Whose Money Is It?

by Mike Welham, February 2018

One of the first tasks you do when moving to France is open a French bank account which is a straightforward process and once you have put some money into the account you are ready for business and with the internet, the world is your oyster – or is it?

Now, in France the cheque is still a very familiar item for making payments and in ten years I have never had a problem. The most important point is that you must have sufficient money in the bank to cover the amount on the cheque. I was told from the beginning that to issue a cheque with insufficient funds was a police matter – not certain that this is the case – but the warning is there. The bank/credit card is of course widely used but remember many smaller shops will not accept them but will accept a cheque.

Another quirk is the amount that you can take out of your bank over a short period of time. The bank we use sets the limit and although you may have a substantial sum deposited you can encounter times when you are restricted on with withdrawals. We also discovered that we could not use our card to make on line purchases. A number of meetings were held with the bank and where we thought it was sorted out but that was not the case. They told us that the limit on withdrawal was designed to stop clients spending more funds than they had available. Our problem was rectified when the bank raised our limit but nobody told us about this in the first place. We then discovered that to use the bank card on an internet transaction a code number would be sent to our mobile phone which could be used to complete the transaction. The problem we faced was that I used a UK mobile but the bank would not accept it – it had to be a French phone. That issue was never resolved. I must point out that these experiences are with one large French bank provider and we have found other people with the same issues but none using other banking providers.

Very good friends also with the same banking group moved to live in another part of France which involved a large renovation project. They engaged a builder but could do a lot of the work themselves so they were paying a builder and others as well as purchasing materials and items such as a kitchen. One day without warning they discovered that they were unable to purchase anything. They could not do any shopping or fill the car with fuel – their bank accounts had been frozen, no warning, no notice, nothing. Now they did still have UK bank accounts which whilst inconvenient allowed them to survive. Telephone calls revealed no answers but a meeting at the bank could be arranged meantime there was no urgency, no interim explanation and no lifting of the freeze.

The meeting began well and went along the lines of ‘You have been spending a lot of money recently. Why and what are you buying?’ The reply went along the lines of ‘I have the money in the bank and what I spend my money on is up to me. You do not need to know.’ I understand that there was a rather long pause before the friends asked why they, the bank, had frozen the account. They had been spending a lot of money! There response was instant ‘close the account and we will go to another bank.’ The account suddenly became unfrozen but of course the damage had been done.

I am not able to name the bank concerned but as far as I know it is the only well known bank group where this problem arises and the number of people who have changed banks because of similar problems appears to be increasing. So I presume that any bank can just freeze your accounts without warning so my thoughts are to keep UK accounts so that you can at least operate even though exchange rates might not be good. I would advise to only move as much money to your French account as you need and then just keep it topped up. Remember, it’s all an adventure.

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