Adventures in French Banking

Banque Rhône-Alpes branch

In an earlier post about Orange (the phone store), I mentioned  that setting up the bank account would be covered in a future post.  Now that the dust has settled on the bank account (and the moths have appeared in our wallets), I’ll give you a peek into our experience with the banking system here.

When we tried to get our phone and apartment it became patently clear that we weren’t doing either without a french bank account.  We needed a RIB and a  Carte Bleue to do business.  We had no idea which bank would be the best for our financial needs here.  We saw names like Crédit Agricole, Banque de France, GE Money Bank and Banque Rhône Alpes.  As far as we could see, it would be a crap shoot.  So we decided to make a leap of faith, and one sunny morning we stepped into the nearest bank to open an account.  Actually, that’s not exactly how it went.

It’s all about security anymore.  We found that even in the U.S. at one of the banks we use, a remote banking system is in place.  You go into the bank and step up to a “private” booth and push the button to call a teller who is ensconced in a back room somewhere.  They will appear on a screen and you use one of those tubes that once was reserved for drive-up banking for your transaction inside the bank.

I’m not sure about the statistics regarding bank robberies in France now, but there must have been a slew of them at some point because getting into a french bank is not as simple as just walking through the door.  Forget it if you look even a little sketchy – I could see a discussion going on between the tellers when it was Steve’s turn to enter, but he eventually made it in. The system used here is:   the double door – obstacle course system.  At the outside street door you appuyez sur le bouton which alerts the person at the front desk that you want in.  They look you over.  If you seem to check out,  they buzz you into the next waiting area.  Once you’re securely in between the  two doors in the space equal to about half  of a small  elevator,  you may be buzzed into the bank lobby.  Only one person is buzzed in at a time, so Steve and I had to enter separately (see previous comment concerning Steve.)  We wouldn’t have both fit in that space at the same time anyway.  We were directed to a desk where a  young man who must be an account manager sat.  We shook hands, said “Bon jour!”, and then looked at each other as he waited for us to speak in french to him.  Uh-Oh, he didn’t speak any english!  We weren’t sure we wanted to hand over any of our money to someone who might be on the next plane to Rio with our U.S. dollars because we didn’t understand the ins and outs of  opening  a checking  account in France.  Luckily, he quickly figured out that communication could be a problem and picked up the phone.  In less than a minute  he handed me the phone, and I was  speaking to a woman with  near-perfect english at another branch.  This banque, Banque Rhône Alpes, has a branch that proudly announces that “Here, we speak English”.  I quickly made an appointment for Steve and me to meet with Sylviane Teper the next day.

Steve outside of Banque Rhône-Alpes - high art!

When we arrived at Sylviane’s branch, we went through the same gauntlet at the door.  She was expecting us so I think we may have been buzzed in a nano-second sooner than at the other branch.  She welcomed us into her office, and we managed to set up a checking account, apply for debit cards and complete voluminous paperwork.   The appointment took us about an hour and a half.  Sylviane is the essence of graciousness.  Her english is impeccable, and we certainly appreciated that.  She showed  the utmost of patience, and demonstrated superior  customer service.  She explained in detail everything we signed and answered our beaucoup des questions.

I do have to say, however, that we’ve signed and carried away  less  paperwork when we have closed on real estate which also had homeowner association covenants in the closing package.  After all that, we still left without a checkbook or debit cards.  We had to return to the branch office to pick up our checkbook.  For our protection, it could not be mailed.  As for the debit cards, they would be mailed to us.  And the pin codes would follow.  The attention to security here is amazing!

Finally, we each received our debit cards and the debit card pin codes in separate mailings.  When  we were picking  up our checkbook, we were strongly cautioned not to overdraw the account.  There are serious repercussions if the account is overdrawn, such as closure of the account by the bank.  The stores and markets  are in the enviable position to trust that their customer’s  cheque is good.  The French people take their fiscal responsibilities seriously.  We did have to get a crash course in how to fill out a french cheque.  In France you have to write the amount in a very specific way to avoid confusion.  An added dimension is that when you write a check you also include the city  in which you are located at the moment when you are writing the check (see ‘Fait a’).  It’s not where you live.  A comma is used in place of a decimal.  If you use the decimal that means thousands if followed by 3 digits (Watch out for that!)  Le is the date written in the European format.

writing out a French cheque

Luckily, the banque we chose allows us to bank online.  I’ve spoken to other expats here who don’t have that privilege with their banque.  Score one for us having chosen an easier path for a change (by sheer luck) and gotten superior service in the bargain!

RIB : relevé d’identité  bancaire : statement of banking identity

Carte Bleue: a debit card

appuyez  sur le bouton: push the button


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Char
    Sep 14, 2010 @ 19:51:46

    OMG I can’t believe you guys had to go through all that for a bank account! It is nice to hear that they do take your account secruity seriously though!

    Congrats on being new checking account owners! Hahaha


    • steveandmo
      Sep 14, 2010 @ 22:45:53

      Guard your account with your life. Hardly anyone uses anything but cash or checks here. I guess they know we’re Americans since we use our credit card all the time.


  2. Barbara
    Sep 15, 2010 @ 14:36:02

    HI, Maureen,
    I did not realize how challenging these things were. It gives me a better understanding of all the things that our daughter has gone through in the past ten years. If Jim needs to work in Monheim for a few months, I am beginning to think that I may stay in Cary. by the time it takes to get set up, it would be time to move back home. Monheim is a small town without Internet cafes and other big citiy conveniences, like trains or buses everywhere. It would be sort of like moving to Apex. Not exactly what I expected. Most of the people at his office live all over the place, and not in Monheim. Lots to think about.
    I love your blogs!


  3. Catherine
    Sep 16, 2010 @ 02:56:27

    I’m learning so much! I’m glad that you’ve been able to jump all of the hoops – sounds like a lot of work. So glad they let Steve in the door, too! Love the blog!


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