One of the first and most essential things expats need to figure out in Thailand is how to open a bank account. The guide below walks you through the most common banking choices, account types, opening procedures and other specifics of the Thai banking system.
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- 1 Surprises First
- 2 Which Bank to Pick
- 3 Account Types and Opening Procedures
- 4 Debit Cards
- 5 ATMs
- 6 Online Banking
- 7 Deposit Guarantees
- 8 Alternatives
While life without surprises would be a tad boring, in general people prefer not to encounter them with financial matters. Sparing you the worst, I’ll cover the most essential differences between Thailand and other countries when it comes to banking.
The Importance of Your Branch
Thai Banks tend to work slightly different than their counterparts back in your home country. Specifically, a lot of policies tend to be branch specific. Just because something does(n’t) work in one branch, that doesn’t necessarily say anything about any other branch of the same bank. That can work in your favor (e.g. by a branch being more lenient than they are supposed to be), but often is a source of frustration because individual bank managers and employers opt to follow a stricter interpretation of the rules.
Branches tend to be more independent in other ways as well: Some procedures can only be carried out at the specific branch where you opened the account. Others can be carried out at all branches. And a select few can be carried out at every branch as long as your ID on file is up to date. Long story short: It matters which specific branch you’re using. I’ll go over recommended branches for different banks in the section on individual banks.
Always Bring Everything
Some banks publish guidelines on required documents for specific procedures. Others happily provide the information by phone when you call their call center. In the end, it doesn’t change much. Those should be considered the absolute minimum rather than the actual list of required documents. It’s always a good idea to bring everything. That includes your passport, your bank book, your work permit and any other original you ever showed your bank officer.
I’ve seen banks hand out credit cards with me showing nothing but a Thai driver’s license, but in general the documentation requirements tend to be more extensive than expected.
Why Empty Forms Get Signed
Nearly every time I visit a Thai bank for something more complicated than a withdrawal, I’ll be asked to sign a standard form. That apparently gets tedious for a lot of people. The modus operandi for many bank employees is to give the unfilled form to customers, asking them to sign that and promising to fill in the necessary details for them later.
Of course you can fill it out yourself and cross out any empty sections. I tend to do that and my branch employees don’t bat an eye. The first few times it happened though I was very wary of potential shenanigans and might have have come across as a bit off-putting. In the end though it was just their way of handling things. You don’t have to go along with it, but I recommend not taking offense either.
Which Bank to Pick
The traditional choices for foreigners arriving in Thailand are Bangkok Bank and Kasikorn Bank (though recently I’ve heard good things about Krungsri and Citibank as well). Both hold a reputation as being easier to work with and more lenient with foreigners than other banks. However, they are not the only available options. Depending on your specific needs and immigration status, different banks might be a better pick.
With 18 million accounts, Bangkok Bank is not only Thailand’s largest bank but also the most foreigner-friendly one. In terms of specific branches, Bangkok Bank’s main office on Silom road is frequently mentioned as the best branch to visit. In addition, Bangkok Bank probably has the best exchange rate of all Thai banks when it comes to international wire transfers.
The Malaysian bank group CIMB has a significant presence in Thailand. The recommended branch to deal with is the one on the 5th floor of Siam Paragon. What’s good about them is that they’ll allow you to open an account on a tourist visa and unlike many other banks will also set you up with online banking.
What you’ll need to bring and provide when opening an account with them:
- Address proof from your home country (e.g. an official ID that lists your address)
- Utility bill in Thailand (ideally the last three)
- Thai phone number
- A Thai national who’ll serve as a reference (they’ll have to go with you and show their ID)
They’ll give you a VISA debit card on the spot (fee: THB 300) and will expect a minimum account deposit of THB 1,000. Most importantly, if you are on a tourist visa, they’ll give you online banking access.
If you want to go with Citibank, their main office is on the corner Sukhumvit and Asoke road. Given that a 3 million THB deposit gets you gold status with Citibank this can be a worthwhile option to consider if you’re doing a lot of cross-border banking. I’m a fan of their Royal Orchid PlusSelect Credit Card.
For Kasikorn Bank, the most foreigner friendly branch would be their branch on Sukhumvit 33. I found Kasikorn Bank to be one of the easier ones to work with when it comes to credit cards. They also gave me a cheque book when I opened a current account with them – that was quite the flashback, considering the last time I saw a check back home must have been in the 80s. On the downside, I found them a bit tedious to work with when cashing foreign currency checks (Germany might not be using checks anymore, but plenty of countries still do…).
Siam Commercial Bank
I do have a stock brokerage account with them though. It feels a bit rusty compared to what I’m used to in other countries, but it gets the job done and transaction costs are cheaper than back home in Germany.
Account Types and Opening Procedures
There are a number of different types of accounts available to expats. The easiest one to open is a savings account. For most other account types, you need a work permit.
With some banks (e.g. Bangkok Bank, CIMB) you can even open a bank account as a tourist. The more months remaining on the visa the better, but there’s no specific limit. A 30-day arrival stamp (‘visa exemption’) is in theory enough according to Bangkok Bank’s online guidelines.
However, there’s a good chance this can cause some hassle, especially with smaller branches and may not be accepted at all by other banks. My personal advice would be to come on a tourist visa if you plan on opening an account, but if that’s not feasible, chances are a 30-day stamp will work as well at selected banks and branches.
There are reports of some branches in Bangkok being happy with your passport alone, but the more common case seems to be that a proof of address is required. The easiest is a lease agreement, but any of the following documents might also be accepted:
- Thai driving license
- Thai house registration
- Letter of reference from a ‘reputable’ Thai person, an embassy, a university or a similar person or organisation in high standing
- Letter from a company stating that you are in the process of getting a work permit
- Message from your home bank to the Thai bank via the SWIFT messaging network
I recommend you bring anything that shows you’re in Thailand for a longer period of time, any ID with a picture on it, as well as any documents showing you receive a salary or pension. What specifically gets accepted will depend a bit on the officer on duty and the branch manager in charge.
For Bangkok Bank, there are online instructions available on how to open an account as a non-resident. Following them is probably a good guideline regardless of which bank you’re applying to.
Dress nicely and consider bringing a Thai person to help translate when opening an account. Sometimes indicating that you’d like to make a deposit of THB 30,000 to THB 50,000 rather than just the minimum balance will be looked upon favorably. None of that is technically required, but it makes life somewhat easier. As mentioned above, it’s a bit of a branch-by-branch thing.
If approved, you’ll receive a passbook and a debit card. For some things (e.g. updating the passport number on file), you’ll have to contact the branch where you opened the account, otherwise you can just use whatever branch is convenient.
If you have a work permit, you are also able to open a current account. In practice, those work the same way as a savings account in Thailand. The only difference is that you receive a checkbook but no passbook. In terms of functionality, I haven’t noticed any difference.
Fixed Term Accounts
Even though interest rates in Thailand can be comparatively high, it can be hard to secure rates as a foreigner. The reason for this is that a lot of Thai banks have different interest rates for ‘non-residents’. Based on some online reports, there’s some leeway – foreigners with a work permit use the thirteen digit number on their social security card as ‘ID’ (which passes the bank’s system as a legit ID number). If you have a residence permit, you should be eligible to receive the ‘local’ rate either way.
Specific rates change all the time. The Bank of Thailand (Thailand’s central bank) maintains a daily updated market overview, showing you which rates are currently available at which bank for savings and fixed term accounts. At the time of writing, the Land and Houses Bank and the Bank of China offer the best rates.
Aside from ‘testing’ a fixed term account with Kasikorn Bank a few years back, I’ve stayed away from them in Thailand. This is partially due to the ‘non-resident’ rates and partially due to my preferring the local stock market as an investment choice.
Foreign Currency Accounts
A number of banks offer foreign currency accounts. On paper, that sounds like a good idea, but the restrictions placed on them often make them a tad unwieldy; the exchange fees charged if you want to deposit or withdraw funds are comparatively high. While you can remit USD into the account rather cheaply, then withdrawing or exchanging that to THB is often very expensive.
If you make a cash deposit or withdrawal, you’ll have to pay between 1% (Kasikorn Bank) and 2% (Citibank, Standard Customers), making it more expensive than if you just exchange it in cash or wire it directly. In addition, unlike Thai Baht accounts, foreign deposits are not protected in case the bank goes bankrupt. The minimum balance imposed by most banks ranges from USD 5,000 to USD 10,000.
The main benefit is lower fees if you are receiving and sending large amounts in USD by wire transfer. In this case, you only pay 0.25% each way. Citibank offers the best deal at 0.125%, though only for their gold customers. This means a foreign currency account can save you up to 75% on the transfer fee compared to a standard SWIFT transfer in THB.
When you open a current or a savings account, it usually comes with a debit card that can also function as a Visa card for online purchases. In reality, the card won’t get accepted by most international websites, but you can often pay local vendors electronically with a debit card. Given that debit cards are much easier to obtain than credit cards (no work permit required), some people find it’s enough and not worth the hassle of going through a credit card application process.
ATMs in Thailand are a lot more functional than what you might be used to back home: Thais tend to use ATMs not only to withdraw money, but to make bank transfers and pay their bills. Online banking may be more convenient, but ATMs can be a backup option if you’re in a pinch and have to make a transfer outside opening hours and without access to online banking.
I remember when I got my first debit card; I was told that the fee to withdraw money from the ATM of a different bank was ‘three’. I asked the teller if she meant three percent? Nope. It was three Baht!
Nowadays, fees are slightly higher, but still nowhere near what you pay in other countries; ATM withdrawal fees for using machines from a different bank are in the range of 5 to 25 THB. What’s interesting to note is that you’ll pay a surcharge when withdrawing in a different province, even if it’s the same bank.
Most banks offer some sort of online banking which is usually based on a password and an OTP (a passcode that gets sent to you by SMS – you’ll need a local SIM for that). Compared to what you might use back home, the interface is a bit clunky, but the functionality is there.
Some banks will not provide people on tourist visas with online banking access. An exception to that rule is CIMB (see above).
The application process includes a lot of paperwork, but at least you won’t have to worry about getting rejected. One major advantage of having online banking is that with some banks (e.g. Kasikorn Bank), you can even handle some of the paperwork (e.g. the yearly renewal of your ‘license’ to remit funds abroad) through the online system, saving you a trip to the bank.
In general, your THB deposits are considered to be safe due to the Thai government’s guarantee: Funds are insured to up to THB 25m per customer per bank, though at the time of writing, it seems that the amount will be lowered to THB 1m, effective August 11, 2016. According to industry insiders, the top 4 to 5 banks in the country are in a position where this shouldn’t be a concern, though personally I prefer to have that additional safety layer.
Not everyone really needs a bank account in Thailand. Between credit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction and exchange fees, checking account providers refunding foreign ATM fees and many cashless payment options, the need for a local bank account is more limited than it used to be.
People who only spend a few months a year in Thailand and still receive their income elsewhere may be better off just getting the right kind of checking account and credit card in their home country rather than bother with local banking. If you’re American, the checking account with Charles Schwab makes this kind of thing easy. Similar offers exist in other countries.
This said, local bank accounts and credit cards make life easier just like speaking Thai does: It’s not a must, but it adds a lot of convenience and despite its scary first impression, it’s actually quite doable and worth it in the long-run.