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The Adventure of Expat Banking

Say what you will about US banks: compared with banks in many places they are models of efficiency.

Pretty early in the expat experience, you have to figure out how you’re going to do your banking. How do you choose a bank? How do you get funds from your home country to your adopted country? The answers to those questions depend on your countries and circumstances. Other expats can offer advice (one of the benefits of expat Facebook groups), but finding your own answer may involve a lot of trial and error. I know many expats in Guatemala who don’t have a bank account here. Hiding your money under the mattress may be low tech, but the mattress gives better customer service than most banks!

In Guatemala, the general rule is that non-residents can’t open bank accounts. The exceptions to that rule seem more common than the rule. I’ve had two different lawyers help me open accounts at different banks, but I couldn’t just walk into a bank and open my own account until my permanent residency came through (which it did in August). I’ve had people tell me that the lawyers who helped me open the accounts would have access to my money (not true). I’ve known people who opened accounts on their own without having residency at the same bank where I couldn’t. It seems to be a crap shoot.

At first I had to wire transfer funds from my US account. People warned me that the money would never get to me. I never had a problem, but it’s expensive and can take days for the funds to arrive. Then the excellent service, Xoom, started. Xoom uses ACH for international transfers, and the funds are available in minutes instead of days. However, Xoom only allows you to send to specific banks. Time for a new account at a new bank.

To date I’ve tried four different Guatemalan banks. I closed accounts at one because of their terrible service. I’m about to close accounts at another because of even worse service. More on that in the next post…

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