Discover more from Expat in Portugal
Banking in a New Country
How can it possibly take this long?
As we were applying for our D7 visa, a new requirement was being added. Sometime in October or November 2020, Portugal decided it wanted applicants to have already established a bank account in Portugal.
A Bank in Porto
Since RTP was based in Porto, they had a relationship with a banker in Porto that would act as an intermediary to open the account. Obviously, there are concerns about money laundering and the like (can you say Deutsche bank?) that require that one’s identity and source of funds be confirmed. It took over 3 weeks, nearly 100 emails, 7 forms (printed, signed, FedExed at a cost of $157 for overnight delivery that took 4 days), copies of passports, and social security cards. At the time I thought…oh this is what they mean by Portuguese bureaucracy. As it turns out when we sent in our application the bank account was not yet opened. It was approved about two weeks later. We worried during that two weeks that we would get an email from the Embassy requesting confirmation of the account. We never were asked. Not sure why … as we know others that were.
Anyway, when we got to Portugal we had some euros in our pocket (from a prior trip) and a Schwab ATM card that did not charge international transaction fees and reimburses your accounts for fees charged by the local ATM provider. On 4 January we walked to the Abanca branch in Estoril to request our ATM cards. We met a kind, English-speaking man who welcomed us to his branch and seemed to have all the time in the world to help us understand the Portuguese banking system. Yes, he would confirm that that money we had transferred arrived and was sitting in our account. Yes, he could request that the Multibanco (ATM) cards be sent from Porto to his branch. There was more…but let’s pause for a bit here.
Actually, the pause to get the ATM card in my hand took 46 days! No the mail in Portugal is not that slow. And to tell you the truth, I really am not sure why it took that long. We were told that to have the cards sent to Estoril we needed to have the account “moved” to Estoril. Huh? Aren’t all your branches connected? Yes…but no. So, we signed a form to make that happen. Perhaps the bank was having a contest and the branch that signed up the most customers got a coffee machine for their break room. I didn’t care!
Then we signed another form to request the bank cards.
After a week, more time than I would have given a US bank, I called the banker again. “No, perhaps next week.” This was a sequence of time and words repeated again and again. After about a month, I was at my wit’s end. I needed “checks sent” to secure our new (now flooded) apartment. “Come to the branch, I can do that for you.” Again, I signed a form and within minutes money was transferred from our account to the apartment owner. I was grateful but still could not understand what was taking so long. It was then that I learned that the bank froze all inter-branch transfers for the first two weeks of the calendar year to finalize their books. I also learned that our banker first sent the transfer request, and waited for it to be returned, before sending the card request. How frustrating.
Another Payment, Another Trip to the Bank
It turned out we needed another payment made before we got our cards. Due to Covid, the bank employees alternate a week in the branch with a week at home. So this time we worked with another banker…also very kind, patient and English-speaking. He told us again and again how much he loved Americans. With this opening, Denise asked a question. “Since you have worked with many American clients, I wonder if you have noticed anything. For example, have you noticed that we would rather be given ‘bad’ news directly rather than strung along?”
“Oh yes,” the banker replied. “You are not as direct as the Swiss…they really are something…but I understand your point.” He then went on to explain that he had explained to his colleague that he should just have told us it would take 5 or 6 weeks…that the accounts were closed for 2 weeks in January…etc. But Portuguese people would rather tell you “perhaps, next week”.
During that visit, we were able to finally get the bank’s app installed on my phone. Assuming I knew the IBAN number of the recipient, I could send payments instantly on my phone. Great, now I could pay bills! But still no cash.
Just Need the PIN
I realize this post is getting long, so let me wrap things up. On Monday, 15 February I again called our banker. I got him at home since it was Carnival and the bank was closed. After apologizing for my ignorance, in a typically Portuguese way, he told me not to worry. He expected the card to arrive tomorrow and would call us to confirm. The card did arrive, but the PIN which is sent separately (for security reasons) had not. That arrived on Friday, 19 February. We walked to the bank and retrieved my card.
Oh, by the way, Denise still has not gotten her card. But “perhaps next week.”
Final Note: There are actually wonderful aspects of banking in Portugal, including the Multibanco system. More on that in a future post.