International students should open a US-based bank account as soon as possible upon arriving in the country. If you’re planning on spending at least a semester in the United States, it’s worth your time to set up a bank account. Even if you have cash and traveler’s checks, the safety and convenience of a personal bank account will make your life easier. In the US economy, carrying large amounts of cash is a liability and mostly unnecessary thanks to debit and credit cards that safely link us to our finances.
How It Works
Once you open a bank account, you’ll receive a debit card and a checkbook—these are your methods of payment. With these tools, you can write personal checks for bills and ongoing expenses, accept electronic payments, deposit checks, and transfer money to and from others. You can also manage your finances and view your payment history online through your bank’s website.
Pick Your Bank
Chances are, there’s a bank near your school (or perhaps on campus) that is equipped and ready to help new students set up bank accounts. Student-friendly banks also tend to be more familiar with international students and the specific requirements they must meet when setting up an account. When in doubt, ask a campus official or advisor for their recommendation.
Pick Your Accounts
Bank accounts in the US tend to fall into two major categories: savings and checking. Savings is quite simply where you save your money. It’s an account that collects interest and you don’t usually withdraw from it (you can confirm the interest rate with a representative when you set up the account). Use it to save money whenever you have extra after paying your monthly expenses and bills. Checking is the primary account you’ll use for payments. It’s the account from which your debit card and checks withdraw. You can also set up an overdraft protection plan such that when your checking account is low on funds for a payment, your bank will withdraw the remainder from your savings account. This will save you from a penalty charge.
Get Your Paperwork
Once you’ve chosen your bank, call ahead to confirm they can accommodate international students. They may ask you to come in person to set up your account if the process is particularly involved. At this time, you’ll want to also inquire about which documents and other items the bank will need from you when you apply. Make an appointment to present these this in person if possible.
Another form of picture identification (your student ID will work)
Immigration forms (I-94, I-20, DS-2019, and I-797—when in doubt, bring it)
Your contact information (a phone number, email, home address, school address, and work address if you have one)
Money to open the account
Official enrollment letter from your school (signed and printed on your school’s official letterhead)
Congratulations! You’ve taken the first major step towards financial independence. Good luck with your new US-based bank account and all the advantages it has to offer.