The French high street banking system holds a great deal of mystery not to mention irritation for the average Brit buying in France. Before you can complete on your house you will need to have this in place, and you’ll need it to set up your gas, water and electricity services.
A couple of years ago my Parisian grandmother passed away having reached the ripe old age of 100. She had spent the last 80 years living in the same elegant apartment where my mother was born, in Pigalle. It’s thanks to her that we have been able to buy our house in France, returning to my roots which she would have loved.
To avoid losing vast amounts in foreign exchange transactions I tried to open a French bank account from here before the inheritance was finalised and in readiness for finding me dream house. I spent numerous hours on the phone to numerous French banks, being passed from pillar to post, to no avail. I contacted UK banks with branches abroad as well as international banks trying to get a euro account. HSBC and Britline.com are helpful but still it was ridiculously complicated.
The thing to do, I subsequently discovered, is just to open an account in France. A surprisingly easy thing to do when you are there on holiday or house hunting. Even as a non-resident it’s simple and straight forward. You will only need 1€ deposit and your passport as ID and proof of address – in the UK is fine. Had I known that at the time, it would have been cheaper for me to fly to France for the day than to pay the foreign transfer charges I ended up having to cover both ways.
Carole and I are now on first name terms - not common in France where respectfully you will be addressed by your title and surname everywhere you go. Whenever I have a problem I call her and she is most helpful. Carole set up my home and contents insurance and organises my internet banking - by hand. I can’t set up a new payee on line from the comforts of my Scottish home as I don’t have a French mobile phone to verify the transaction…. so I email Carole and she does it for me. Wonderful customer service - unless she happens to be on her two hour lunch break, on holiday, out of the office or it’s close to midnight which is when I usually get round to doing my online banking.
You’ll also want to find out about accessing your money before you choose your bank, which will be quite surprising compared with UK practices. My account is with the Credit Agricole and I opened it in Bergerac in the Departement of the Dordogne because that is where we were staying when we were house hunting. Having subsequently bought my house 20 minutes down the road in the neighbouring Departement of the Gironde, I discover that I cannot withdraw money at the counter from my local branch. I’m limited to €600 a week from a cash till – which, thankfully I can access across the country, but if it is not a Credit Agricole cash till, there will be a charge. Needless to say €600 every 7 days doesn’t go very far when you’ve just bought a house, so I have to cross the river back to the Dordogne to get access to my cash.
When I get to the charming village of Port St Foy, fortunately just over the bridge from where we stay, there is a bit of a queue - after all, its market day. Eventually, it's my turn to meet one of the clerks, we shake hands. The previous 3 customers in the queue were warmly greeted with an embrace and a kiss on both cheeks by their bank manager. Certainly not the norm in any RBS branch I’ve frequented pretty and efficient looking bank employee, Melle Duval takes me to a private meeting room – there is no open counter here for doing your transactions. We sit and chat. After questioning as to why I need to remove over €2000 in one transaction –
several individual cards are loaded up for me to make a withdraw to pay the electrician, the plumber, and the odd job man – after all, we are doing renovations – she loads up 2 bank cards and hands them to me. I now need to go and put these into the cash till at the front of the branch where, in return, I’ll access my money. There is another long queue. Fortunately, the carpark isn’t metered.
It's the second time I’ve been to this branch in the neighbouring Department to access my funds. On the first occasion, a Thursday, I was told cash was only distributed on Tuesdays and Saturdays… It’s a good thing my tradesmen are patient people.