MOVING TO NEW JERSEY: For any new expat relocating to America, the need to open a US bank account is a high priority. It is something that should be planned to do almost immediately after arrival. Having an American bank account will give you ready access to US currency. Beyond that, it is normally needed for payment of salary by your employer or for funds transfer, often very early after getting here.
Most US banks require you visit them in person to open an account, especially if you do not have a social security number yet. Even if you can open one online, you will probably need to visit a branch at some stage to sign forms for employer direct pay into your account, and other basic requirements.
You can enter most banks without an appointment and wait for a banker to assist you. It is much more useful though to make an appointment, as opening an account can often take 60 minutes or more. Most banks will prefer an appointment as well to allow enough time for the paperwork to be done without rushing. When making an appointment you can also check what documents you will need to bring to open the account. Some banks allow you to book online ahead for an appointment to visit them.
These are the main US banks
There are several large national banks in the USA and most of them have a good-sized footprint in New Jersey. Major national banks include:
- Bank of America
- Wells Fargo
- JPMorgan Chase Bank
- TD Bank
- PNC Bank
- Capitol One
There are over 130 banks in New Jersey. Not only are there big bank brands operating here but also smaller national banks, regional, state, and smaller community banks. That is without even considering credit unions. Some of these less well-known institutions include Santander Bank, Fulton Bank, M&T Bank, Investors Bank, Provident Bank, Valley National Bank, Lakeland Bank and New York Community Bank.
How to choose a US bank
When choosing a bank to open a US account with, you need to consider a few selection criteria:
- Security – Is the bank reputable and trustworthy, and unlikely to fold in the short-term. All the major banks above would be considered quite secure. Most reliable banks have FDIC insurance that provides insurance of up to $250,000 per depositor for customers. You can check if a bank is insured at the FDIC website.
- Convenience – How many branches and ATMs are available to access funds from is an important need. Will you have to go out of your way to find one of the bank’s ATMs? Hopefully not, as this will cost extra fees. Not all banks have nationwide offices. Some like HSBC are nationwide but have few offices and ATMs compared to Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Chase or TD Bank.
- Flexibility and Fees – There may be limits on the number of transactions allowed in some savings accounts or monthly balances required, to avoid monthly fees. Some savings accounts may or may not have ATM access. Fees may vary from monthly account fees, to ATM use fees or fees charged if a monthly balance of funds are not maintained.
- Future financial needs – For a longer-term perspective, you should consider if you are likely to need a credit card or home loan in the future. Expats with low or non-existing credit-history will find varying levels of ease in getting a credit card when there is no established credit history. Similarly, not all banks offer very appealing loan packages to expats. Citibank are considered by some expats as easier to deal with for loans.
- Extra Benefits – Some banks provide attractive incentives to join such as rewards programs, cashbacks, free checks or ATM fee refunds etc. Do some research beforehand.
The need to open a bank account quickly without having your Social Security Number (SSN) means choosing from a smaller group of options than when you do have an SSN. However, there is nothing to stop you later from swapping to another bank or opening a second account with another bank, if they offer more attractive benefits.
The most popular bank in each state varies, although a recent survey by BankRate.com showed in New Jersey, it is PNC Bank. A summary of many of the US bank options available nationally and in New Jersey are detailed online at:
When you can first Open a US Bank Account in New Jersey
Most of the major US banks require that you have at least a suitable visa that shows you will be working or have permission to work in the US. Without this, it is likely you will be refused in most NJ banks. A tourist visa is insufficient for this purpose in nearly all banks except a very small number that includes TD Bank. Although I have not used this bank personally for opening expat accounts, they are reputedly the most flexible of the large national banks.
If you are opening an account in person, TD Bank requires only a current non-US passport, as well as a secondary photo ID, such as Employment card, Foreign License, College ID etc. According to my sources, they do not even require a US address for expats attending the bank in person. While this may be the situation in some states, requirements vary from state to state and even one branch to another. To save wasting your time, this information should be checked thoroughly before proceeding to the bank, in case it is not this straightforward. Capitol One Bank reputedly also offer a similar service. In both cases, applicants are usually asked to complete a W-8EN form and provide proof of their foreign address.
Aside from TD Bank, having a temporary non-immigrant visa that allows you to work (non-tourist/non-business) is usually a pre-requisite to open a US bank account in most New Jersey banks. There are varying additional requirements by bank for certain other documents or status, before some banks will open an account for you. The first requirement for some is that you have a US address, while for others it is having an SSN or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN).
You Can Open a US Bank Account Without an SSN or ITIN
Here are the banks you can approach to open a US bank account in person without an SSN or ITIN, as a new customer:
- Wells Fargo Bank – require passport with visa and photo ID. Do not require a US residential address. May also require formal letter of employment offer.
- Citibank* – require passport with visa and photo ID. Require a US residential address. May also require formal letter of employment offer for the applicant.
- Bank of America – require passport with visa and photo ID. Require a US residential address. May also require formal letter of employment offer for the applicant.
- HSBC* – will only set up account without SSN if large amount deposited (left in account to avoid high monthly fees) or monthly sum debited to account. Still require passport with visa and photo ID. Require a US residential address. Will also require formal letter of employment offer for the applicant. HSBC seem to target highly paid executives, with their requirements. However, how strictly these rules are applied does vary from state-to-state.
- TD Bank/Capitol One Bank – as above
* – International banks such as Citibank, HSBC and Barclays offer customers the chance of opening a US account from their home country. However, while this is more convenient than doing it in the US, often there are requirements for large sums to be deposited in the new US account for a specific period.
Sometimes proof of a local residential address is required, and this might include a lease, utility bill, US driver license or other. American banks will not usually accept a hotel as a suitable address. They may accept a short-term residential apartment if there is a contract/lease to show that it is not too temporary. A bit surprisingly, banks can vary somewhat at branch level on exactly how flexible they are regarding these issues. Experienced staff are best to deal with if possible, especially if they are used to opening a US bank account for expats. If the banker is not sure, then ask for the manager’s assistance.
Virtually, all other US banks such as PNC and Chase, require an SSN or ITIN before you can open an account. A small number of new visitors may arrive in the US with an SSN in hand – only green card applicants or prior residents. Unless you are one of these, it can take up to a month before you can get an SSN or ITIN and most new expats will need to open an account well prior to this.
Documents Needed to Open a US Bank Account
You will need to bring certain documents with you to open a US bank account. This includes:
- A valid passport with current U.S. work visa
- A second form of ID such as a current credit card and/or home country driver’s license or international driver’s license, if possible. A credit card is often preferred, unless the bank needs a photo ID e.g. TD Bank.
- Some proof of income that you will be earning as an expat in the US. Usually a letter of offer from your employer that details your salary package is enough to meet this requirement. Otherwise you may need to have employee pay stubs, copies of bank account balances from home or other proof of your financial status. This is because a credit check is usually run on new applicants and since expats (legal aliens) nearly always have no credit history, the bank wants to be assured you will not be a financial risk.
- Optional: Social Security card (if you have it already) – as above: it is not compulsory at all US Banks if you attend the bank in person. Check whether your bank requires this before attending an appointment to open an account. All banks will eventually ask for your SSN for tax purposes, even if you don’t need it for opening the account. Read about who needs SSNs and how to apply for a Social Security Card.
- Recommended: Proof of address-may be required in some banks. To be on the safe side, bring suitable proofs of your US address if available. These might include a lease or one of the following items mailed to your US address – utility bill, credit card bill or government mail. If you have just arrived, and staying in temporary lodgings, then choose a bank that doesn’t require a US residential address. Some banks will also require a proof of your home country address, so bring a similar example of a document to prove this.
- You should not be required to show your immigration form (I-94 or equivalent) however, it does not hurt to carry this with your passport wherever you go.
Bank Account Products You May Get Offered
Basic bank accounts tend to be called either checking or savings accounts. Unlike other countries where checking accounts are usually available only on request or not at all, these types of accounts are common in the US. Perhaps because checks (spelt as cheques in Australia) are still used a lot in most American states. A checking account is used for salary deposits, transacting and withdrawals, while a savings account by its nature, is preferred for leaving money to accumulate rather than spending. Many savings-style accounts do not offer ATM withdrawal features but can be linked to checking accounts for transfers. Savings accounts offer better interest rates versus checking accounts generally while online savings accounts offer better interest than standard savings accounts.
Most large banks have competent online websites where electronic transfers can be done between your own accounts, as well as paying outside vendors or bank transfers. Many have very convenient banking apps which allow banking to be done via mobile phone, and these can be set up with online banking at the initial visit.
Other Important Information to Know
You will need to bring some money to deposit in your new account. Usually a minimum of around US $25-$30, sometimes up to $100, is required to open a basic account. Most banks will provide you with a temporary ATM card to use immediately following your visit. This is to help you get by until the permanent card is made, then it will be mailed to you at the mailing address you provide, usually after 1-2 weeks.
At the appointment or meeting, the banker will ask for some standard information listed below. It is often very useful to have this information ready to provide in written form for accurate entry into the bank’s account records during the appointment. If you can prepare the information needed in writing before the appointment, it will help make your appointment smoother and more streamlined. When the banker has written information, it can help avoid spelling and presentation mistakes in names, addresses etc. This is important if you want to use the bank’s ATM/debit card as an ID elsewhere in the USA. Some banks such as Bank of America can provide a photo debit card (they take your photo at the time of applying). This then serves as a useful ID for other purposes as needed.
The information a banker needs to open a US bank account for expats includes:
- Your home address (in home country)
- An email address where you can be contacted in the US
- A local phone number where you can be contacted in the US (preferably a US mobile if you have one). If not, then a work telephone will be acceptable if you have no personal phone numbers yet. If providing your home country phone number, make sure you provide all the international calling numbers needed.
- The postal address where the bank’s new ATM card can be sent. This is usually an American address as well.
- New employer name and address if not printed on your letter of employment offer.
If trying to open a joint account, you will need the other account-holder with you at the appointment in nearly all cases, with their own identification documents.
Mistakes to Avoid When You Open a Bank Account
- Letting the bank misspell your name on your records and ATM card
Many expats use their US bank debit card as a form of ID when applying for their driver license. As new expats rarely have lots of American ID to show at the DMV, a US ATM card is often very convenient to use there. Try to get your name spelled on the bank card exactly as it is on your passport and visa (these should ideally match already but visa is the main comparator). As there are limits to the number of letters that can be used, this can be difficult to fit everything in with middle names or long surnames. The priority is to ensure your full surname is spelled correctly on your ATM card. Then if the full middle name doesn’t fit, at least have an initial shown for your middle names if possible. Ask to check the details the banker is submitting for your ATM card if you can.
- Passing up the chance to get a photo ID
Some banks including Bank of America, offer the chance to add a photo to your bank debit card. This is an excellent security feature that is worth obtaining, and makes this card a useful secondary photo ID. If offered, then make sure you take this up.
- Providing an address for card delivery where it can be easily lost
Since most people will be staying in temporary accommodation for a short time after arrival in the US, it is wise not to have your bank ATM card sent there. Expats sometimes choose to send them to their new workplace or a friend’s address. If you choose a work address, make sure you provide adequate detail so that the card gets to you safely. In large offices, this can be difficult, especially where a mailroom is involved that may not know your name or building location as a new employee. A way of avoiding this is to have it sent to a specific HR contact or to brief the mailroom as to your details, so the card is identified correctly when it arrives.
- Providing a temporary address for posting banking statements
As above, temporary addresses are not safe for sending cards or sensitive financial information such as a bank statement. To avoid this, make sure you choose the paperless option (email or online) for statements being sent. Once you have a permanent address, then statements can be sent there. Most American DMVs will want a printed ‘original’ bank statement (a version that was mailed or provided at the bank), as proof of address or ID.
While opening a US bank account may sound complicated, it really isn’t if you do your homework and prepare prior to your appointment. Getting your first ATM card will be an exciting step, and proof that you have really moved to America.
Disclaimer: This is general advice only, intended for new expatriates planning to relocate to the US. Individuals should however perform their own financial assessments of banking services available or discuss their options with other finance professionals, before making final decisions. Banking and financial circumstances change frequently over time, so while we endeavour to provide the latest information, we cannot guarantee that everything included above is up-to-date or accurate at the time of reading.