I’ll begin by saying we were warned.

Several people made it very plain to us: setting up a French bank account is complicated, and takes longer than you’d think. So then, the point of this blog post is a) to verify that setting up a French bank account is indeed complicated and time-consuming, and b) to vent about that.

Making an appointment

The first thing worth mentioning is that you can’t simply waltz into a French bank and set up an account. You must first make an appointment. So shortly after we arrived in Lyon, as soon as the New Years’ holidays were over, I started telephoning banks to prendre un rendezvous. The earliest available appointments at many banks were a week later. Not later that afternoon. Or the following day. A week later.

Time was of the essence, and after many telephone calls, I eventually found a bank (Le Credit Lyonnais) that was willing to set up an appointment for the following day. So we took it. More on that shortly. But first:

The Catch-22

This part is important. So pay close attention.

  1. In order to set up a French bank account, you need proof of residence, like a utility bill.
  2. In order to set up any French utility, you need a bank account.

Hilarious, right?

How exactly does one figure a way out of this nightmarish chicken-and-egg scenario? Here’s what we did.

Basically, we found a very generous family who were willing to lie to the bank on our behalf. _They wrote us a letter claiming that we lived with them, and also gave us copies of their _cartes de sejour and their utility bills to bring to our bank appointment. They also put our names on their mailbox, because in France, it’s apparently illegal to deliver mail if the addressee’s name doesn’t appear on the corresponding mailbox.

So yeah, if you want a French bank account, you should line up an accomplice ahead of time, because you’ll need their help when you’re lying to the bank about where you live.

The appointment itself

Bureaucracy is a French word. We were already aware of the French love of paperwork. The bank was no exception. I’ve taken courses in university that generated less paper.

All in all, the appointment was long (~90 minutes), but pretty painless. Lots of personal questions, and lots of signatures. But nothing out of the ordinary. Our appointment was on a Wednesday, and we were told that we could pick up our cheques and bank cards the following Tuesday or Wednesday. This was good news, because we were about to move into a new apartment, and our landlord would be expecting cheques. And thus began…

The wait

Speed does not seem to be a pillar of French banking. Here’s the timeline:

Day 1

We set up our account.

Day 4

Secret bank access codes arrive in the (postal) mail.

Day 6

We go to the bank to see if our cheques and bank cards are ready. The woman looks up our names on the computer, walks to a locked filing cabinet, and pulls out several envelopes with our names on them. She opens the envelopes in front of us. Our bank cards and chequebook are inside.

Success! We’ll be able to pay our landlord!

But wait. Before she hands us our new bank cards and cheques, the woman looks at the computer again. La directrice of the bank has not given her final sign-off on our account. No soup for you.

We’re told to return the following day, and we leave empty handed.

Day 7

We return to the bank to pick up our cheques and bank cards. Success! We (finally) write our landlord a cheque.

Later that day, we excitedly head to a bank machine to try out our new bank cards. We use the secret bank access codes they sent on Day 4.

The codes don’t work.

Day 8

We return to the bank to ask why the codes they sent us in the mail don’t work. As it turns out, the codes they sent in the mail were not our bank card PINs, but rather, codes for online banking. We’re told that our bank card PINs will arrive in the (postal) mail… in a few days.

Day 10

Our PINs arrive in the postal mail. We’re set. I think.

In conclusion

I started by saying setting up a French bank account is complicated, and takes longer than you’d think. That’s true. If you’re an etranger, and you want to set up a bank account, your two best assets are:

  1. A person who’s willing to pretend that you live with them, and is also willing to put your name on their mailbox, give you copies of their utility bills and identity papers.
  2. An awful lot of patience.

Bonne courage!