How to,  Living Abroad,  Preparing

Four Must-know Banking Tips Before You Move to Spain

Dear Jennifer,

As we talked about before in the post about managing your finances for a short-term stay in Spain, it’s important that you do some preparation in terms of your banking before you move to Spain. As an American, I can talk to you about some of the specific tips and actions that are available and helpful in the U.S. but, taken more generally, this advice can be useful for all expats planning to move abroad.

Especially if you’ll be working as an auxiliar you will eventually need a Spanish bank account for your direct deposits (and we promise to get into that soon as well). However, during your first couple of months it’s really nice to have the peace of mind that comes along with having an international-friendly bank account that isn’t charging you outrageous fees every time you use it abroad. Take the time to optimize your banking back home before you move abroad!


Choose an international-friendly bank

Know what the international fees are related to your credit and debit card before you go!

We’re not at all sponsored by Charles Schwab, but I personally have an account with them and recommend their banking 100%. They are incredibly international-friendly and have impeccable customer service. Although focused more on brokerage and investments, Schwab has always made me feel like a valued client and I’ve never had to pay additional fees for transactions here in Spain because they reimburse almost all ATM fees (although I’ve rarely needed reimbursement as most of the ATMs I find in Spain don’t charge a withdrawal fee for my card) and I simply avoid using my debit card for purchases as there are transaction fees for international purchases. (You can see how the Schwab checking account compares to other options here.)

Pro-Tip: Avoiding card purchases is actually easier than it sounds. You’ll find that Spain is still very much into cash transactions and if you plan ahead to hit the ATM before the stores (or just so happen to have cash from private lessons) you’ll quickly get into the habit of having cash on you instead.


Investigate the availability of your bank in Spain

Whether you decide to go with Charles Schwab or a different bank, take some time to research the availability of that bank in Spain. You won’t find any brick and mortar Schwab banks here, but they do have “partner banks” that could help you if needed. At the same time, their 24-hour online chat and phone customer service is phenomenal and free. I have never had a problem getting issues resolved/questions answered and I always hang up with a smile on my face (how is that even possible!?).

Pro-Tip: As you can see with my enthusiasm over Schwab despite its lack of physical presence here in Spain, it’s totally possible to have a good experience with a US-only bank while living abroad, just be sure you know how to access their services. For example, I’ve learned that Schwab’s toll-free international number is only free if calling from a landline therefore when I only have my cell available, I’m sure to contact via online chat or email instead.


Adding someone else to your account can help avoid stress if issues arise with your US bank while abroad. Give someone you trust access to your account

I would recommend going into the office with one of your parents (or another person you trust) and putting them on your account as well. You likely won’t need this, but it’s a good safety net to have in place just in case you need them to transfer money for you, write a check for some bill you weren’t expecting while you’re away, or have any other unexpected issue and need someone to go into the bank to sort it out in person. Unless mom is listed on your account before the need arises, she’s not going to be able to help you out in a pinch and you can save both of you a lot of stress by checking off this simple procedure beforehand.

Pro-Tip: Look into your options when going about this step as there may exist a variety of different levels of access you can allow. For example, I just had my mom sign up for my account as an equal account holder so she is able to go into the bank and carry out any sort of transaction (deposit, withdrawal, all customer inquiries) but your bank may allow you to add someone with limited access.


Alert your bank that you will be in Spain

Whether you are setting up a new account and getting a brand new debit card or simply planning to use the card you’ve always had, it’s important that you alert your bank of your travel plans so that you can use your card abroad without raising any red flags. If you don’t do so, it’s likely that your bank with temporarily block your card in an effort to protect you, assuming that it’s fraud. You can avoid this hassle by calling ahead and telling them the specific date you will arrive in Spain and the estimated length of time you will be there. It’s not always necessary, but as always, better safe than sorry!

Pro-Tip: If you’re getting a new card altogether your bank will probably recommend you use it once or twice in the US to ensure that it’s all set up properly and you don’t have any issues (definitely something you want to be know before leaving). While these initial transactions will put you in their system as a cardholder in the US (hence the need to alert them about being in Spain), be aware that the same thing may happen to you upon your return if you stay in Spain for awhile—my first trip to Target when I got back home had Schwab immediately calling me to confirm the transaction was genuine.


If you’ve at least taken the time to consider these four tips and implement whatever feels best for your personal situation, you’ll definitely be ahead of the game and well on your way for smooth sailing in Spain. Let us know if there are any other tips you think newcomers should consider or if you have specific banking prep questions we can help with!


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