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What I wish I knew about bank accounts before moving abroad

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I didn’t even think about managing my bank account when I started graduate school abroad in Beirut. I had a perfectly fine basic checking account with HSBC that I’d opened in New York just before starting college. There was even a branch two blocks away from my new apartment. What could go wrong?

Turns out, handling money abroad wasn’t as simple as I’d expected. I eventually had to open a student account in Lebanon, which I closed after graduating. But then I decided to return to Beirut to work as a news editor after a brief stint back home. The second time around, I decided opening an account wasn’t worth the hassle. Here are 11 lessons I learned from those experiences.

1. Your bank could freeze your debit card if you don’t give a heads up

The first time I traveled abroad on my own, I didn’t tell my bank. I withdrew cash at the airport to pay for a cab and promptly got an email saying my debit card had been blocked for suspicious activity.

I was told to call customer service to resolve the issue. Problem was, I didn’t have a SIM card yet and my phone plan didn’t allow for international calls at all. I managed to borrow someone’s phone at the hotel to sort out the mess, but the whole ordeal took hours.

I could have avoided an afternoon of panic by calling the number on the back of my debit card before I left the country. Now you can often notify your bank by filling out a quick online form or through its app.

2. You might not be able to manage your account from an international branch

One day I misplaced my debit card. No problem, I thought. I’ll just go to the HSBC near me and ask for a new one. Turns out, it wasn’t that simple.

A banker explained that the HSBC in Lebanon and the HSBC back home weren’t totally connected. I’d have to get my branch back in the US to mail me a new card, which could potentially take over a month unless I paid an arm and a leg to expedite it.

Luckily, I found my card — an ATM at another bank ate it. But I learned that having an HSBC nearby wasn’t as convenient as I thought.

3. You might have to pay foreign transaction fees at an international branch of your bank

After I moved to an apartment farther from HSBC, I still spent about a solid year trekking 30 minutes out of my way to withdraw money. I thought I was avoiding foreign transaction fees. But when I finally looked at my statement, I was surprised to find that I’d still been paying these fees the whole time.

I’d assumed foreign transaction fees were like ATM fees, meant to keep you within your bank’s ATM network. Turns out that wasn’t the case. I could have just stuck to the ATM downstairs instead.

4. Having a student visa might limit your bank account options

As part of my visa application, I had to sign a statement officially promising not to work. This not only meant I couldn’t legally earn income while I was in school in Beirut, but it also seriously limited my options when it came to opening a bank account.

Several banks required a minimum income of roughly $1,500 a month — even for a basic checking account. Others would only work with me if I opened a joint account with a relative in Lebanon, which I didn’t have. After a month of looking around, I was finally able to open a student account after signing another affidavit promising not to work.

5. You might need to open a bank account to cash a student loan refund check

Since I couldn’t legally work as a student, I spent the first few semesters of graduate school living off my savings. But that eventually ran out and I had to request extra student loans to cover my living expenses.

What didn’t occur to me until my school’s bursar handed me a crisp check was that I’d need a bank account to access that money. And since my options were limited, it was about a month before I could finally eat a meal that wasn’t ramen or street food. If I were to do it again, I would have tried to open an account right away.

6. That foreign debit card might also not work at home

I tried withdrawing money using my Lebanese debit card when I came back to New York one winter, only to find that no ATM accepted it. I was able to use it in some other countries like Cyprus, but only with a hefty foreign transaction fee.

I learned my lesson and closed my bank account when I graduated since I wasn’t sure if I’d return to Beirut for work.

7. You don’t necessarily need a bank account to cash a paycheck

Turns out, I decided to go back to Beirut after spending two months back home. I got a job at a newspaper, which paid me with a paper check each month. With my old bank account closed, I assumed my only option was to open another.

That wasn’t the case. When I brought my check to the bank that my employer used, I could cash it free of charge simply by providing my passport.

Since Lebanon had very few cash-free establishments, this meant I was able to survive without ever depositing or withdrawing money from a bank account. Not ideal, but it saved me some headaches.

8. A foreign bank account might not help you make student loan repayments back home

I was still working in Beirut when my student loan repayments kicked in six months after graduation. And I had a problem: I owed repayments to a US servicer and the funds in my US bank account were low.

I met with a banker where I typically cashed my paycheck. She told me that opening a Lebanese account specifically to make student loan repayments wasn’t the best idea for two reasons: Those types of transfers could take as long as 30 days, and I’d have to pay a steep fee every time. I ended up relying on my family to cover the cost and paying them back in cash when I saw them next.

9. It’s cheaper to pay in US dollars whenever possible

Lebanon is one of a handful of countries where businesses readily accept US dollars as much as the local currency. I technically didn’t ever have to pay for anything in Lebanese lira.

I didn’t realize this until I looked at my bank statement and saw I was paying for the currency exchange on top of a foreign transaction fee when I told a cashier to charge me in Lebanese currency. I learned my lesson quickly enough.

10. It’s easier to get paid in US dollars if it’s an option

Another advantage of living in a country that uses both currencies is that you can get a paycheck in US dollars.

This made it a lot cheaper and generally easier to deposit my money when I decided to move back home. I didn’t have to pay any exchange fees — and since all of my money was in cash, I could stick it in an envelope and deposit it into my bank account.

It also made it easier to file my taxes, since I didn’t have to do extra math to figure out how much I earned the previous year.

In the end…

Managing my money in a foreign country was trickier than I’d expected. It was difficult qualifying for a bank account and handling student loan repayments on a limited budget. But it would’ve been an even bigger headache if I’d made more money — the IRS requires you to file a form reporting any foreign bank account balance of $10,000 or higher.

Learn more about opening an account in another country by visiting our guide to foreign bank accounts.

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