No docs, no bank account? Keep looking!

Published: Sunday, January 05, 2014

Consumer Action's Nelson Santiago, who works at the Los Angeles office, works with community-based organizations focusing on immigrants.

It’s widely acknowledged that a bank account can help people manage their money better and save for emergencies and financial goals. Nelson Santiago of Consumer Action’s Los Angeles office works with community-based organizations focusing on immigrants. He says that newcomers give a variety of reasons for not opening bank accounts—but not all are true barriers. One frequently cited reason is the inability to get a Social Security number or a U.S. government-issued ID.

But Santiago says that the lack of traditional identification documents should not be a barrier to having a bank account. Immigrant consumers without traditional identification documents have been able to open accounts at many financial institutions. Wells Fargo began accepting consular ID cards from Mexico in 2001 and later widened its acceptance of the cards to additional countries. Many other banks, both large and small, as well as credit unions also accept consular ID cards, along with Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs) in place of Social Security numbers.

Despite the increased acceptance of nontraditional forms of ID, Consumer Action still receives questions from community-based organizations seeking to educate immigrant clients about banking opportunities for those who lack a Social Security card or state-issued ID.

Santiago suggests two good sources of user-friendly and reassuring information to share with immigrant clients: the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC).

In the “Ask CFPB” section of its website, the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau includes the question, “Can I get a checking account without a social security number?” It answers that consumers are not required to have a Social Security number to open a checking or savings account, adding that many banks and credit unions will accept an ITIN or other forms of identification from foreign citizens. (Visit "Ask CFPB.") (Either a Social Security number or an ITIN is required to open an interest-bearing account. But immigrants should be aware that the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the federal taxing authority of the U.S. and the agency that doles out tax ID numbers, does not share individuals’ personal information with immigration officials.)

Although the CFPB is straightforward about the acceptability of nontraditional forms of ID, consumers may be left wondering just how common it is and whether they will be able to find an institution willing to open an account for them. A 2011 FDIC survey found that 58 percent of banks accepted a non-U.S. passport, 40 percent accepted ID from a foreign consulate and 73 percent accepted ITINs.

However, the FDIC noted that banks are not required to accept alternative ID. Given the numbers in the survey, Santiago reminds consumers not to be discouraged if the first institution they visit denies them the opportunity to open an account. Consumers seeking to establish a bank account and lacking traditional forms of ID should check with several local banks and credit unions to learn if consular ID cards, non-U.S. passports and ITINs are accepted. “Then, open an account at the institution that can meet your needs at the lowest cost,” says Santiago.

Tips for consumers

Be prepared to check with more than one financial institution, both large and small. Ask what types of ID are accepted from customers without Social Security numbers, U.S. passports or state-issued IDs.

Banks and credit unions that participate in local “Bank On” initiatives throughout the country (e.g. Bank on Denver, Bank on San Francisco, etc.) are working to help unbanked consumers establish bank accounts. Bank On partner institutions are among those that regularly accept nontraditional forms of ID. To find a local Bank On program, click here.

To find a credit union you may be able to join, go to www.aSmarterChoice.org or call 800-358-5710, or visit www.mycreditunion.gov.

To find a local community bank, visit the Independent Community Bankers of America website.

If a foreign passport or consular ID card from your country is acceptable, contact your embassy and/or local consulate office for information on how to obtain one. (Not every foreign country issues consular ID cards.)

If you find a bank or credit union that will accept an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) and you haven’t already obtained one to file your tax returns, the financial institution may provide you with information on how to get one for purposes of opening an account. You can download an ITIN application at the Internal Revenue Service website. Click here to learn more.

A tax advisor can also provide you with assistance obtaining an ITIN. Free advice for eligible consumers may be available from a local IRS Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program. Click here for information on VITA programs and requirements for obtaining an ITIN. A local United Way office may also be able to direct you to additional programs offering tax assistance and advice. Click here to find a local United Way agency near you.

 

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