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Updated on Friday, January 24, 2020
Foreign nationals who live in the United States may open bank accounts. However, there are some hurdles to overcome as a non-U.S. citizen when applying to open an account at a bank or a credit union. While it’s perfectly legal, you should be prepared to deal with some challenging extra steps. Read on to understand all of the details below before you visit a bank branch.
What you need to open a bank account as a non-U.S. citizen
If you are a non-U.S. citizen who wants to open a bank account, financial institutions require you to present one or more of the following forms of identification:
- Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN)
- A passport number or an alien identification card number
- A government-issued ID issued by a foreign country
In addition, both non-U.S. citizens and U.S. citizens need to present the following information to open a bank account:
- Date of birth
- Proof of your physical address, such as a lease or utility bill
U.S. law requires financial institutions to know who their customers are and trace each of their transactions. That means banks and credit unions must verify the identity of a customer when they open a new deposit account, such as a checking account, a savings account or a certificate of deposit (CD).
In addition to the materials above, U.S. citizens need to present their Social Security number to open a bank account.
Why do non-U.S. citizens need extra information to open a bank account?
Not all non-U.S. citizens have Social Security numbers. That makes verifying the identity of a non-U.S. citizen challenging, and that’s why banks and credit unions need a foreign national’s passport number or some other government identification document to verify their identity.
Online bank account applications typically do not offer a place to input a passport number or other ID number. So institutions generally ask foreign nationals to come into a branch to verify their identity in person. This is also why it can be very difficult if not impossible for non-U.S. citizens to open an account with some online banks. In most cases, online banks do not have physical branches.
Before you visit a branch office of a bank or a credit union, make sure to check on the institution’s website or call for information about required verification documents for foreign nationals. Each institution has its own set of policies and procedures in place to comply with the requirements touched on above.
Are you a resident alien or nonresident alien?
A foreign national who resides in the U.S. is either a resident alien or a nonresident alien. You’ll need to know whether you are a resident alien or non-resident alien when you talk to an institution about opening a bank account. If you are unsure about your status, here’s how to figure it out.
It’s less straightforward to determine whether a non-green card holder — such as an international student or an expats with a work visa — is a resident alien. According to the IRS, to qualify as a resident alien, you must be physically in the U.S. for at least:
- 31 days during the current year, and
- 183 days during the three-year period that includes the current year and the two years immediately before that, counting:
- All the days you were present in the current year, and
- One-third of the days you were present in the first year before the current year, and
- One-sixth of the days you were present in the second year before the current year.
There are also special categories of foreign nationals who are exempt from the substantial presence test, which means their stays in the U.S. do not count as residents when they are on certain visas.
An “exempt individual” is:
- An individual temporarily present in the U.S. as a foreign government-related individual under an “A” or “G” visa, other than individuals holding “A-3” or “G-5” class visas.
- A teacher or trainee temporarily present in the U.S. under a “J” or “Q” visa.
- A student temporarily present in the U.S. under an “F,” “J,” “M,” or “Q” visa.
- A professional athlete temporarily in the U.S. to compete in a charitable sports event.
The exemption time frames differ by visa type. For example, if you are an international student, you are an exempt individual for five calendar years when you are on an F visa. Starting year six, you will be considered a resident alien if you meet the substantial presence test above.
A nonresident alien is a non-U.S. citizen who is not a lawful permanent resident during the calendar year and does not meet the substantial presence test in the section above. Nonresident aliens can still open bank accounts in the U.S.
Do you need a Social Security number to open a bank account?
While it is possible to open a bank account without a Social Security number, you’ll need to visit a bank branch to make it happen. Because online banks don’t have physical branches for a customer to walk into and sit down with a customer service representative, it’s not as simple for these banks to verify the identity of someone who does not have an SSN.
MagnifyMoney recently reviewed four online savings accounts — Online Savings from Discover Bank, Online Savings Account from Ally Bank, Member FDIC, Marcus by Goldman Sachs® and Capital One 360. Each of these banks required a SSN and physical U.S. address to sign up for their savings account. Discover and Ally did not allow nonresident aliens to open accounts at all even if they had a SSN.
How to open a bank account without a Social Security number
Resident aliens with a Social Security number can usually finish the bank account application process online just like any other American citizen, because they are considered U.S. residents for tax purposes.
For example, at Bank of America, resident aliens can open an account at a BofA branch by presenting a Permanent Resident Card, INS Employment Card, Non-immigrant Visa, Border Crossing Card or a foreign passport, along with an additional form of identification. According to Don Vecchiarello, Jr., BofA’s senior vice president and communications manager for consumer products and small business, the options for the required secondary ID include a major credit card or retailer card, student ID, employment work badge or foreign driver’s license.
However, nonresident aliens won’t be able to do that. Typically, an error message would likely tell the person to visit a local branch or call for assistance. For this reason, it may be better for nonresident aliens to stick to banks that have physical locations. Large banks are less likely to have roadblocks for noncitizens than smaller local banks, said Ken Tumin, founder and editor of DepositAccounts.com.
If you are a nonresident alien, you will most likely have to visit a bank branch to get a checking or savings account with the assistance of a bank clerk. Some banks may ask for immigration documents in lieu of other identification, but it can still be tricky.
The challenge is that bank clerks may not know your status and which documentation is needed to open an account for you, explained Libby Dawson, a wealth advisor at Worldview Wealth Advisors. You may be required to provide all forms of paperwork that the bank needs to open an account for all non-U.S. citizens, even if you are a resident alien.
“They are going to follow whatever they see in terms of their own system, but at the end of the day, it’s often not until the paperwork is actually processed that you know for sure if everything has been done the way that they needed to be done,” Dawson said.
Resident aliens have online options
MagnifyMoney reviewed bank account applications for eight major U.S. banks. We found that if you are a resident alien who has an SSN, then you can open an account online with a major U.S. bank.
However, small local banks may not allow non-U.S. citizens — resident aliens or nonresident aliens — to apply online. For example, at Hills Bank, a community bank in Iowa City, Iowa, we found its online application informs the applicant that if they aren’t a U.S. citizen or U.S. person, they can’t continue the process using that method.
If you are a resident alien and hope to open a bank account online, your best shot would be a large U.S. bank that operates throughout the country. In a typical online application, you will need to enter your personal information, including name, address, phone number and your SSN.
I’m an undocumented immigrant, can I open a bank account?
You can open a bank account if you’re an undocumented immigrant at some banks, like Bank of America. However, you will likely need to apply in person and need several forms of identification, like proof of address, Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN), birth certificate, unexpired passport and more. Every bank has its own set of criteria, so be sure to research the requirements before heading to the local branch.