All the information we had obtained prior to our trip told us that getting a bank account in France would be a time consuming experience. In one sense this has been absolutely true, and yet in another it has been a revelation about the current state of world banking. We knew to just go from one bank to another, expecting many rejections and being prepared to move on to the next name on the list – sort of like cold calling.
The first bank we checked was closed – banks close for lunch and reopen at about 2 pm. The second bank we checked was an HSBC branch about a block from our hotel. There (after getting buzzed through the double locked bullet proof doors that control entry to virtually all banks) we met Zacharie Sidi Larbi, account manager, who (to our great relief) spoke perfect English. After a short conversation, he scheduled us an appointment with his director, Sophie Bouttier, for the following Saturday. Zacharie advised that we bring a “Letter of Residency” from our hotel, proving that we were staying there. He said that the hotel concierge would be familiar with this request. Our hotel Concierge provided it within the hour, and we hand carried it back to Zacharie. Since we would need to wait a few days for the HSBC appointment, we decided to check with other banks. The clerk at BNP Paribus across the street told us that she couldn’t help foreigners open an account and that we would need to go to one of their offices in central Paris. After that it became much more interesting for us to buy a chicken at a local boucherie (butcher’s shop).
On Saturday we met with Sophie Bouttier at HSBC. She told us how she preferred living and working in Vincennes to Central Paris. Our meeting with her was a little like applying for a mortgage (or getting a French Long Term Visa). We came armed with 3 months past statements from every account, as well as a complete listing of financial assets, copies of our passports and visas, etc. She reviewed everything we presented, told us that HSBC would be happy to have us as clients and that it would take a few days for her to draw up the paperwork. She also said that they could open an account for us in the US and that if we were willing to keep on deposit about $100,000 US (or 75,000 euros) either in the US or France they would be happy to arrange transfers of funds between accounts for no fee, and that they would be interested in helping us with investment decisions anywhere in the world. We agreed to meet the following Wednesday to sign the paperwork.
It turns out this is the face of banking today. The Wall St Journal recently reported that JP Morgan Chase and other large US banks were shifting their emphasis to wealth management. JP Morgan Chase is now offering a program to help clients invest in rental real estate in some states battered by the housing crisis. HSBC (it was originally the Hong Kong China Bank), a London based bank, has acquired large banking assets around the globe to become the 4th largest bank in the world, and wealth management is obviously on their agenda. Their web site in the US advertised that we could have opened an account there in 3 days and had the account in France waiting for us when we arrived – 20/20 hindsight. It’s noteworthy that we didn’t know of or receive an offer to do this from any of our sources, meager as they may be. Note also that the largest US Bank, JP Morgan Chase, is 8th in the world. The largest bank in the world is Deutsche Bank. BNP Paribas, the largest French Bank, is 6th.
So we met with Sophie on Wednesday and signed all the many sets of paperwork. She is delightful. Checks and a credit card will be ready next week. Now if we can just figure out the best way to wire funds……