If you’re a fresh arrival to the United States, you’ll be glad to know that even if you’re undocumented, opening a bank account is possible. Which is very good news; after all, taking care of bills and everyday purchases is a lot easier — not to mention safer — when your cash is safely stashed in a checking account.
However, you will have to follow certain steps and perhaps a work-around or two. Probably the most important is that you’ll just need to provide an alternative for the Social Security number you don’t have. You may well find that a Tax Identification Number, or ITIN, along with the other required identification, can get the job done.
Let’s take a closer look at how an undocumented immigrant can open a bank account and the benefits of doing so.
What Do Immigrants Need to Open a Bank Account?
Like anyone else who opens a bank account, immigrants will need to provide and verify basic identifying information, such as their name and date of birth, using government-issued identification. This requirement may be met by a driver’s license, passport, birth certificate, or consular ID — and you’ll likely need to provide two different types of identification.
In addition, you’ll need to prove your residence. This can probably be done by presenting a utility bill, lease contract, or other official statement that includes your current address.
Finally, you’ll need either a Social Security number (SSN) or Tax Identification Number (ITIN). As an immigrant, the latter may be easier to obtain.
So, to recap, to open a bank account, you’ll want to check the eligibility requirements of the financial institution to which you’re applying, but you’ll probably need:
• Official identification documentation
• Proof of address
• An SSN or ITIN
• Anything else the bank might require (such as a minimum opening deposit)
What Is an ITIN?
We mentioned an ITIN as an option to an SSN above. You may wonder what exactly that is. Here’s the scoop: ITIN is short for Individual Taxpayer Identification Number. It’s an official form of identification that the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) issues to immigrants in order to make it possible to file taxes.
But your ITIN has other perks, too — such as allowing you to open a bank account with financial institutions that accept this form of identification instead of an SSN. These days, there are plenty of banks that fit that category, but you should always contact the bank you’re considering to verify that they’ll process an account application without an SSN.
Keep in mind, too, that you aren’t automatically issued an ITIN once you arrive in the U.S. In order to obtain one, you’ll need to apply for one with the IRS directly. You can do this by mail or in person.
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How to Open a Bank Account With an ITIN Instead of a SSN
Here’s the good news: Once you have an ITIN, opening a bank account using it in place of an SSN should be a fairly straightforward process. You’ll simply supply that number instead of your SSN on that part of the application. If you apply online, the application process may take only a few minutes.
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The rest of the application will involve the bank gathering documentation, accepting your opening deposit, and issuing your bank account number and debit card. The process of establishing the account may take a couple of days. In addition, you may need to wait a week or more to receive your debit card in the mail.
And then, voila: You’re the proud owner of a U.S. bank account!
Benefits of Opening a Bank Account for Undocumented Immigrants
If you’ve been doing most of your financial transactions in cash for a while, you may wonder if going through the steps it takes to open a bank account is even worth it.
For many immigrants, it definitely is. A bank account makes it safer and easier to store and use your money. What’s more, it can also help you establish history and move toward legitimizing yourself as an American resident.
Carrying cash is always risky. If you accidentally drop some (which can easily happen while you’re lugging bags in one hand and a coffee in the other), it’s gone forever. That’s not to mention the risk of others eyeing your cash. Paper money is liable to theft, and carrying large amounts of cash could even put you at risk of physical violence.
Having a checking account makes it possible to store larger amounts of money with a lower risk level. You’ll still be able to access cash when you need it using an ATM or your debit card. For these reasons, opening a bank account could increase your level of physical safety as an immigrant.
Opening a bank account shows people that you’re here on at least a semi-permanent basis, and may even help you establish state residency. While the process of naturalization is, of course, long and complex, having a bank account can be one small step toward legitimizing your status as a U.S. resident.
Ability to Save Money
Most banks offer both checking and savings accounts—the latter of which is an excellent vehicle for building up a rainy day fund. Having a separate savings account makes it a lot easier to put some money “out of sight, out of mind” so you’re prepared for an emergency. And, of course, it’s a lot more secure than stuffing cash into a coffee can or under the mattress.
In addition to being physically safer, bank accounts also give you an edge against inflation. Here’s why: Many of them make it possible to earn interest on your balances—even on a checking account. The interest you earn might be pretty low, but it’s still better than no growth at all. Plus, it’s a low-risk investment given that money in a legitimate bank account is FDIC-insured up to $250,000.
While it may take a few extra steps, it’s totally possible for an undocumented immigrant to open a bank account. You may just have to apply for an ITIN to use in place of your SSN, but once you get that taken care of, you’ll have access to a safe, potentially interest-earning place to stash your cash.
When shopping around for where you’d like to bank, may we suggest one option? SoFi Checking and Savings, which offers both kinds of accounts with no pesky monthly fees. If you set up direct deposit, you’ll earn 1.25% APY on your balances. (That’s at least 33 times the national average interest rate for a checking account, just in case you’re keeping score.)
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How do undocumented immigrants open a bank account?
An undocumented immigrant will need an alternative to the Social Security number, or SSN, in order to open a bank account. This number is called an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number, or ITIN, and you can apply for one through the RIS.
Can I open a bank account without an SSN or ITIN?
Unfortunately, you’ll likely need one or the other of these official, identifying numbers in order to open a bank account.
Can a U.S. citizen open a bank account abroad?
Yes, but it can be tricky. Many U.S. citizens have offshore bank accounts, though the process of applying for one may vary depending on which country you’re hoping to open an account in. It can involve a lot of paperwork, and starting this kind of account may have tax ramifications in both the U.S. and the foreign country in question.
Photo credit: iStock/Bilgehan Tuzcu
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