Friday, July 3, 2015

The Reason for the Banking Crisis in Europe (or the Bureaucracy Challenge: AT&T vs. BNP Paribas)

Only our third day in France and we've already figured out the reason why some European banks don't have enough capital.  It seems that European banks don't want new deposits.  Actually, to be fair, it seems that a bank in France is much more than a bank in the U.S.  When you have a banking relationship in France, the bank is implicitly and explicitly vouching for your credit and character.  Thus, banks in France want a lot more information than a U.S. bank before they accept your money.

Nonetheless, we were resolved to open a bank account today because we wanted to get a cell phone. Why are the two related?  The French cell phone companies that we talked to yesterday wanted us to have a French bank account before opening anything other than a prepaid account with a new phone.

After researching French banks, we decided that the best bank to use was BNP Paribas so at 9 a.m., we marched into the nearest BNP Paribas branch and after several minutes of discussion between Bronwyn and bank officer (in French), we think that we were told that they could not open an account at the local bank branch, but that we should try the next branch down the street.  What kind of bank has branches where you can't open an account and deposit money?

After eventually locating a slightly larger branch "down the street" we were given a long list of documents that they would require in order to consider our request including:
  • Proof of residence (such as phone, water and electricity bills) authenticated by the French Ambassy [sic] / Consulate in the United States [it is no wonder that the French consulate in Atlanta has such limited time to review visa applications when they are also expected to verify telephone and gas bills for French banks]
  • House insurance certificate
  • Last salary slip 
  • Proof of legal residency in France (residency visa?)
  • Banking letter of recommendation in French and English detailing at least the address, the family name, the surname, our birth dates, the value of all of our bank accounts, the value of our other assets, the normal "flow" through the bank accounts, the length of time that we have had accounts with the bank and a (further?) proof of residence in the U.S.  Naturally, this would need to be verified with all possible seals and ribbons (mere notarization would not be enough)

After Bronwyn and I conferred about the difficulty of the request, Bronwy politely lied in French to the bank clerk and told her that we could get the necessary information.  This obviously surprised the clerk, but she advised us that they would not be able set up an appointment for us to open up a new account until next week.  We were beginning to get the impression that European banks really don't like opening new accounts and having people deposit money in their bank.

Fortunately, Bronwyn is not easily deterred.  Since BNP Paribas is a major international bank and it is headquartered is in Paris (apparently there are about 20,000 employees in Paris), she asked if there was anybody in Paris who might be able to meet with us to discuss opening a new account before next week.  Although the clerk seemed skeptical that the bank could free up an employee to accept a deposit she eventually was able to find one employee on the opposite side of Paris who appeared to have an opening in his schedule today at 11:30 a.m.

We went back to the apartment, gathered as much financial information as possible, and then hustled across town (using our new Metro cards) hoping we would not be late.  We arrived a couple of minutes early.  After we waited for 30 minutes with minimal acknowledgement from the receptionist we were eventually informed that a mistake had been made and that the appointment had been scheduled at a time when the person we were supposed to meet was to be at a meeting outside the office.  At first we were told to wait, but eventually the receptionist suggested that we return next week.

After hearing our tale of woe, the receptionist returned to her desk and had a telephone conversation with the bank officer.  Just as we were about to leave she informed us that the bank officer was going to return and meet with us.  An hour after we arrived, we were greeted by the bank officer and invited to come back to an office.  He was actually very nice, he spoke excellent English and it seemed that he really was missing a lunch appointment to fit us into his schedule.

Bronwyn explained our situation.  One of the first things that the bank officer wanted to know was our phone number.  It seems that you have to have a phone number to open a bank account (and a bank account to get a phone number).  We dodged that bullet by giving him the phone number of our home in Charlotte and cell phones, which were no longer operative.

Although the bank officer was very accommodating and waived many of the requirements, the bank officer informed us that in order to open an account we would still need to get an original signed letter of reference from our home bank verifying our financial life history. More significantly, we would need to deposit 15,000 Euro for at least two years as collateral, in addition to whatever amount of money we wanted to actually use in France.  (I was tempted to remind him that we just wanted to deposit money into a checking account, not take out a loan, but fortunately I kept my mouth shut.) After two and one-half hours at the bank we walked away with a long list of information that the bank would need, but no bank account that we could use.  It seemed that we would not have a bank account for at least a couple of weeks.

Fortunately, all was not lost.  Bronwyn found a cell-phone provider that appeared to not require a bank account as a condition to getting a cell phone.  Even better, the cell phone company had an office on the same side of Paris as the bank offices.  This cell phone provider (the name of the company is "Free") was much more flexible and gladly handed us a sim card for our iPhone and required only a credit card for unlimited calling and data to Europe and the U.S.

The only catch was that our cell phones were still locked by AT&T even though we had begun the process to get AT&T to unlock the phones three weeks earlier and had been promised by AT&T that we'd be able to unlock the phones by the time our AT&T cell phone service ended on July 3.  After multiple trans-Atlantic calls to AT&T we finally succeeded in unlocking Bronwyn's phone and installing the new European SIM card at 9 pm.  Still, we are declaring the day a success.  We may not have a bank account, but we have a working cell phone and we are no longer dependent on free Wifi.

AT&T thinks that they might be able to get around to unlocking my phone within two weeks.

Thus, in the end, it appears that AT&T is even more bureaucratic than either French banks or French telcom companies.  On this 4th of July weekend, it makes me proud to know that after only 240 years, an American company is even more bureaucratic than the European companies.

We celebrated by walking around the neighborhood.  My next goal is to learn to play Boules like the amazing gentlemen pictured below who were playing in the local park.  What better way to learn the culture.


  1. What a hassle. If I remember correctly there is also a ridiculous amount of work required to close a bank account abroad

  2. Helen....I did not know this. But now that you have mentioned it, I think that we are having second thoughts about opening an account. Not sure that we want to have so much of our money tied up in euros anyway...considering Greece and all. An ATM card may be the way to go. :-)