It’s actually not that hard to get a bank account in France. What’s hard is getting your debit card. To open an account, stop in at your local bank of choice (I chose Societe Generale because it was and is close to my place) with your passport, some money, and proof of residence (this will be a quittance de loyer or attestation de hebergement).
To get a debit card you will need to transfer a substantial sum of money into your account. They will ask for 1000 euros – I talked them down to 500 – which will have the excitement of your American bank charging you for a wire transfer, your French bank account charging you for your own wire transfer, and the transaction fee of converting dollars into euros. My personal expat experience has allowed me to conduct most of my life using American bank accounts, allowing my French bank account to deal with minor day-to-day expenses which would help me avoid carrying cash around all the time (like the UGC Pass Illimite, which occasioned my getting an account in the first place, something I originally resisted. More about the Pass in a future piece.). Unless you have a phenomenal bank in America (like mine) you’re going to get killed in foreign transaction fees, so beware.
Only after I got a wire transfer in did I get my debit card – with a pre-assigned PIN. That PIN, by the way, can’t be changed unless you want to pay to change it. Brilliant or cruel? You decide.
My account came standard with a ton of limits that a regular bank account in America wouldn’t correspondingly have. I could only withdraw 50 euros at a time from an ATM, up to 100 euros a day. I could only charge so much on my debit card every 7 days, etc.
Even when you want to change your address you have to show proof. In America I would call and change it, end of. Not here. The French love their paperwork. Don’t you forget it!
If you are here for any period over 3 months, get a French bank account. It will be a bit of trouble, but well worth it!