Opening a Bank Account in South Africa

March 23, 2012

I was trying to come up with a snazzy title for this one but there is just no way around telling it as it is. There is nothing exciting about having to open a bank account in a new country. Neither is there much humor in it, though I always find it rewarding to go look for it anyway. Humor is so much better to stomach than hassle.

Anyway, a reader asked if it's possible to open a South African bank account as a foreigner (yes it is!) so I thought I should make a blog post out of it. While I've written about going to the bank (where readers have left some instructive comments), I've never actually told you about opening an account.

Perhaps this is due to the fact that our bank account was already opened when I moved here, waiting for me to start spending which, trust me, I already knew how to do well. It's one of the few things Noisette got accomplished in the weeks he was here prior to the rest of us, much like I expected a shiny new car in my garage upon my arrival. Alas, the car was not to be, as you well know.

Anyway, opening a bank account is definitely your first order of business. I know other expats who manage to live here without one, but transferring money all the time is a huge hassle and not worth it, in my mind. A lot of the other things you will want to get, like a mobile phone contract, an internet connection, and yes, a car, will require you to have a bank account, or at least it will make things easier.

But which bank to pick? South Africa's four largest banks are ABSA, FNB, Standard Bank, and Nedbank. Their services are all similar, and you will have to get used to the fact that they will all charge you fees for just about everything. To deposit money. To withdraw money. Maintenance fees. Foreign exchange fees. If you want to research all of their fees to make sure you get the best deal, feel free. I personally think it's a good idea to pick a bank that has a branch fairly close to your home, and ATMs in places that are safe and that you frequent often, like your closest shopping centre. A reader of mine recommended Investec for their excellent customer service and reasonable monthly fees, so that's also worth a try.

It's possible to open your bank account from abroad, I think, but I'm sure it'll be easier to do in person as soon as you've arrived. Just as long as you're prepared to plan enough time for it. Remember, you are now on African time and things don't get simply checked off your list just because you're willing it to be so. The best way to avoid numerous trips is to come armed with, well, everything you can think of. This is what I would bring:

  • Proof of identity (passport, including visa/work permit)
  • Proof of residency (i.e. utility bill, but if you have just moved here a copy of your lease agreement is best; and yes, bring the entire agreement)
  • Bank draft or cash in South African Rand (ZAR) to put a starting deposit into your account; having a minimum balance may reduce your monthly service fees
  • Statement or reference from your existing bank
  • Letter from your employer stating your monthly salary

I'm not saying you will  need all of these, but it's entirely possible you do, so if it's not too much hassle, save yourself an extra trip by having everything handy.

Oh, and make sure you put everyone's name on the account who will be using it. South African banks don't offer joint accounts, so as a spouse I'm forever relegated to a somewhat lesser status than Noisette when it comes to money issues. It is very important you at least get your name on there. And remember how you spelled it (initials or full first name etc) because if you then later have your cable TV turned off because your monthly auto pay (also called stop order) didn't go through you'll know it's because the spelling didn't match.


While you're there, let them also set up and explain their internet banking in every detail. You will use that a ton. In fact, most every transaction in South Africa, whether it's making a deposit on your first safari or paying the kids' piano lessons, occurs via Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT). Once you get that going it's a breeze to use, but I remember it took quite some time to set up, what with all the passwords you need to register it. Also think about what kind of SMS alert you want. And to whose phone. I can assure you what you DON'T want is an SMS to your husband every time you make a purchase. It took me quite some time to get THAT fixed!

What you should come home with after setting up your account is three cards: A debit card, which you'll use to get cash at the ATM and pay most of your in-store purchases, a credit card which comes in handy for online purchases, just as long as you set it up for something called 3D-Secure Checkout (another instance where you have to make sure the spelling of your name is exactly as the bank has listed it, trust me, I know these things), and a garage card. That last one is for paying for gas at the pump, because gas stations don't accept regular debit or credit cards.

Another thing worth pondering: South Africa has in place something very few countries still use that is called Exchange Control Regulations, meaning there is no free flow of money in and out of the country. The Reserve Bank of South Africa, believe it or not, oversees all capital in- and outflows. Which goes a long way to explaining why I had to have fifteen forms stamped and show all sorts of identification when I simply wanted to get some U.S. dollars the other day. Another errand NOT done quickly. What this also means is that any incoming foreign exchange funds will be scrutinized and you will have to explain yourself. I get an email from our bank every time we get any healthcare reimbursements from the U.S. asking me to explain what it is. Think about that before setting up your salary arrangements with your employer. It might be easier to be paid in local currency from a domestic bank.

Oh, and I can think of another banking-related issue: When you move, don't give your home bank your  new South African address to forward mail to. Keep an address in your home country for that purpose, and set up some kind of arrangement to have a mail pouch shipped to your front door periodically via Fedex or DHL. The South African Postal Service cannot be trusted, and they seem to have an especially keen eye for foreign credit and bank card replacements sent in the mail. I can guarantee you that if you have your foreign card sent to you through the mail that it will not get here. What will get here, however, is a puzzled query from your home bank if you REALLY want $30,000 transferred to some bank in Nigeria. If you're lucky.

Have I forgotten anything? I think that's it. Happy banking, everyone. 

13 comments:

Shandy said...

Hi Sine,

Thanks for this - you can now actually use a debit or credit card at garages which is great because it means a garage card is not needed - one less card to carry around.

Love the blog.
Shandy

nikkimoffitt said...

Your next post should be about 'how to keep your bank account open' ;) For that reason I would suggest no expat arriving in South Africa open a bank account with ABSA. The regulations for banking as you have pointed out are quite strict and ABSA struggles to keep up with the actual goings on in the real world. I am not sure if you have a 'Renew your visa post' but if you do I am sure it includes a six-twelve month wait since the centralisation of the process in Pretoria in 2010. Once your visa expires - even if you have a letter from Home Affairs stating you have submitted your renewal ABSA suspends your bank account, it takes quite a bit to keep it open and then they keep suspending it - again and again and tell you if you don't get your visa by x date they will seize your funds indefinitely. We have been going backwards and forwards with them for nearly 9 months now while waiting our visa renewal. It is not a fun process. I have expat friends at other banks who have not had this issue - so I recommend - steer clear of ABSA.

Sine said...

@Shandy - whew, finally got my internet back and can respond to comments! Thanks for the update on the garage card, I hadn't known that. Like you say, one less thing to worry about so that's great!

Sine said...

@Nikki - you've got to be kidding. You know, now that you mention it, I have heard that before, maybe it was from you. That is so typical South Africa and so I'm glad you brought it up, because yes, that is a definite strike against ABSA, I would never recommend them to anyone hearing this. Like you said, your visas taking time is almost a given and having no bank account or funds is an absolute nightmare. Even more so when you've already lived here and think you are done with such crap. Like my internet not working for the past week. Thanks for sharing, you've definitely helped some future expat, hope it gets resolved for you soon!

Anonymous said...

What I would like to know is if it is possible to open a savings account if you just want an account in South Africa but live in another country.
All I want to be able to do is deposit money on a monthly basis via EFT and have access to Internet banking so I can monitor my money. Do any banks offer this?

Sine said...

I honestly don't know the answer to that, but my guess is yes, you should be able to find a bank for that, it might just have a fee attached to it.

Jozie Days said...

Dear Anonymous, it is not likely that you would be able to open a savings account in South Africa if you are not a resident (temporary or permanent). This is due to very strict government legislation that requires banks to verify the source of the funds and that the person is legally in South Africa (https://www.fic.gov.za/DownloadContent/LEGISLATION/ACTS/01.a38-01b.pdf) This is to prevent money laundering and prevent terrorist and related activities. The banks can loose their licences if they do not strictly adhere to this act of parliament. Usually before banks open an account they require a copy of a current utility bill, pay slips, copies of passports etc! I would love to open savings accounts for my kids to teach them to save their allowance but I have not bothered as the paperwork is not worth the hassle and the ridiculous bank charges eat away at any interest earned!

Sine said...

We do have accounts for the kids with Standard Bank, and I don't actually remember if it was all that difficult to set up or not. It's one of those Plus accounts, it's not a savings account per se but works the same. They can withdraw money with their cards and do some other transactions, up to a limit per month. I mainly use it to transfer their allowance into.

lindermark said...

South African bank account is much attractive than other banks. It has nice structure and qualitative online process. I'm interested to get an account of them for my business purpose. Thanks for giving this wonderful expose.
business account online

Beth said...

Hello!

Just a question in case anyone on here might know - does my admissions letter and copy of study permit suffice for the bank? I will not be employed while in SA and therefore don't have a letter from the employer.

Thanks!
Beth

Jozie Days said...

Hi Beth, yes you can open a bank account with a valid study permit. My sons both have Standard Bank accounts.

Sine said...

Aha, I didn't know that, good to know! Thanks Jozie Days!

Ben Barrow said...

Is it possible to use a road traffic certificate as proof of address??

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