There have been very many interesting experiences establishing ourselves in Switzerland but opening a bank account has to be at the top of the list.
Banking is everything in Switzerland. Because of Switzerland’s stable economy, 1/3 of all worldwide funds held outside of their country of origin are kept in Swiss banks. Swiss bank accounts have been known as havens for tax evaders for centuries. In 1934 a law was basically passed that forbade Swiss banks from sharing information to foreign countries or entities about their clients. As a result, those looking to hide money turned to the Swiss banks.
When Joost and I first lived here in 2004, we were able to open a bank account with the local bank in about 15 minutes. Things have changed. That local bank wouldn’t even deal with us anymore as Americans. In recent years, Swiss banks have come under fire from NGOs accusing them of assisting war criminals, mafia types and many other bad guys including the 9/11 terrorists. In 2010, Switzerland made an agreement with the US saying they would turn over information on clients suspected of tax evasion or other crimes.
So, when we went to open our bank account, we had to go the special branch in Basel of UBS that deals with Americans. This is the lobby.
All marble, glass and sparkly things. We announced ourselves and were taken up an elevator by a gentleman dressed in the UBS uniform of navy suit, white starched shirt and red tie. We were led to a small conference room, and invited to sit and wait for our banker. A coffee girl came in and asked us if we would like some water, flat or bubbly or a coffee, maybe a cappuccino?
The water came on silver tray with a hand towel, flower, and cookie. Nice…
After a sip or two of water, our banker came in. Please note, at this time, the banker did not know if Joost made $30,000 a year or $3,000,000 or something in between. This was just standard practice.
Our banker asked us what type of accounts we would like and if we would like credit cards. Credit cards? We have no credit history in this country!!! He could provide us with debit cards, credit cards and online banking access in exchange for a little information…
Joost’s employment contract, our net worth in the US, real estate holdings in the US, our residency information, AND our social security numbers. No possibility to hide money from Uncle Sam, not that we would want to – we are not Apple. As US citizens, we are required to pay taxes in Switzerland and Federal taxes in the US though we get credit for what we pay in Switzerland. Forty-five minutes later,we walked away with information and waited for our debit and credit cards to arrive.
A week later, we had everything so I went online to try to track our account. This is where it gets interesting. Turns out we hadn’t received everything. In order to do online banking, which you need to be able to do as everything is done online – checks don’t even exist here anymore, you need to apply for it. Then you receive a code. Once you have a code, you can login for the first time. After, everytime you want to login, you need to use a special calculator to get a new code to login. Apparently, UBS spends millions every year on security. In order to see my credit card spending, I had to apply for another code…. I have piles of papers with different codes on them for the debit and credit cards.
Last thing of interest, we received an extremely huge credit card limit – higher than was logical for people who had no credit history. It was explained to us that our credit card balance would be taken out automatically every month on the 25th. I asked how is this credit then? Our banker said of course you could request to pay the balance over two months but that would be foolish because you would pay interest. The Swiss didn’t get rich by being foolish.