How to open a bank account in the USA

Zorica Lončar
12.12.20
8 minute read

Just moved to the USA, or planning to relocate there soon? Perhaps you’ll soon be studying there, or are planning an exciting gap year adventure along Route 66.

Whatever your reasons for visiting the US, one of the first things you’ll need is a bank account. If you want to earn money during your trip, pay for things or receive money from home, it’s a must-have.

In this guide, we’ll cover all the essentials you need to know about opening a bank account in the US. This includes the documents you’ll need, how to choose the right bank and crucially, how much a US bank account may cost you. So let’s get started.

What documents do I need to open a bank account in the USA?

The documentation you’ll need to support your application for a bank account can vary. It depends on the bank, as well as the US state. But generally, it’s a good idea to make sure you have the following to hand¹:

  • Your full US address, contact info and other personal details
  • Your driver’s licence or passport
  • Your immigration documents (i.e. a valid visa or Green Card)
  • An opening deposit payment.

Crucially, one thing you’ll nearly always be asked for is a Social Security Number (SSN). This can be a real hurdle for non-residents and non-citizens, but it’s not insurmountable.

Some banks will accept applications from foreigners who don’t have, and aren’t eligible for an SSN.

Others may accept something called an ITIN², in place of an SSN. This stands for Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, and it’s used to help foreigners or people not eligible for an SSN to comply with US tax laws.

You can apply for an ITIN if you’re a non-citizen and non-resident of the US, if you’ll be filing a US tax return or are married to a US citizen, along with a number of other eligibility criteria³.

Can I open a US bank account online?

Unfortunately, pretty much all banks in the US require at least one visit in person to open a bank account⁴. It’s just standard procedure over there.

This means that although you may be able to start the process of opening a bank account online, you’ll still need to visit a local branch.

It’s usually for the purposes of verifying your identity, but if you’re a non-resident then you may also discuss the banking options available to you without an SSN. This can be really helpful, as a customer service representative can talk you through your options.

You can also pursue another strategy - opening an international account with your existing bank⁵, or another UK bank which has branches in the US. This can make it easier to open an account, especially if you want or need to do it online. To find out whether you meet the requirements for an international account (which can be quite stringent in some cases), get in touch with your bank.

How to open a US bank account from overseas

There are a few difficulties involved in opening a bank account in the US from overseas. If you live in the UK but are a US citizen, you may be able to start the process of applying online.

But if you’re not a US citizen, you’re likely to have to visit a branch in person – which means flying to the US and making an appointment with your local branch. This is not too tricky if you already plan to visit for work, business or a holiday, but it’s a long way to go otherwise.

The other issue to overcome is being accepted for a bank account in the US without a Social Security Number.

You’ll find that you probably won’t have access to the same banking market as US citizens. You should still be able to get a personal or business bank account as a non-citizen, but you’ll be limited to banks which offer specific bank accounts for customers in your circumstances.

Which US bank is best for my needs?

The US is home to some of the largest and most important financial institutions in the world.

There are a huge number of banks to choose from in the US, but the most famous ones are:

JPMorgan Chase

The biggest bank in the United States⁶, ‘Chase’ bank offers a range of accounts for everyday banking, kids and students, and premium users too.

It’s everyday checking (current) accounts include its most popular, Chase Total Checking, which charges no fees if you deposit more than $500 a month. Other accounts include Chase Secure Banking and Chase Premier Plus Checking.

Students can apply for the low or no fee Chase College Checking, while premium customers can opt for Chase Sapphire Banking or Chase Private Client Checking.

For corporate customers, JPMorgan Chase offers a choice of business checking accounts, including Chase Business Complete Banking for small to mid-sized companies.

Bank of America

Bank of America, just behind JPMorgan Chase in the list of America’s largest banks⁷, offers one main product for consumer banking, Advantage.

But, you can choose one of three accounts under the Advantage umbrella. These are Advantage Plus for everyday banking, the checkless, flexible Advantage SafeBalance or the perk-stuffed Advantage Plus (although you’ll need a higher balance to get the benefits).

Students can access Advantage SafeBalance with no fees. Meanwhile, for business customers, there’s the Business Fundamentals Checking account for small organisations or Business Advantage Checking for larger or growing companies.

Citibank

If you just need a simple everyday bank account, Citibank’s Basic Bank Account is a good bet. You don’t need an opening deposit, and you won’t pay monthly service fees if you meet certain criteria for money coming in and out. There are also special perks for people aged 62+.

There are also premium packages available, including Citi Elevate and the Citigold Private Client Package to name just a few.

Small businesses in particular are well catered for at Citibank, as there’s a tiered range of flexible checking accounts to choose from.

It’s bad news for students though, as Citibank doesn’t offer a specific cheap or perk-filled account just for students.

Wells Fargo

You can open an Everyday Checking account with Wells Fargo with just $25, and if you’re a student aged 17-24 you can even swerve the monthly service fee. Alternatively, meet a few pay-in and balance criteria and you can also avoid the $10 monthly charge.

There’s also Clear Access Banking, another checking account targeting students and young people. It offers the same option to waive the monthly fee if you meet certain criteria. Plus, it’s designed specifically with digital-loving users in mind, with a great mobile banking app, contactless debit card and other digital banking features.

Businesses of all sizes can choose from Initiate, Navigate and Optimize business checking accounts at Wells Fargo.

Other banks worth mentioning

The above are some of the largest banks in the US, but they’re far from the only ones. There are literally thousands to choose from.

Some of the others it could be worth looking into include Capital One and Axos Bank (formerly known as Bank of Internet USA).

Capital One’s 360 Checking account has no fees and no minimum balance, and it offers 24/7 mobile banking. There are also more than 40,000 fee-free Capital One ATMs in the US⁸.

Over at Axos Bank, there’s a choice of personal checking accounts offering perks such as low or no fees, cashback on transactions and unlimited ATM withdrawals.

You can also look into online-only and mobile banking companies. These include Chime, N26, NorthOne (a good choice for freelancers and SMEs), MoneyLion and Simple⁹. If you like to manage your money on the move or via an app, and you only need simple features, a digital bank could suit your needs perfectly.

You can compare bank accounts available in your state here.

Banking fees in the US

There are a few crucial fees and charges to know about before you open a bank account in the US.

Firstly, monthly service fees. Most banks charge these, but you can often waive these if you meet certain criteria. For example, if you pay in a certain amount each month or maintain a minimum balance.

You should also look out for ATM withdrawal fees, which are usually only charged if you use an ATM from a bank other than your own. You may also be charged if you withdraw money from a teller in person at a branch.

If you have a US bank account and are withdrawing money from an ATM overseas, check whether there’s a charge before going ahead. Always choose the local currency (rather than your home currency) or you could get stung with a terrible exchange rate.

Other fees include a charge for early closure of the account. Check the small print to find out how long your bank requires you to keep the account open for before you can close it or switch.

Lastly, there are international transfer fees. These are nearly always super expensive when you use your bank to send money overseas. To add insult to injury, unfavourable exchange rates can eat into your money even more.

A simple and cheaper alternative – Wise

Luckily, you aren’t stuck with your bank as your only option for international payments. Or if you don’t have a SSN or ITIN and urgently need a way to send and receive money while you’re in the United States.

Open a Borderless account with Wise and you can start whizzing money around the world before you even set foot in the US. You’ll get US bank details to use, so that friends, family and even employers and clients can pay you in US dollars like a local.

Wise can also help you to save money. You’ll only pay tiny, transparent fees on international payments and currency conversions, and receiving money is free. Better still, you’ll always get the real, mid-market exchange rate, which can make each transaction much cheaper than using your bank.

You can hold 50+ currencies at once, spend using your own linked debit card and track everything using the handy Wise app. It’s a good choice for freelancers and businesses too, giving you an easy way to manage payments wherever you are in the world.

It’s free and easy to open your multi-currency account. You won’t need an SSN or have to wait around for ages. Just provide a valid ID and complete a few simple steps and your account will be open and ready to use.

Join Wise for free and start saving today

So, there you go - all you need to know about opening a bank account in the US. It can be tricky without that all-important Social Security Number, and it would be lovely if you could complete the whole process online from your sofa here in the UK.

But there are ways around these hurdles, starting with contacting your chosen bank to find out how they can help you.

And of course, there’s Wise. If you need to start sending and receiving money right away, a multi-currency account could be just the ticket. You can even be super organised and set one up before you travel to the US, so you can hit the ground running.

Get started for free

The best of luck on your American adventure!

Sources used:

  1. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/money/transferwise/how-to-open-bank-account-usa/

  2. https://checkinprice.com/us-bank-account-non-resident/

  3. https://www.irs.gov/individuals/individual-taxpayer-identification-number

  4. https://checkinprice.com/us-bank-account-non-resident/

  5. https://wise.com/gb/blog/how-to-open-a-bank-account-in-usa

  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_banks_in_the_United_States

  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_banks_in_the_United_States

  8. https://www.capitalone.com/bank/checking-accounts/online-checking-account/

  9. https://topmobilebanks.com/usa-digital-banks/

Sources checked on 10-December 2020.


This publication is provided for general information purposes only and is not intended to cover every aspect of the topics with which it deals. It is not intended to amount to advice on which you should rely. You must obtain professional or specialist advice before taking, or refraining from, any action on the basis of the content in this publication. The information in this publication does not constitute legal, tax or other professional advice from TransferWise Limited or its affiliates. Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. We make no representations, warranties or guarantees, whether express or implied, that the content in the publication is accurate, complete or up to date.

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