Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.
Shorelight helps international students attend top universities in the U.S.

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How to Open a US Bank Account

How long does it take to open a bank account? Do you need a student debit card? What is the best bank for college students? Discover what you need to handle your money as an international student.

A male and female college student stand smiling at each other at an ATM after a transaction.

If you are like most international students studying in the United States, you will need to open a bank account in America. If you do not know how to open a bank account or are nervous about opening one in a foreign country or language, do not worry. You have conquered so much already just to get to your university in the USA. You can do this!

Read on to learn what you need to do to open a bank account in the United States, banking products perks to look for, and the fees to avoid. 

1. Why do international students need to open a US bank account?

You may be asking yourself, “why do I need to open a bank account while studying in the US?” Perhaps your parents gave you a credit card to use, or they send you cash every month through a wire transfer or app. Maybe you already have an account with a local bank back home that you can access abroad. 

But guess what? It is still a good idea to have an account with a bank in the United States. Here is why:

  1. Safety: Most Americans do not carry a lot of cash. It is probably not the best idea to keep large amounts of money in a suitcase or sock drawer in your college dorm room, either. A local bank account keeps your money in a safe place.

  2. Access: If you rely on a family member or caregiver to cover your expenses, you may have to wait for a transfer to clear in an emergency. Additionally, at some stores and restaurants, you may not be able to pay with a credit card. Having a local bank account means your money is available when you need it.

  3. Budget: It is much easier to keep track of your income and spending with a local bank account, especially when you can manage your accounts in real time on your phone or computer.

  4. Cost: Bank transfer, automated teller machine (ATM), and international exchange fees can be very costly. With a local bank account, you can minimize these fees and save more money.

  5. Work: If you plan on working on campus or applying for a paid internship or job off campus, your paychecks will go into your US bank account.

Now that you know why you need a bank account in the US, here is what you need to consider next when choosing a bank, what bank account options are available for international students, and how to open a bank account.

2. What are the best bank accounts for international students studying in the USA?

If you are living on a budget like most college students, here is to what to consider when comparing banking products:

  • Minimal or no fees: This means low or no fees for monthly maintenance, minimum balance, debit card, ATM usage, or to transfer money.

  • Convenience: Search for local banks where you can manage your money from your phone or computer. You may also want to open a bank account with a location on or near campus.

  • Transfers: Research the exchange rates on money transfers from local banks to ensure you are not paying high fees.

  • Security: Your bank should be FDIC-insured, which means the US government protects your bank account against events like fraud or cyberattacks.

  • Perks: Many banks offer incentives to students for opening accounts, such as cash bonuses or free SIM cards. (Read the fine print with any bonus offer to make sure it is a good deal for you.)

After you have compared your banking options, you need to choose which type of financial institution suits your needs—and also has bank accounts for international students.

International banks 

International banks have branches in more than one country and offer financial services to clients around the world. International banks can be great options for international students since they have more experience with customers moving between countries and handling multiple types of currency. 

Fine print: Many international banks require you to qualify for a premium bank account to be eligible for the best perks. Otherwise, you will pay a fee for transactions like wiring money. To qualify for a premium account, you need to keep a fair amount of money in your account month-over-month, typically anywhere from $10,000 to $75,000, or you will have to set up regular direct deposits. Services are not offered everywhere, either—be sure to check with the bank before you apply to see if you qualify. 

Tip: Do you already have an account at an international bank back home? Bring at least three bank statements with you when you leave for your college or university. Many banks can access and confirm records from their international branches, making the process of opening an account in the United States much easier. 

National banks 

For international students, national banks are similar to international banks: they have branches in many cities and a large network of ATMs and offer deals that only large commercial banks with a big presence can offer. It is also worth noting that national banks in the United States may have international branches. 

Because of their incentives, an extensive network of ATMs, and sign-up bonuses, accounts at national banks appeal to many college students. With national banks, you may see packages for students that either waive fees while you are enrolled in college or do not require minimum balances or monthly direct deposits. 

Fine print: Compare several student checking accounts at national banks before opening your bank account. Consider factors that are important to you, such as transfer fees or bank branches near campus, before you sign up. 

Local banks 

Local banks service the community in which they are located. Many local banks are regional, meaning they only have branches in specific areas of the United States. Local banks build their reputations on area knowledge, customer service, and community involvement. At many universities and colleges, it may be easier to find a local bank close to campus than an international bank. 

Since local banks differ from region to region, make sure you research the options available near your university to see how they compare. Your Shorelight advisor can help you find reputable regional banks in your area. 

Fine print: Local banks tend to be smaller and are able to offer more personal service. However, they generally do not offer the same perks as larger commercial banks and may have fewer resources (e.g., money wiring) or incentives (e.g., waiving foreign transaction fees). 

Credit unions 

Similar to local banks, credit unions tend to be regional, although there are national credit unions as well. Unlike for-profit banks (banks that operate to make money), credit unions are nonprofit and controlled by their members. This generally results in fewer fees and better interest return rates on their bank accounts. 

Additionally, many universities and colleges have college credit unions for employees and students, such as the Ole Miss Credit Union, formally known as the Mississippi Federal Credit Union, at the University of Mississippi. These banking institutions are located right on campus and have accounts designed to serve their university students. Also, many college-affiliated credit unions are much easier to join, even for international students, because they require fewer documents. There are many other advantages to banking with your college credit union, including student-tailored accounts, on-campus support, and local ATMs with no fees. 

There are also several national credit unions to consider. National credit unions may not have account options that were created with your college or international students in mind, but they may still offer many of the same great perks. 

Tip: Check to see if there is an affiliated credit union at your university or college and add it to your bank account comparison list. You may not get the best offers at your school-affiliated credit union, but it is a great place to start. Since credit unions are usually regional or local, check with your Shorelight advisor to get a list of options in your area. 

Online banks and other digital options 

Online banks, also known as direct or Internet banks, do not have a physical location, and customers conduct their financial business entirely over the Internet. Online banks can be a great option for international students, as many have low or no fees and high interest rates. 

Because setting up a bank account at an online bank does not require an in-person conversation, online banks can be a safe option for international students who are not yet comfortable setting up an account in English. 

Fine print: Without the costs associated with a physical location, online banks often have lower and fewer fees, better returns on interest, no minimum or maintenance fees, and robust digital offerings. However, with no physical locations, you will not be able to have a face-to-face conversation with a bank representative. In addition, online banks generally do not have their own ATMs, so you may have to pay a fee or be reimbursed for withdrawing cash from using your ATM card at other banks. 

What is the difference between a checking and savings account? 

Most international students will consider two banking products: checking accounts and savings accounts. 

A checking account is designed for everyday use. There are no limits to the number of transactions you can make, and you can use your bank’s app, checks, ATM, or money transfer apps (such as Zelle or Venmo) to manage your money. Money in checking accounts is easy to move between banks or use for paying bills. International students can use a checking account to buy groceries, shop online, or go to the movies. Checking accounts typically offer little or no interest on the funds you have deposited. 

A savings account is designed for short- or long-term savings. It is generally harder to transfer money with a savings account compared to a checking account. With a savings account, you may need to first transfer your money to a checking account before you can access it, depending on your bank. Typically, savings accounts are better if you want to put some cash away for a bigger purchase, like a computer or a new phone. Savings accounts usually have higher returns on interest than checking accounts.

Fees

It can be hard for international students to find a banking account with few to no fees. Many times, if you meet certain conditions, like frequent debit card use or minimum balances, you can avoid most fees. You can also look for promotions that waive fees while you are enrolled at the university. 

Depending on your bank account, you may need to pay fees for:

  • Monthly service/maintenance or minimum balance: Financial institutions charge monthly maintenance or service fees to their customers who do not meet certain requirements, such as keeping a minimum balance (typically $1,000 or more) in their account throughout the billing period. With student checking accounts, some banks may waive fees for students enrolled at a university or college.

  • Debit card: Student debit card fees could include monthly or per-transaction charges. According to the Federal Reserve, the average 2018 debit card interchange fee was $0.24 per transaction.

  • ATM: ATMs dispense cash and are located everywhere from banks to convenience stores. Your bank may charge you a fee if you use the ATM too many times in a billing period or if you use an ATM from a different bank. According to Bankrate, the average ATM fee in the United States was $3.09 per transaction.

  • Transfer: These are fees to transfer money from one account to another or to transfer money between banks.

3. What do you need to open a bank account in the United States as an international student?

Opening a bank account in a different country is tricky, but knowing what to expect can save a lot of time and effort. 

What are the requirements for opening a bank account in the United States?

It is probably a good idea to ask yourself “what do I need to open a bank account?” before you leave for your university in the United States. Each bank has different requirements, but generally speaking, international students studying in the United States will need some or all of the following documentation to open a bank account:

  •  Your passport with visa

  •  Your I-20

  •  Proof of residency, such as an official letter or bill addressed to you with your US address

  •  Verification of enrollment at your college or university

  •  Birth certificate

  •  Second form of ID, like a driver’s license or government-issued ID card

In addition to the documents needed to open a bank account, you are also required to make a cash or check deposit right away. For most banks, the amount is between $100 and $200. Check with your bank to make sure you come prepared. 

You may be able to complete the process online, as some banks allow international student account registration over the Internet. Online banks let you register from a computer or phone (as mentioned earlier, it is usually the only way to open an account) and may request fewer requirements for opening a bank account. 

4. How long does it take to open a bank account as an international student?

Usually, you can set up your bank account in one visit. You will have to wait to receive your debit card in the mail, usually up to 14 days, but most banks allow you to use the mobile app or a smartphone as soon as you have an account. If you are concerned about when you will have access to your funds, make sure to check with your bank at signup. 

5. What is the best bank for college students?

When it comes to bank accounts for international students, there is no best or worst choice. There are many bank accounts, both checking and savings, that are designed especially for college students, and there are even some banking products designed just for international students. 

So, to find the best bank for you, it is important to ask the following questions:

  1. Do I need to save money, or do I need money for purchasing day-to-day items?

  2. What fees will I have to pay? (Pay close attention to maintenance or service fees and international wire fees.)

  3. Do I need in-person service, or is online banking enough?

  4. If I need an in-person bank, is there a branch close by and are there ATMs near campus that I can use without incurring a fee?

  5. Is my bank FDIC-insured?

  6. Does the bank have a mobile app? Can I use my phone for banking transactions?

  7. How easy is it for my parents to send money to my new bank account?

Most of all, remember to talk with your Shorelight advisor to get a better idea of which banks have the best deals in and around campus and to get one-on-one support should you need it. 

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