23 August 2012

Expat Banking

I jumped on the Charles Schwab train. It has been raved about by many a Argentine expat as the best bank for people traveling extensively or living abroad. Don't get me wrong, banks aren't cool. But ya gotta do what ya gotta do, and this seems like a decent option for people whose financial lives are fairly simple.

Great things:
It's online. There are branches, but most transactions take place in outer space (the internet) so you can take care of biz whenever. Not whenever you can make it to the bank across town. Also, (mostly) paperless, which is more common now, but still gets points from me. And Chuck has a decent mobile app, like it should, which is more than I can say for my ex-bank. All of these things are great for travelers or expats who have addresses back home and maybe other accounts out there but want to be able to easily access/transfer/manage money in more than one currency.

ALSO...Chuck pays you back for all the ATM fees you rack up at the end of every month. That's right. Wherever you go, however outrageous the surcharge, you know you're getting it back. I imagine I'll forget that sweet fact the first month we're in Buenos Aires. When the chunk of change shows up in my account at the end of it, it'll feel like a surprise present! Then I'll get used to it and curse the fact that I have to pay the fees up front at all. But that's the world we live in, right?

And talk about excellent customer service. First, it was pretty easy to set up. With terms like 'brokerage' and 'investment' floating around all over the site, I was mildly overwhelmed. But the website and the guys on the phone were so great and helpful. They called me the day after I set up the account, "just to make sure I was comfortable and satisfied." I was. When I called because after only two days I had forgotten my online account password, they walked me through the verification process and got me back in the game. For being a big deal bank, they are patient and very available.

So here's how it goes:
For a non-millionaire, it's actually pretty simple. If you have and are going to be keeping a US address, go with the regular account available at their website. The "regular" account is a brokerage account. Since I don't have the need for 'brokerage' in my life, I'm just using it as a savings account for now. If you are working with investments, that's where they will go.
Automatically connected to the brokerage account is a checking account that comes with a debit card and works like any other. Signing up is a simple process of filling out online forms. You will get email and phone call confirmations and you will have plenty of opportunities to ask questions and sort things out. Big perk: There are no minimum balances on these accounts.

But you are opening a bank account because you have some money, so some of it needs to get with Schwab. You can either write yourself a check or wire money from your old account to your new one. I chose to wire my funds because checks and the mail can take forever, cost a stamp, and it's 2012...I don't even have checks. If you choose the wire option, you will receive all the information you'll need from Charles Schwab on the site. You'll then have to call your old bank and request the wire transfer. This may cost $10-15, but it happens immediately so...convenience.

Another option to look into is the Charles Schwab high yield savings account. I'm still working on getting this added to my account, but according to Chuck it has a higher interest rate than the brokerage account. This one, for some reason, requires that you request it over the phone. You'll be sent a form via email to print out and mail in applying for the account. Once the paperwork is processed, you'll have this third account connected to the brokerage and checking accounts. The idea is, spending money goes in checking, savings goes in savings and earns interest, and when I win la loterĂ­a, that goes in brokerage for investing.

If you don't have a US address and are putting all of your eggs in a Buenos Aires basket, you'll have to go with the international account. This requires a $25,000 minimum in the brokerage account and a headache's worth of documentation and proofs of everything you've ever done.
If you have an impressive financial portfolio (stocks, bonds, funds, the like) that you'd like to include in your new Charles Schwab banking lifestyle, there are options for that and I can imagine they are not so complicated to figure out as well. Unfortunately, I don't have any other information about that, but I'm sure the sweethearts at Schwab customer care will be happy to help!

My point is, don't be intimidated. Be responsible. Here is a way to get your finances in order and not get totally screwed when you're trying to make a major move. It's totally do-able.
I would also love to hear other people's experience with banking abroad or Charles Schwab. How's it working out for ya?

UPDATE: More good things from CS!
I got a FREE box of checks in the mail today. It came with a handful of pre-paid deposit envelopes. I did mail in a check I received for some work here in the States, so this was insanely convenient and free all around. I don't, however, imagine I'll be using checks for much once I get to Buenos Aires. Or will I? Anyone have any use/issues with checks?

I also got a notice with their personal information privacy policy stating that they use my info for internal marketing, etc. and did I want to opt out of having my info shared with third party affiliates? Well, yes, I would like to opt out. I called a number, entered my social security number, and was immediately removed from their sharing list.

I can't believe how easy and convenient this bank is!


  1. This is not related to Argentina (or South America, in general), but I have some experience using american accounts around the world. Advice:

    1. pin codes should be less than six digits.
    2. Make sure you have as many different logos as you can think of on the back of your card (plus, cirrus, etc) as well as either visa or mastercard.
    3. Check with the bank for how they do foreign withdrawals. Specifically the service charge (~$5) and how the currency exchange is calculated (time of day, whether there is also a percentage charge).
    4. You might consider having a local account, especially if you are getting paid into your US bank account. Then you can move money from one account to the other (cash might be easiest for that move) and use the local card for store transactions and walking around cash.
    5. Check to see if any banks take your US card. In china, for example, I had an hour trip to use an ATM. In France (with an account I no longer have) I had to use one specific bank out of dozens.
    6. If you are going to be in europe, try to get a "chip and pin" card. A fair section of mainland europe will look at you crosseyed if your card (credit or atm) does not work in their machines and they have to swipe it.

  2. This is great advice, David. Thanks! You're right that it is important to be aware of currency exchange rates, especially in Argentina where they change constantly!