange of financial information with foreign governmental or nongovernmental organizations.

It can be said that this makes the U.S. the last banking privacy district in the world.

3. Deposit insurance

Unlike most offshore jurisdictions, the U.S. has a reliable deposit insurance system. The FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) provides deposit insurance at U.S. depository institutions. 

Almost all U.S. banks participate in this scheme. The insurance covers current accounts, savings accounts, money market bank accounts, and certificates of deposit. They are all insured up to $250,000 per qualifying account and that is more than anywhere else in the world, including Singapore and the EU. 

Bank accounts of non-US residents are also insured by the FDIC (the US banking industry generally treats foreigners the same as citizens, except for taxes).

You have to realize that it probably wouldn’t help much in the event of a global collapse, but at least it would protect your money in the event of an individual bank going bankrupt.

Despite their high reputation, U.S. banks are not without their drawbacks. These include their low liquidity and high bankruptcy rates.

Disadvantages of the U.S. banking system

There are many advantages to opening a bank account in the U.S., but the U.S. banking system has some disadvantages as well.

First, U.S. banks are not the best banks in the world. Their liquidity is quite low, and interest rates are also low – especially for non-residents.

They are also more prone to instability than banks in other developed countries. The U.S. has one of the highest rates of bank failures among developed countries; the country has experienced numerous bank failures throughout its history, while similar countries have experienced only one or two – if any. Just remember lkthe crisis of 2008, when U.S. banks crashed like dominoes, lined up one by one.

Any political instability (like under Trump) affects the solvency of the FDIC. If one or two major banks go bankrupt, the FDIC will run out of money pretty quickly, so Congress will have to step in and allocate money to save people’s deposits.

Another disadvantage of the U.S. banking system is that you can only do banking transactions in U.S. dollars. If you do international business, you have to deal with exchange rates and fees, and often they are not small.

Why a non-resident may need a U.S. Bank Account

Before we look at the process of opening a U.S. bank account, let’s look at some of the main reasons why such an account might be needed. Depending on the circumstances, a U.S. account may be needed if:

  • You work in e-commerce and need to accept payments in U.S. dollars. For example, your customers are in the United States and can only transfer funds within the country.
  • You have a need to buy goods and services in the USA. You can pay via SWIFT, but it is both long and expensive.
  • You plan to travel around the U.S. with a tourist or business visa. Yes, you can use a debit card issued in your country of residence, but that will result in high withdrawal fees from U.S. ATMs.
  • You live in a country with an unstable currency and want to keep your U.S. savings in dollars and know that your deposits are insured.

Regarding the last point – the United States is not an ideal country for savings (see the previous section ” Disadvantages of the U.S. banking system,” but we assume that such a desire may also arise.

Wise Account is a good alternative to a U.S. account, but it is not a solution for everyone.

How can I open a U.S. account online?

At the time of last writing (July 2021), there are no banks in the US that remotely open personal US bank accounts for non-residents without an SSN (Social Security Number). The reason lies in the heightened “know-your-customer” requirements and the Patriot Act of 2001.

Depending on the purpose of the US account, you may have several alternatives: Wise, Payoneer and Zenus Bank (when and if it will be launched).

Payoneer

We have written about this payment system many times before on the blog, and we will be releasing a big article on the development of this system in the near future.

What you need to know within this topic: Payoneer will provide you with bank details in the US and even a physical debit card. At least some of their accounts are hosted by First Century Bank, but it is important to remember that the name of the account holder is Payoneer, not your own.

Pros of the Payoneer account: You can receive bank transfers from companies and leading marketplaces in the U.S., U.K., EU, Japan, Canada, Australia and Mexico directly into your Payoneer account. Your Payoneer account acts just like a local bank account, so you are essentially receiving an international payment via bank transfer.

Other advantages of Payoneer include:

  • Easy registration and account setup
  • Low fees (transfer between Payoneer accounts has 0% commission)
  • No hidden fees
  • Account opening in several currencies
  • MasterCard debit card
  • Partnership with worldwide leading marketplaces (e.g. Amazon and soon eBay)
  • The ability to withdraw funds to individuals’ accounts 
  • No transactions restrictions for incoming bank transfers 
  • Bonus program for clients who work with large sums

You will not be able to fund your Payoneer account; you will only fund your account through incoming payments. Payoneer (at the moment) does not have a solution for accepting B2C credit card payments on the e-commerce website.

Today Payoneer is available in 200 countries worldwide and is a good alternative to a bank account in the US.

Wise (previously TransferWise)

A Wise multi-currency account is another way to get a U.S. account without physically traveling to the U.S. This is a good option if you are an individual or run a small online business and want to receive payments worldwide. 

Transferwise, as it used to be called, began by sending money all over the world with sane fees and no long waiting times for transfers. Over time, it became a major player and competitor to traditional banks, allowing you to open bank accounts in several countries, including the U.S., and currency wallets in more than 50 countries.

Zenus Bank

Zenus Bank – Open a US Bank Account Remotely. This is the positioning of this bank, but the project has not started yet. The launch has been repeatedly postponed, first to 2020 and then to the middle of 2021. The project’s website allows you to join the waiting list. We will follow the developments and review this system when (if) it will be launched.

Zenus Bank project promises to be an addition to existing online services and promises to help anyone who wants to open an account in the United States, but the launch of the project has been delayed for several years.

To be continued …

In the second part of this article, we will answer the following questions:

  • How do I open an account in the U.S. with a personal visit to the country and what do I need to do?
  • Which banks in the U.S. are loyal to non-residents?
  • How does a non-resident open an LLC account?

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