One of the earliest articles for this blog was about my experience getting my first French bank account at Societe Generale. The process was relatively painless, but that was before FATCA came into force and made life more challenging for US citizens living abroad. Still, possession of any form of long term visa will allow you to get a bank account here, as I shared some years later. When it came time for me to open a bank account for my French business, I decided to hedge my bets and audition another company, BNP Paribas. Time has shown them to be the better bank for me, and armed with additional European bank accounts at N26 and Transferwise, I fired Societe Generale from my life in February.
Mais pour quoi?
Given how challenging it can be to open accounts these days, why would I get rid of one I had? Well, firstly, bank accounts in France are rarely free. There’s a monthly service fee (in this case, 17 euros a month for a very basic account) whether you have any activity or not. Secondly, I had already had exceptional service from BNP that Societe Generale couldn’t match. When I moved from the 2nd to the 19th, I was able to change my “home agency” using the BNP Paribas app. With Societe Generale, it was a nine month saga, with multiple trips to my original agence in the 17th. But the last straw was a denial of a loan.
Americans are used to having a “credit score” which tells lending institutions how worthy we are of being loaned money, and at what rate of interest. There’s no such thing in France. Indeed, there’s not even a centralized place for banks to know you have loans at other banks. I found all this out when BNP Paribas sent me a flyer some years ago offering a 2% loan for my business account. I didn’t need any funds at that time, but I was intrigued by an opportunity to build my relationship and profile with the bank and thought it might make for a good future article. The truth was that the process was so speedy, there wasn’t enough meat for the article. I made an appointment (online, using the app), showed up, and after 15 minutes of us getting to know each other and how we ended up in Paris, he asked what the loan was for. I told him I actually didn’t need a loan, but was more interested in seeing how the process worked. He nodded and said, “Okay, how about for working capital?” I nodded and asked if there was any early repayment penalty. He shook his head. Ten minutes after that I was out the door, and 48 hours after that, the funds were in my account. BNP had once again shown me that they were forward-looking, easy to work with, and fast.
As I audited my expenses for 2019 I wondered about Societe Generale and my personal account there, which is what I paid my French taxes out of and was an account I deposited some sources of income into. Should I really be paying 17€ a month for my personal account there when my account at BNP cost 7€ a month? But I wanted to give them one final test to confirm my gut instinct: asking for a loan.
There’s no way to make an appointment with your counselor online with SG, so I had to go into my agence. That’s fine. I made an appointment in January. The day of the appointment, he cancelled on me. Okay, I rescheduled for the next available time, which was two weeks later. When that day arrived, I brought all the paperwork I might be expected of to get a loan, which includes the “Avis d’impot” (the government document that verifies the veracity of your last filed return) of the last three years, my business tax returns, my business bank accounts, and the usual ID, lease, etc. Two hours later, he “didn’t have enough information” and told me he would email me for more info.
Of course he didn’t email me. I had to follow up with him over a two week period and he kept asking for more info before finally saying flatly, “Non.” I was appalled. “Tu rigoles,” I began, and told him that BNP had had the exact same info (actually, BNP had asked for less info) and gave me a decision in five minutes, and I had only been banking with them since 2016, whereas I had been with Societe Generale since 2014. He shrugged and told me that different banks have different practices.
“Okay, then I need to close my account,” I replied. He was nonplussed. We made an appointment for the following week. You can guess what happened next. I arrived only to find out that he was too busy to keep the appointment he had made and I was traveling the following week and he was in conferences the week after, so yes, I had to delay closing my account by three weeks, giving them another month of bank fees.
It took nearly an hour to actually close the account. I was forced to sign several papers closing both my Livret A (savings account) and the checking account as well as ending the agreements that went with them. The final action was to transfer the remaining funds at SG into my newly opened additional bank account at BNP (which took all of ten minutes to open, since they just copied all my information over from my existing account). Ridiculous to the end, offering no apology or regret for losing me as a customer, both my counselor and the bank vindicated my decision to fire them. I’m literally now doubly happy as a BNP client, having two accounts with them and a solid and respectful relationship with my counselor.
Why don’t more French people fire their banks? That’s part of a larger administrative issue that I’ll address in a future article.