The Bank Job

Deciding to live long-term in France was easy; making it happen was one of the most complicated exercises either one of us has ever gone through. It became clear, almost immediately, that this was not something we could do on our own, and we set out to find some help. That came in the form of a company, appropriately called Pleasehelp.France, and in the person of a charming Brit named John Dislins, whose company assists English speakers–mostly Brits, but many Americans too—to navigate the morass of Byzantine French bureaucratic requirements, some of which change unexpectedly and often unannounced. We’re here now, and we continue to move along in the process, but Karen and I completely agree, while we figure we have, between us, the combined brain power of at least one sentient, even sophisticated, human, we could never have managed this on our own. We would have given up in disgust and frustration.

The amount of documentation needed for the long-stay visa, the carte de soujour, is staggering and at times, seems ridiculous. It must be submitted in exactly the required format, and it must be translated into French.  Financial records, history of residence, driving records, marriage certificate, birth certificates, and more.  Much more.

The birth certificate is a beauty; they wanted an original. Ponder THAT for a 70-year-old. Not only did they want an original, they also wanted a document called an apostille…which is a document that says the other document is genuine. When we applied for this in New Jersey, there was consternation that the signature on my original birth certificate was not the current Registrar’s. It took some doing to get them to grasp that the original signer, some 70 years ago, had in all likelihood joined the choir invisible, but New Jersey would only issue an apostille for a birth certificate authorized by the current Registrar, so I got a current “duplicate,” discovering in the process that my last name had been recorded incorrectly in 1948. That had to be changed and certified. There’s a State money maker.

We figured that along the way we would need a French bank account, if only for the convenience of a checking account and ATM card. As he has done for so many little landmines, our man John set us straight.  Some things in France can only be paid for through direct debit of a French checking account (oh, say, a French cell phone account, required for many reasons), and thus the bank account was not something to be done “along the way.” It was needed immediately on arrival. Armed with a voluminous dossier of information, John arranged for a bank account to be ready when we arrived, armed with  our long-stay visa authorization. We had no idea what information he had provided the bank.  All we knew was that our account was ready and waiting for us, after we transferred some sheckels into it electronically. That’s when things got interesting.

The bank in question is HSBC, a well-known and respected institution, as much as any bank is respected anywhere. Problem one arose when we discovered there is no HSBC branch in La Fleche, or in nearby Le Lude. In fact, the nearest HSBC branch is in downtown Le Mans, smack dab in the old town center, a 50-minute drive away, where parking is, at best, a challenge. We don’t actually expect to spend a lot of time in our bank branch, but considering how many bank branches there are in nearby La Fleche it seemed ridiculous to not use one of those banks. In fact, on the main drag off the town square there are branches for at least five different banks, all on one street, the street where our local brasserie is located. We determined we would eventually switch over to one of those local banks, but we had to go ahead with the starting arrangements with HSBC.  That meant a trip to Le Mans.

Our visit to the HSBC branch was, well, curious. For a big international bank like HSBC, and a branch serving as large a geographic area as this one, a two-person staff seemed a mite slim. Of course we arrived right before noon, so everybody went to lunch, and we did too. When we returned, they just seemed puzzled.  We’re not sure why, except that maybe they were aflutter because we are Americans, and Yanks seem a novelty in this part of France. We had an account number, the account was funded, and really all we wanted was our bank cards and some checks, although there’s not much likelihood we will ever write an actual paper check.

We left with nothing in our hands. We were told we would receive bank cards, activation codes, and checks in the mail. We received none.  We had another trip to Le Mans to pick up the checks, printed (wrongly) with our US address, and we never got the cards. A long and difficult phone call to our “relationship manager” ended with his promise that all would be fixed, and of course, nothing happened.  Well, one of us got a “new” card, but no activation code.  The other card went to the US.

At this point we decided to go to a local bank and roll over our account to them. All of our acquaintances assured us this would be the way to go, and the new bank would handle everything to transfer our funds, switch over the debit billing we have for our French phone, and close out the old account.

Now, if you want to open a bank account in the US you pick a bank, walk in and tell them you want to open an account. You show them your driver’s license, sign a piece of paper, they check your credit rating instantly, and they let you hand over money.  You leave with debit cards and temporary checks. Not in France.

In France you make an appointment a week or two in advance. The paperwork starts again, just like the visa drill. Adventures in Banking.  Keep in mind that we already had a French bank account and we only wanted to transfer to a new account at Credit Agricole. We needed to provide them with, among other things, tax records from the US, our lease and proof our landlord owns the house and has the right to rent to us(!), proof of income, proof we are us, proof of our US address, etc., etc.  These take five days to validate.  They charge for everything one way or another, including an annual client fee.  We were even asked if we would like to contribute to the bank’s charitable support of its region (sure).  And get this.  If you pay by check the payee has 1 year and 8 days to deposit it.  If your account is deficient at that time, “you are illegal.”  We decided to buy the overdraft protection.

We learned all this at the meeting that took two weeks to set up. Then we were told we needed to make another appointment to follow up on all of this and sign contracts.  Shortly thereafter we got an email and a phone call asking if we could come in between the first and second appointments to sign “documents.” After that we would come back for a third and final meeting to complete the account opening.

Three meetings?  Really? When all we want to do is give them our money? Nah. 

We got John on the horn and explained the problem. He was baffled as we were with the Credit Agricole experience, and told us he would get us straight with HSBC, which he promptly did, and we cancelled the whole thing with Credit Agricole.  We may try again when we feel like taking on a new hobby with one of the five banks on the main drag in La Fleche.

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