I just want to open a bank account!!! (aka: Opening a bank account in Estonia as a non-EU citizen)

With all the talk about Estonia being digital and expat friendly, I assumed the administration of getting set up would be simple.

When it comes to getting a bank account, this has not been the case.

I have now visited Swedbank on five separate occasions to go through the process of opening a bank account. On each occasion, I have been at the bank for more than an hour (most of which was spent waiting), and some of those hours have been a waste of time.

This is my story.

The prequel

First, what happened before opening a bank account?

Initially I hadn’t worried about opening an account – I thought my priority should be finding somewhere to live, and didn’t think that I’d be able to open an account until I had an address. However, when work realised I didn’t have an account yet, and they wouldn’t be able to pay me for August until I opened one, I decided to get started.

(Note that they had previously told me they could pay me in cash for up to three months while I got everything organised. This did not happen.)

The first step was getting an ID code, which (with the exception of discovering the main office was closed) was very straight forward. I had hoped opening a bank account would be similar.

It wasn’t.

Visit 1: The false start

The reason I chose Swedbank was because there was a branch near the office that was open until 6pm during the week. I thought that, that way, I could leave work at 5pm, go straight to the bank and start the process.

A secondary, more logical, consideration was that Swedbank is a big bank with lots of ATMs, so should be convenient.

Unfortunately, I got to the bank only to be informed that there wasn’t enough time left and I’d need to come back next week. (Now I know this is because there is a 40-60 minute wait every time you go to the Swedbank Foorum branch – if you’re a Swedbank customer, I can confidently recommend using ANY OTHER BRANCH in Tallinn.)

Visit 2: The application

The next week I went back to the branch at lunch time, and waited for an hour before I could see someone.

When I finally had my appointment, I was prepared with the following:

  1. My passport
  2. My freshly-signed lease agreement
  3. My employment contract (Estonian banks want to see proof of your connection to Estonia before they open an account for you, so I either needed a job or an Estonian husband)
  4. A letter from my employer asking them to open the account
  5. My short-term registration document
  6. The paper with my ID code

In hindsight, the only things they cared about were the passport, employment contract and ID code.

Now, there are two things to keep in mind if you are a non-EU citizen opening a bank account in Estonia:

  1. The application process will take up to 10 days.
  2. You will be charged a fee for the honour of opening a bank account with them. Swedbank’s was €200, but I’ve heard that Coop Bank’s is €100.

While I’d prefer to have my bank account instantly, and for free, this information was available on the bank’s website, so I was prepared. (Perhaps the bank should team up with the government to create some effective online communication? Because nothing government-related has been this clear.)

Note that I could have waited for my temporary residence permit to be approved, but my appointment wasn’t until September 11th and then the process takes two months, and I didn’t want to wait until November for my first pay cheque, so I was comfortable swallowing the €200 fee.

After a good 20 minutes of filling out forms, I was told I should have a decision in 10 days.

The next week, I received a call from a lovely gentleman saying that the account had been approved and my debit card was on its way – I should expect it to arrive on September 19th. He then said I would also need to go back into the branch to sign the paperwork involved in officially opening the account, after which I would get my bank details. (Not sure why all of this couldn’t have been organised last time, but anyway…)

Visit 3: Aaargh!!!

I went back to the bank at lunchtime to sign my paperwork. I walked in, went up to the woman at the front desk and got added to the list, after which I opened the kindle app on my phone and started to read (I’d learnt about the long wait times at this stage).

After 70 minutes (yes, I was counting), I was ushered to a desk where I explained that I’d gotten a call and was here to sign the paperwork. At which point the bank… person? Teller? (I have no idea what this person’s title is.) asked for my passport.

Admittedly, this was my mistake, but I hadn’t brought my passport. Back home, and even while travelling, I’m so used to using my driver’s license as my ID that it’s not natural for me to carry my passport around everywhere, but apparently that’s what you need to do in Estonia before you get your ID card (note: the ID card is connected to my residence permit. If you’re an EU citizen, I believe you can apply for it separately and it arrives in a couple of days).

I said that I didn’t have it on me, and asked if he’d accept my driver’s license instead, which had my photo and date of birth. (For any international readers, Victorian driver’s licenses are also very high-tech with a transparent strip down the middle, so they are quite an official ID – not easy to forge.)

He said no.

I explained that I’d been waiting for over an hour, and asked if there was anything he could do.

He said no.

I pleaded with him to help me find a solution, explaining that I could prove my identity if he quizzed me on the details he had in the system (like they do with telephone banking back home).

He said no.

I left in a huff.

Yes, this was my fault, but they could have warned me! They’d already checked all of my ID and had copies of it in the system – I didn’t think they’d need it again!

I resigned myself to returning to the bank a fourth time.

Visit 4: The opening ceremony

I went back one more time, this time at about 4pm on a Friday, hoping that it would be quicker than my lunchtime visits.

After a 40-minute wait (gasp – so fast! Note that I would have deemed anything over 5 minutes in Australia as unacceptable, but clearly I’m already becoming acclimatised), I was taken to a desk where I explained the phone call and that I was here to sign my paperwork.

The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Estonian boy (there are a lot of them here) looked at my passport (yes, I remembered it this time) and printed out the paperwork for me. Everything was signed and reviewed without a hitch, and then he said, ‘About the €200 fee…’

‘Yes, that’s fine,’ I said, bringing out my card.

‘Uh, we don’t accept card payments here.’

I felt my face get caught somewhere between a frown and a smirk – wasn’t this a bank?? But I played ball. ‘Okay. Well I can go to one of the ATMs out the front and withdraw €200 in cash, then.’

‘Oh, we can’t accept cash payments at this branch. If you want to pay by cash, you’ll have to go to another branch.’

‘So how exactly am I supposed to pay, then?’

‘Oh,’ he brightened, ‘we’ll deduct the fee from your account balance.’

I frowned in confusion. ‘But I don’t have an account balance, yet. I only just got my bank details, so I haven’t been paid.’

He shook his head. ‘No, what you can do is go to the ATM where you can withdraw €200 from another bank account. Then you insert your Swedbank card and can deposit the €200 in cash into your account using the ATM.’

‘… but I don’t have my Swedbank card, yet. It hasn’t arrived.’

‘Oh.’ He frowned, stumped.

Oh no, I started to worry. Please don’t tell me I need to come back yet again?! I tried the same tactic as last time. ‘Please, I’ve been here for an hour now and I really don’t want to come back once I have my card and wait all over again. Is there any other way we can do this?’

He thought for a couple of minutes, then turned back to me with a smile. ‘I know! I’ll organise a temporary bank card for you, which you can use to deposit the funds.’

I agreed and he went off to organise the paperwork for the temporary card. Once everything was signed, I took the card then deposited the funds into my Swedbank account via the ATM.

After checking back with him to make sure everything went through, it looked like everything was done – I had a working bank account!

Or so I thought…

Visit 5: The PIN calculator

On Visit 4, the bank person (this is the word I’m going with. Deal with it) mentioned that because I didn’t have my ID card yet, I would need to use a PIN calculator to log into online banking and make online payments.

I wasn’t too worried about this – I’d used a similar system when I was living in the UK and, while a bit clunky, it worked.

A week or so after my final appointment, I popped onto the Swedbank website to find out about getting a pin calculator organised so I could pay my rent at the end of the month, at which point I was dismayed to discover that I had to go into a branch to buy one! Seriously Estonia – can’t you do anything online?!

At this point, everyone at work was well aware of my banking saga, so it didn’t come as a surprise when I exclaimed, ‘I have to go to the bank again!?

I went back at lunchtime, ate lunch and waited for the obligatory 60 minutes (you see, now I was well trained – I knew I’d be waiting so long that I might as well buy lunch beforehand and eat it there). When I was taken to a desk, I sat down, brought out my passport and said I needed a PIN calculator.

The PIN calculator bit was fairly straight forward – another blonde-haired, blue-eyed boy gave me some instructions, had me sign for the €7.50 purchase (which was deducted from my bank balance, which now had money in it after work paid me for the second half of August) and handed it over.

Apparently the guy from the previous visit had messed up my paperwork, so we had to go through everything again, which took other 20 minutes. But I was a happy camper with my now-usable bank account.

And there you have it – the saga of setting up a bank account as a non-EU citizen.

(Though this doesn’t include the bit about my debit card never arriving, then me ordering a new one which they sent to a branch instead of to me, then a debit card finally arriving which turned out to be the original one but three weeks late, and was therefore deactivated, to the functioning debit card finally finding me four weeks later than expected. But I’m sure you’ve had enough banking dramas for now.)


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