A guide to U.S. banking for international students
Learning how to bank in the U.S. can help you build and manage your finances
Read, 4 minutes
Having domestic bank accounts up and running can make for a smoother adjustment to university. As an international student, having U.S. checking, savings and credit card accounts can help you eliminate foreign transaction fees and gain convenient ways to pay for books, food, rent and other essentials. You’ll also be on your way to building a credit history, which may make it easier to borrow money in the future.
Though setting up U.S. accounts may seem intimidating, it’s really not that complicated. Here are eight steps to take to set yourself up for U.S. banking success.
Choose a bank
Start with a little banking homework. Fees vary from bank to bank, so ask for a list of charges associated with the accounts you plan to open. Review them closely.
Check for any student benefits. For example, some banks waive maintenance fees on student checking accounts. Also, be sure to ask about a bank’s online and mobile tools and whether there are minimum balance requirements. If you think you’ll need cash on a regular basis, look for a bank that has branches or fee-free ATMs close to campus.
Find out what information the bank needs
Requirements vary by bank, so be sure to find out what your bank specifically requires. In general, you’ll be asked for:
Two forms of identification—typically a passport and a secondary document such as a driver’s license, birth certificate, student ID or major credit card.
An ID, utility bill or rental agreement that shows your physical address in the U.S.
Government forms related to your domestic studies.
A letter proving you are enrolled in university.
Ask if you can open an account online
Some banks may allow you to open an account online if you have a Social Security card or other identification issued by the U.S. government. In general, international students should plan to open their accounts in person. The websites of some banks let you schedule an appointment at a local branch and suggest ways to prepare for the appointment.
Check if a Social Security number is required to open a bank account
You don’t necessarily need a Social Security number (SSN) to open a bank account. However, if you get a job while attending a U.S. college, you’ll have to get an SSN. Some banks may ask for some sort of tax identification number to open an account, which can come from your home country or can be provided by the U.S. government—a SSN or an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number from the IRS would qualify. If you don’t have an SSN or ITIN, some banks will accept a passport number, a consular identification card or other government-issued ID number. Make sure to check with your bank for details.
Open your first account
Start with a checking account. Your money will be readily available for purchases and bill payments. You can tap into funds by writing a check, using a debit card or transferring money online. Your debit card gives you the ability to buy goods and services at many merchants globally, as well as to withdraw and deposit money at ATMs. You can also securely store a digital version of your debit card in your mobile phone’s digital wallet and then use your smartphone to make purchases and get money from cardless cash machines.
If you expect to have large amounts of money that you won’t need to access immediately, consider opening a savings account as well as a checking account. You’ll earn interest on the money in savings and can transfer funds to checking as needed to pay your bills.
Learn about international wire transfers
A checking or savings account enables you to send and receive money via international wire transfers. The money travels securely between your account and a foreign bank account that you designate, or vice versa. You may be able to initiate a transfer using your bank’s online tools, though you can also visit a branch office.
Beyond your bank, options for international wire transfers include in-person and online wire transfer services, as well as peer-to-peer apps. Make sure you evaluate fees, exchange rates, security and how long the transfer will take before deciding which service to use.
Apply for a credit card
Once you’re living in the U.S., it’s important to create a credit history to show lenders that you are financially responsible. Your credit history at home does not follow you to America.
A strong U.S. credit record can help you rent an apartment, qualify for a low-interest loan and get favorable rates on car insurance. Some employers will also look at the credit of a prospective employee.
If you have no credit history in the U.S., consider applying for a secured credit card. This card works like a regular credit card, except that you deposit money into an account as collateral.
One of the best ways to build a strong credit history is to use the secured card and pay off the balance each month. If you continue to make timely payments, you may qualify for an unsecured credit card.
Protect your accounts
There are vital security-related steps you can take to keep your financial information secure. Use strong passwords and vary them, delete any emails requesting account information—they aren’t legitimate—and regularly update digital devices to install the latest security protection. You should also sign up for text, email or phone alerts for large cash withdrawals, debit-card purchases, password changes and potentially fraudulent activity on your account.