If you’re coming into the US from abroad, it can be tricky to understand all the ins and outs of banking. Managing money varies from one country to another, and if you’re new to the US as an international student or employee, you may find key differences in terms of how you save and access money, what cards are best to apply for, and how to open different kinds of accounts.
Read on for a quick FAQ on banking in the US when you’re coming into the American financial system
What’s my first step to managing money in the US?
Your first port-of-call for financial matters in the US will be choosing a credit union or bank. A credit union is a not-for-profit institution that focuses on serving members, who typically share a common bond such as studying or being employed at affiliated organizations. A bank is a for-profit institution owned by stockholders, with a paid board of directors. While both types of institutions offer a variety of products, including savings and checking accounts, credit cards and loans, many people prefer to bank with a credit union – as they usually offer better rates, fewer fees and a more member-focused and democratically run model of operation.
How do I open an account?
Joining a credit union or bank and opening an account is a fairly straightforward process. Be sure to bring along two forms of identification, including at least one official government ID such as your passport or driver’s license. While many financial institutions do allow people to open accounts online, non-US citizens are usually required to visit a branch in-person to open an account- however, with new social distancing guidelines new account opening policies may be developed.
What kind of account do I want?
Take some time to review the website of your chosen financial institution, or talk with branch staff about your individual needs and preferences for managing your money.
In general, you’ll probably want to have a checking account as well as a savings account. A checking account can be used for everyday money transactions, so you can access funds quickly and with little to no cost. Your checking account will usually be tied to a debit card that allows you to withdraw cash at ATMs or conduct card-based transactions at business (in person or online) that automatically debit your account. A savings account, on the other hand, will normally give you higher interest on money saved, but you won’t be able to use a debit card for transactions at stores. You can request an ATM card to withdraw funds from your account. Savings accounts are ideal for any funds you are saving for a special purpose or that you won’t need for day-to-day transactions.
Whatever account you choose to open, always look at the perks and possible fees to decide what’s best for you and your specific financial situation.
Do I need a credit or debit card?
Debit cards give you convenient access to money in your checking account, whereas credit cards are tools to borrow money. If you’re not a U.S. citizen, you might need to take extra steps when applying for a credit card, such as demonstrating your credit history in the U.S., choosing a different kind of card if you’re not able to show the a U.S. credit score or having a U.S. co-applicant on your account. Speak with your credit union or bank to understand what options are available to you.
If you do get a credit card in the U.S., aim to pay off your balance every month to avoid interest payments, which can put a big dent in your budget.
What services are offered by HUECU?
HUECU is happy to support its international members in utilizing the Credit Union’s range of financial services. International Harvard students, employees and other international members of the HUECU community, including their families, can enjoy tailored benefits from the Credit Union including savings accounts with a minimum of $5 to open, currency exchange, checking accounts with no minimum balance, rewards credit cards at competitive rates, online and mobile banking, and more. HUECU also brings its members a range of free financial counseling and education resources, making it easier for international members to understand the U.S. banking system and choose the right products and services for their unique financial needs.