Money, Banking, Finances
Is banking different than in most European countries? Generally, there are significant differences in the way that monetary transactions are handled in the United States in comparison to Europe. For example, Europeans are accustomed to using recurring transfers, direct debits or standing orders, to pay rent, insurance and monthly utility bills. Although this is becoming increasingly possible in the United States, it is dependent upon the policy of your financial institution, and then, in some instances requires written consent of the recipient of the funds. 'Bill paying' services are becoming increasingly common; however, you will want to ensure you understand their fee structure prior to using their services. Additionally, monetary transfers typically take longer than in Europe. The funds for checks/cheques drawn on European banks, or personal cheques drawn on US banks, that are deposited into your account can take, in some instances, four to six weeks before they are available.
Are there banking fees in the United States? Policies vary by financial institution; however, many charge monthly maintenance fees depending upon the type of account, minimum monthly balance required, etc. Generally when maintenance fees are charged, they are $10 or less per month per account. Wire transfers vary significantly but range from $25 to $50 on average per transfer. Bill paying services, if charged, average $5 to $10 per month. Some credit card companies charge annual fees ranging from $50 to $100 per year, and interest rates on balance vary significantly from 5% to 28%. Be aware that the use of a credit card, outside the country of issuance, generally results in transaction fees (flat fee or percentage of the amount charged).
What types of accounts do most personnel have? Generally, most people have one primary account (savings account) and a checking account. If you wish to obtain a credit card, you will ordinarily have to wait until your account has been open at least 30 days prior to applying.
Can I open a bank account before I arrive in Norfolk, Virginia? YES. There are several financial institutions, of which we are aware, that will permit you to open the bank account while outside the United States and allow on-line access to your account prior to arrival. You can of course also open an account in person during your house-hunting trip or immediately upon arrival if you prefer. There are many banks and credit unions in the local area; however, the policies, documentation and information required to establish the account does vary. Contact your sponsor or the Office of the Legal Advisor (+1 757 747 3228/3640) if you experience difficulties and have questions. You will likely need a substantial amount of money upon arrival (e.g., for home rental, utility deposits, car, electrical items, etc.).
If I open the account prior to arrival, will additional information be required by the financial institution once I arrive? YES. It is recommended that you visit the financial institution where you have established your accounts shortly after arrival to ensure all is in order. During this visit, or later by mail, you should be requested to complete US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Form W-8 BEN (explained later in this section).
I've heard that some financial institutions in Europe will not permit online banking transactions to financial institutions outside the European Union. Is this accurate and, if so, do you have any suggestions? YES. Many financial institutions will require that you complete an authorization form in person prior to your departure from Europe. We strongly recommend that you consult a representative of your financial institution prior to departure so that you do not experience a wait of one to two weeks to receive a monetary transfer.
What information and documentation are ordinarily required by US financial institutions to open an account? As stated, policies do vary by financial institution; however, ordinarily you will be required to: (1) complete their application form; (2) provide copies of the biographic page of your passport and your "NATO" or "A" category visa issued by the US Consulate; (3) provide a copy of your National identification card (military identification card, or driver's license, or other national identification card); (4) statement of income from national representatives; (5) letter of reference from your current financial institution; and (6) verification of signature form (this item may not be required, but if required, you will be provided detailed information on how to provide).
I've heard that US institutions must follow strict US Federal law requirements concerning identification of non-US citizens, is this accurate? YES. US Federal regulations, implemented following the events of September 11, 2001, require financial institutions (banks, credit unions, securities firms, etc.) to implement procedures to verify the identity of any individual opening an account. As a result, many financial institutions have developed policies requiring applicants present not only identification documents, but also a social security number (SSN) when establishing the account (see section titled "social security number" for detailed information regarding obtaining an SSN) or an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN), if the individual is not eligible for or does not wish to have an SSN. Most local financial institutions will request to see your NATO or US Department of Defense identification card upon your first visit to the financial institution.
In practical terms, you should ask your sponsor to contact local financial institutions on your behalf to inquire as to their policies regarding identity documents and SSNs/ITINs, or contact a representative of the Office of the Legal Advisor. As stated above, most local financial institutions will permit establishment of the account without the SSN or ITIN, but will request that the SSN/ITIN is provided to them within one or two months. Additionally, most financial institutions will not require an SSN/ITIN for dependents provided that the individual with the SSN/ITIN is listed as the primary account holder.
What is Form W-8BEN? Form W-8BEN, "Certificate of Foreign Status of Beneficial Owner for United States Tax Withholding", is used to declare your exemption from US Government imposed automatic withholding of up to 30% of any dividends earned on the monies in an interest-bearing account, or on capital gains from an investment account. Many individuals posted in the United States on US issued (non-immigrant) category "NATO" or "A" visas are exempt from this withholding requirement based upon bilateral agreements, but this exemption must be certified or the financial institution will withhold the tax and will forward to the IRS. Form W-8BEN is available from the Office of the Legal Advisor representatives, who can assist you in completing this form.
I received a Form 1099-INT from my bank/financial institution. What is this and do I need to take any action? This is a statement that all financial institutions are required to send to their customers who have interest-bearing accounts no later than 31 January of each year. The form will indicate how much interest was earned on the account for the year (i.e., 'capital gains' or 'unearned income'). It will also indicate if any amount was withheld and will ordinarily be indicated in bold red text. If you declared exemption from withholding (see question above regarding Form W-8BEN) and an amount was withheld, contact the financial institution.
What is a "check/cheque"? A personal check/cheque is a document containing your bank and personal information and allows you to write the document for any dollar amount you wish in connection with a purchase, provided you have enough money in your checking account to cover the purchase (remember to write the date in the US format month/day/year (for example, 08/01/11, meaning August 1, 2011)). When writing the cheque, you must write the amount out in full, for example if the amount is $300.16, you should write: three hundred dollars and 16/100. If you are not comfortable with how to write a cheque, ask a representative of your financial institution for assistance.
Many private businesses as well as some stores on US military installations/bases will not accept "starter" cheques. Starter cheques are cheques that only contain your account number and do not yet have your personal information included such as your name and address. The intention is that you will print that information onto the document, but many businesses will not accept those cheques. Cheque cashing (debit) cards are common.
Is it true that people still write personal checks/cheques in the United States? YES. The use of personal cheques remains common in the United States. You may be required to pay your monthly rent, or other payments, by check as the company with whom you are dealing may be unable to accept electronic transfers or payments by cash. If you receive a cheque from an individual or a US company drawn on a US bank account, you will be required to "endorse" (sign) the back of the cheque at the bank when being cashed or depositing/paying into your account. It is advised that you sign the back of the cheque at the bank when you are ready to cash or deposit/pay the cheque into your account.
Debit Cards versus Credit Cards:
Is a debit card the same as a check/cheque? YES (essentially). The amounts charged on a debit card are immediately deducted from the balance remaining in your checking account and allows you to make purchases as well as withdraw cash from an ATM. Using a debit card in the United States is equivalent to writing personal cheques, but as stated above some smaller businesses, landlords and property management companies are not equipped to accept debit cards instead of a personal check. You will want to obtain detailed information from the bank representative when opening your accounts regarding fees that may be charged when using your debit card (fees can be $0.75 per transaction, or more).
How does a debit card differ from a credit card? Use of a credit card in the United States is equivalent to buying a product or good "on credit". Purchases are charged to the credit card account and will be itemized on a monthly credit card statement. American banks and businesses do not accept credit ratings established in European countries and Canada; therefore, obtaining a credit card in the United States may not necessarily be as easy as you might anticipate (dependent upon the financial institution that you chose). As stated previously, most financial institutions require that your account be open at least 30 days before applying for a credit card.
My application for a credit card was denied, but they offered a "secured credit card". What is that and how does it work? Some local banks and credit unions require you to initially obtain a "secured credit card". By secured we mean that you may be asked to place a 110% deposit of the amount that you want to have available on the card. For example, if you want to obtain a credit card with a $1,000 limit, you would be asked to place $1,100 in an account with the credit card company. This money would, in effect, be "frozen" until you sufficiently establish credit with that company, which usually takes six months to one year. You will want to know your bank or credit union's policy regarding credit cards prior to opening your account since you may wish to choose to do all your business at another financial institution.
Do I need a credit card from a US company? Not necessarily. Many staff members maintain a credit card from their home country for international travel and emergency use. You will want to be aware of international/ foreign transaction fees and other fees that your credit card company may charge for US transactions.
What is the average fee for the use of automatic teller machines (ATMs/cash point machines) using credit or debit cards? The amount of the fee depends upon whether the financial institution, which has issued your card has a relationship with the "owner" of the ATM (fees vary from $ .75 to $3.00 and greater).
Withdrawing money from your account at an ATM at a branch office of the financial institution where you maintain an account does not ordinarily result in a fee.
Withdrawing funds from your foreign bank account through an ATM—if permitted—may result in higher fees. Most, but not all, ATMs will inform of the transaction fee during the withdrawal process, prior to your final approval of the transaction. You should be aware that most 'portable' ATM machines (small ATMs normally those found in restaurants, convenience stores, hotels, etc.) charge fees greater than those positioned at banks, in shopping malls, etc. as the financial institutions usually pay to have the ATM located in that business
Exchange of Money, Wire Transfer and Carrying of Cash:
How can I exchange my national currency into dollars in the United States? There are limited ways in which you can exchange money in the United States, either at the airport or through the bank where you hold an account. Most US banks do not have designated foreign exchange counters/desks. Ordinarily, the foreign currency would be collected from you and US dollars would be ordered for you to collect at the bank; this process can take up to 2 weeks. You can deposit/pay a cheque from your national bank into your US bank account, although the bank may place a hold on the cheque for 6-8 weeks to verify the foreign bank information before releasing the funds to your account.
Is there a limit on the monetary amount of a wire transfer? NO (ordinarily). There is no US law that limits the amount of the transfer. However, you will want to consult a representative of the financial institution where you have established, or intend to establish, your accounts and ask if they have a limit on the amount of the transfer, and if they have a limit on the number of transfers within a given period. You should also inquire about wire transfer fees, current exchange rates, etc. so you can do a fair comparison if you are considering more than one financial institution.
Is there a limit on the amount of cash or monetary instruments (checks/cheques, traveller's checks/cheques, money orders, and the like) that I can carry on my person when entering the United States? YES. Although US Customs and Border Protection Services officials do not collect duty on currency, travellers entering (or leaving) the United States who are carrying "monetary instruments" valued at $10,000 or more are required to report/declare. The Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), US Department of Treasury (www.fincen.gov), is responsible for the collection of information and enforcement. FinCEN Form 105 "Report of International Transportation of Currency or Monetary Instruments" is completed in accordance with US Federal regulations (Title 31 Code of Federal Regulations Section 103). The form can be downloaded and completed in advance at www.fincen.gov/forms/files/fin105_cmir.pdf or obtained from a US Customs official upon your entry. Failure to declare currency being hand carried to the United States in amounts over $10,000 can result in its seizure.
What is a Tip? Unlike Europe, leaving "TIPS" (an abbreviation–"to insure prompt service") for services is quite common in the United States. In fact, in most instances the individual providing the service expects them.
Why should I tip? An individual who ordinarily receives tips is working in an occupation for which the wage is lower than the US Federal Government's mandated minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. In restaurants an employer, in most US states including Virginia, is only required to pay a restaurant server $2.13 per hour in direct wages provided that the individual receives tips which when combined with their wage equals that of minimum wage ($5.15 per hour). The amount of tip is usually determined by the type and level of service provided.
What is the recommended tip for wait staff in a restaurant? In some instances, the gratuity (or tip) is included in the bill; this occurs most frequently with large groups and should be posted in the restaurant, referenced on the menu, or you will be informed at the time of reservation or at seating. You are expected to leave a minimum of 15% of the 'pre-tax' amount, although many customers leave 20% especially if you frequent the restaurant or if it is a more expensive establishment. When dining with a large group (6 or 8 or more in your party) the gratuity (usually 15-18% of the pre-tax amount) is ordinarily included with the bill, although you can leave an additional tip if you wish. The wine steward, or sommelier, will expect a tip of 10% of the wine portion of the bill; for cocktails, most customers tip a minimum of $1 per drink for more expensive cocktails; $1-2 per round of beer for example. For small invoices or 'tabs', it is considered in bad taste to leave less than $1 per person at the table, even if you have only had coffee or soda (if you are at the table for more than one hour, you would ordinarily be expected to leave more).
How much is the recommended tip for other services? Hairdressers, manicurists, masseur/masseuse, and similar service providers ordinarily expect to be tipped approximately 15% of the bill. Taxi drivers expect 10-15% of the fare, with 15% more common in larger cities. When valet parking, it is suggested that you tip $1-5 (the value of the car factors into the amount of tip!) when you drop the car and again when you retrieve it.
Bellman (luggage carriers) expect $1-5 per bag (proportionate to the hotel's rating-1-5 star).
Hotel maids and housekeeping staff ordinarily expect a tip of approximately $2-3 per night in an average hotel, with $3-5 per night in a luxury hotel or resort. It is suggested that you tip daily rather than at the end of your visit as you may have a different maid each day. Leave your tip in an obvious place such as on or near the television, on your pillow or on the bathroom counter.
If I do not want to leave a tip because the service was bad, what should I do? If you receive bad service, you should speak to the manager rather than leave a bad tip, as the assumption will be that you are a poor tipper.
Identity Theft and Scams:
I've heard that banking scams in the United States are common. Is this true? Scams are regrettably common throughout the world. Related specifically to banking, however, is a scam known as "phishing". "Phishing" is a scam, usually by e-mail or 'pop-up' messages. The message may ask you to 'update', 'validate' or 'confirm' your account information or risk facing consequences–these messages exist simply to trick you into divulging your personal information. Phishing is also common by telephone and regular postal service, in which you are requested to provide personal information such as bank account numbers, social security numbers, passwords, etc., which is then used to steal your money, or identity (see section later in this guide entitled General Consumer Information or further details).
How do I protect my identity and accounts? There are a wealth of tips and information available on the Internet regarding how to protect against identity theft, including on the Identity Theft Site of the US Federal Trade Commission: www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/. Most financial institutions provide information on 'phishing' to its customers upon opening an account; however, here are a few tips:
- Never link to your financial institution's web site through e-mail—always type the name of your bank's online service—once you connect to your bank's online service, ensure that the web address (the uniform resource location (URL) is "https" and not simply "http" as the "s" in "https" ensures you are on a 'secure' web site).
- Never supply personal account information by e-mail (financial institutions, including credit card companies, never request your personal account information or personal identification number (PIN) by e-mail).
- In many instances, the correspondence includes the logo (or symbol) of the financial institution, or "verified by Visa®", for example—this does not confirm the authenticity.
- Review your account statements regularly to ensure you have conducted and authorized all transactions.
- Protect your social security number (SSN) (if one has been issued to you) and credit card numbers.
- Review your bank account and credit card statements upon receipt.
- Protect your passwords.
- Use anti-virus software (check with the HQ SACT "CIS Help Desk", +1 757 747 4357, to request information for a free subscription to McAfee protection for your home computer).
- If you receive 'spam' e-mail 'phishing' for information, forward it to the webmaster of your financial institution—do NOT respond to the sender.