Thursday, October 8, 2015

Opening a Bank Account in Luxembourg

Donneschdeg, 8 Oktouber.

When you're a Korean-born American Fulbrighter who wants to open a Luxembourgish student bank account, what can go wrong? Answer: everything.

But let's back up. As an unofficial step in my ongoing quest for Luxembourgish residency, I needed to open a Luxembourgish bank account. This is not an actual legal requirement for residency, but rather makes it possible for Fulbright Belgium to transfer my grant stipend every month. In theory, opening a bank account in Luxembourg is hardly a complicated process. There are entire websites full of lists of Luxembourgish banks: see Banking in Luxembourg from Expatica or Banks & Banking from AngloInfo. (Not to mention the fact that Luxembourg basically has more banks than it does people.) Although I put off going to the bank until finishing the rest of my paperwork and attending Fulbright Orientation, I had to get around to it eventually.

Why yes,  I am in need of independence! And, more importantly, money.

So a few weeks ago, I gathered any and all relevant documents that I could think of and headed to the bank. Faced with a rather overwhelming number of choices, I decided to go with the Banque Générale du Luxembourg (BGL). Since 2009, BGL has been part of BNP Paribas, one of the largest banks in the world with ATMs on every corner of Luxembourg, Belgium, and France. All I had to do was walk in and ask for a student checking account!

Except that -- of course -- it wasn't that simple. As you've probably figured out, there's no easy way to define my status in this country. To the people processing my residence permit application, I'm an international student enrolled at the University of Luxembourg. (They don't have a visa option for "Americans teaching Luxembourg but getting paid by an American organization located in Belgium" ... go figure.) To the people I meet in Luxembourg, I'm a (very youthful) English teacher. Even to my housemates, I'm a sort of student/teacher hybrid here on an academic exchange. It's really only my supervising teachers and Fulbright connections who know the truth and fully understand the program. As you can imagine, the prospect of explaining this situation to a bank employee was more than a little daunting. Ultimately, I decided on what I hoped was a simple and relatively accurate explanation: "I am an American enrolled at the University of Luxembourg and I need a Luxembourgish bank account in order to receive my stipend from the United States."

Sounds good, right? Right. Except that I used the word bourse -- scholarship. And apparently in Luxembourg, all scholarships are processed through a certain organization that provides certain paperwork and, of course, I had none of that.


Ultimately, of course, it all worked out. The bank employee -- who goes down as one of the nicest and most patient Luxembourgers I have met so far -- found the necessary forms and walked me slowly but surely through the process.

We briefly hit a snag when she asked me for my "tax number" but realized after approximately ten minutes of back-and-forth ("Do you have a tax number?" "A what?" "A tax number." "I don't think we have those in America." "Everyone has a tax number in Luxembourg." "But I don't think we have them in America!") that she was referring to my Social Security Number. But of course! Another snag occurred when filling out my W-9 in a decidedly non-American way. ("No, that's actually where we put the LAST names in America. Oh, and I was born on December 1, not 12 January.") Most hilarious was the moment when I'm pretty sure that I signed off on a form that listed my place of birth as "COREE, REP POP DEMOCRATIQUE." ("Um, I think this says I was born in North Korea?" "Well, that's what the computer put when I typed in Korea. It's fine.")

And two hours -- TWO. HOURS. -- after arriving at the bank, I left.

In retrospect, it was worth it. My account eventually got up and running, although I had to go back to the bank for some incorrectly completed tax forms. My Fulbright stipend came in. And as scheduled, my debit card arrived this week in what can only be described as the most eagerly-opened envelope of all time.


I think the trickiest thing about opening a bank account as a Fulbrighter in Luxembourg -- and in fact, the trickiest part about ALL of these post-arrival requirements -- has been the timing. For example, you need a card with a chip in order to pay for your housing insurance and sign your contract upon arrival. But in order to open a bank account and get a debit card with a chip, you need to already be registered as a resident in Luxembourg. But in order to register as a resident in Luxembourg, you need to have paid for your housing insurance and signed your contract. And don't even get me started on phones. Not having a local phone number complicates everything -- from opening a bank account to getting a doctor's appointment -- but in order to purchase a phone contract, you need a bank account! (And a housing contract. And a valid ID.)

Of course, there are ways around all of this. I was lucky enough to have a chip-enabled credit card without foreign transaction fees that I could use to finance my first two weeks in Luxembourg. And having an international plan for my first 30 days outside of the USA allowed me to send/receive texts, make a few limited calls, and access data without having a Luxembourgish number (which, now that I have a proper bank account, is the next task to cross off my list).

Do you have questions about the Luxembourgish banking system or about opening an account in Luxembourg? If you have lived abroad, how did this experience compare to your own? Let me know in the comments!

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