Moving to Canada and want to know the best Canadian bank account for foreigners? Sit back, take a piece of maple fudge, and prepare to figure out how to access your cash.
The day you arrive in Vancouver, you’ll probably realise the only bank cards you have belong to your respective homeland, and that they’re charging you a premium to access your own cash from another part of the world, so you’ll want to set up a Canadian bank account pretty quickly – but which bank to go with?
There are a range of factors that go in to this decision because, well, banking in Canada is different. Here are five reasons why:
- Your ‘chequing’ account is your everyday banking account. Your ‘savings’ account is literally a savings account, and you will be charged to access money from this account (my bank blocked my ability to use the ‘Savings’ feature on debit machines so I could avoid these charges). Many banks also hardly give you any interest on anything in your savings account.
IMPORTANT: When you use your debit card, make sure you hit the ‘chequing’ button. I don’t even know why they have a ‘savings’ button, but they do, and you’ll be charged if you use it.
- Monthly fees are a usually part of life, and they range from $5 – $30. You can get around this by joining a bank that is traveller-friendly, or a bank that waives the charge if you keep you balance above a certain amount (more on those later).
- You’re often charged to use ATMs. This can include ATMs belonging to your own bank, and charges range from $0.99 – $2.50. Depending on your account type, banks will often have a set number of ATM and teller transactions you can make per month – if you go over that limit, you’ll start getting charged for your transactions.
- Credit cards are a bit of a necessity. There are a surprisingly-large number of systems in place that do not allow you to use a debit card. For example, you cannot set up your Compass card (public transport card) to automatically recharge unless you have a credit card, pre-pay for a ferry to Vancouver Island, and a bunch of other weird things. I’m not suggesting you get a credit card, but a few things might be easier if you do, so it might be worth looking in to a bank with a no-fee credit card.
- People still use cheques, and cheque books cost $40… Who knew? Sometimes rent or bills has to be paid via cheque, and some employers will ask you to send them a void cheque so they can get all your banking details right. I haven’t needed a cheque book at this stage, but it’s probably worth asking the banking gods about them when you sign up for an account – some include free cheque books.
Having said all that, it’s very easy to avoid these fees if you play it right, so read on! I will talk about that in a bit.
What info do I need to get a bank account in Canada?
Each bank has a different set of requirements, but if the bank has accounts targeted at newcomers, you will most-likely only need the following:
– Work Permit
– SIN Number
– ID (driver’s license or passport)
If your chosen bank is not newcomer-friendly, you’ll most-likely need to show proof of your Canadian address, and/or a Canadian driver’s license. It’s always best to call the bank before showing up to confirm.
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What bank should I go with?
There are a lot of options, but personally, I think the idea of being charged to access your own money from your own ATM or an in-store debit machine is borderline criminal, so I’ve only included budget-friendly accounts that waive those fees completely, or at least for a period of time:
CIBC (Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce)
Pros: CIBC offers newcomers unlimited transactions, e-transfers, and no monthly fees for one whole year. You also don’t need a proper Canadian address to sign up (they let me use the hostel address), and they’ll throw in a no-fee credit card that gives you ‘cash back’ on grocery purchases.
Cons: After a year, they will start charging you monthly account fees, along with additional fees for transactions and e-transfers. You’re pressured in to taking the credit card, and the ‘cash back’ on grocery purchases is credited to your credit card, so you have to use the card to spend it (think about it – it’s a vicious cycle). I also actually had consult Google as to how I should pay off my credit card because it’s not obvious.
HINT: Don’t wait for them to send you a bill (they charge you for that bill) – transfer the money in to your credit account. It looks ridiculous just sitting there, but it counts as payment.
Pros: RBC allows you to set up a bank account from outside Canada, and transfer your own cash in to it via their in-house wire transfer system. This means you land in the country and start making transactions immediately, from any province, without worrying about the exchange rate or ATM fees. They’ll also give you a credit card, reduce foreign exchange transactions in-branch for 12-months, and waive account fees and give you unlimited transactions for nine-months.
Cons: You have to phone the bank to set up the account if you’re not in Canada, you only have nine-months of no account fees and unlimited transactions, there is a downpayment ($1000-ish) if you want a credit card, and they’re not very accommodating if you accidentally miss a credit card payment (I heard a horror story where someone was signed up for the wrong type of credit card. It ended up costing her thousands even though it’s not what she asked for, and they made her pay it all back anyway).
Pro’s: They’ll waive monthly fees for a year, and give you unlimited ATM transactions and e-transactions. They’ll also give you a no-fee credit card, free safety-deposit box rental for one-year (why you’d need this, I don’t know, but the option is there!), and (like RBC) you can can get an account before you move to Canada and access your cash from the moment you land.
Con’s: You can only apply for an account from outside the country by international snail mail, and as with the other banks, the freebies will end.
Pros: With unlimited transactions and e-transfers, free access to all Scotiabank ATMs across the country, no bank fees, no bill payment fees (yes, that’s also a thing), interest on anything in your chequing account, and a free cheque book, Tangerine is a pretty good option. The best part is these options are available to Canadians and foreigners, and the features never expire, so you could theoretically have unlimited transactions until THE END OF TIME.
Cons: Tangerine isn’t my top recommendation because they’re not newcomer-friendly. To sign up for an account, you’ll need to give them proof of your Canadian address, and be in possession of a Canadian driver’s licence (your homeland license and passport will not do). Furthermore, despite being spruiked as an ‘online’ bank, I had to go in to the branch in Vancouver multiple times during work hours to show them my ID and work permit because they wouldn’t let me do it online.
When I finally received my bank card, I realised it was ‘client card’ rather than a visa debit or mastercard, which means there’s no CSV number on the back, and I wouldn’t be able to make online purchases without getting a Tangerine credit card. Not impressed, Tangerine. Not impressed.
Nevertheless, I still recommend them because there’s no time-limit on benefits.
(HINT: Want $50? Sign up with tangerine online, put in number below when prompted, and BOOM! We’ll both get $50. Pin: 50086125S1)
Pros: Unlimited transactions, e-transfers, one free international transfer per month, and no monthly fees – all for six-months. They’ll also give you a no-fee credit card, and interest on anything in your savings account.
Cons: Benefits only last six-months and the account doesn’t come with a cheque book. on another note, the credit card limit is $5,000, regardless of your credit history or income. That may not be a problem if you’re good at managing your finances, but it’s also potentially dangerous and encourages overspending.
Another option is to go with a credit union. Credit unions are a little different to regular banks because they’re more community-driven, and require you to make a one-time investment of around $5 (often refundable if you cancel your account), which allows you to have a say in how the elected board of directors use the bank’s money.
Credit unions aren’t generally traveller-friendly, so you’ll probably need to prove your address and residency upon sign-up, but if you’ve been in Canada for a few months, you should have a Canadian driver’s license and/or bill with your address on it, so that shouldn’t be a problem.
Recommended unions include Coast Capital Credit Union and President’s Choice because they offer unlimited transactions, no monthly fees, and PC offers a free cheque book. Another option is Vancity, but you’ll have to keep your account above $1,000/month is you want free transactions and no monthly fees.
When I arrived in Vancouver, I got an account with CIBC because they had a newcomer deal and I knew someone that was already with them, and went on to sign up with Tangerine a few months later. I don’t regret that decision, but the fact that I had to research a way to pay off my credit card is not ok. I’ve also seen a few charges on my bank statements that I don’t really understand, which bothers me and makes me feel as though they’re just trying to take my money. So I do not recommend CIBC.
As annoying as Tangerine was to sign up with, in my opinion, their benefits are unparalleled compared to the banking institutions throughout the rest of Canada. Having said that, I’ve only heard good things about Vancity and, had I known about them earlier, would have at least looked at going down that avenue.
How do I avoid bank fees in Canada altogether?
Sign up with a bank that has a newcomer deal, wait until your benefits are up, then get an account with Tangerine or a credit union once you have a Canadian driver’s license and address.
Yes, it really is that easy.
So those are my top Canadian bank account recommendations for foreigners!
Have you moved to Canada and/or Vancouver and had a different experience? Comment below, or tell me all about it!