In this guide, I explain in details how to open personal and business bank accounts in the USA. I also cover the process of applying for credit, a merchant account and how to transfer money between your Hong Kong accounts as well as internationally.
Preparation and due diligence
The first step is obviously to choose a bank. This is the most important step as it will influence not only the rest of the account opening process but also your future as an account holder. There are LOTS of banks in the USA but only a few will open accounts for non-residents. Bank of America, JP Morgan Chase, TD Bank and the Silicon Valley Bank are the most popular. There is typically no minimum deposit requirement but most banks will charge a maintenance fee if your balance drops below a certain threshold. One thing to note is that there are two types of accounts in the US, checking and savings. They both offer the ability to make ACH deposits, pay bills and can both be linked to a debit card. Savings accounts, however, are not meant to be used for day-to-day transactions and banks have been known to close accounts that have too many transactions. If you intend to do more than 10 monthly transactions, open a checking account.
Due diligence for personal accounts
US banks usually require a passport and a proof of address (in English, from a reputable bank or utility company, in your name). A letter of recommendation from your bank can obviously help, a valid reason for opening a US account too. If you can get hold of an ITIN or SSN number, this will greatly simplify the process.
Due diligence for business accounts
While requirements vary from bank to bank, they usually are the same as for a personal account + certified copies of the company documents and an EIN. Be prepared to answer questions regarding the type of business you run (or plan to run), your experience, your clients, the source of your initial deposit, the transaction volumes, how will you process payments etc.
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After choosing a bank and preparing your due diligence documents, you have to book a trip to the USA to open the account in person at the bank. To save some money you can read my guide on travel hacking.
Opening personal accounts
A few days before you travel to the US, you should choose the branch you will visit to open the account. I recommend choosing a branch in a big city where there is a large migrant population (New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Miami etc). On the big day, make sure you have all your due diligence documents. Simply tell the receptionist that you want to open a bank account and they will point you in the right direction. Although it is not necessary, having a local mobile phone number will greatly help you setup the online banking so I recommend getting a US number on Twilio before visiting the bank. It usually takes up to an hour to complete the process so plan your day accordingly. In almost every cases, you will receive your debit card and documentation on the spot.
Canadian citizens can open a personal bank account in the US online in five minutes. Simply visit TD Banks’s website and follow the instructions for Canadians. Your Visa debit card will be mailed to your Canadian address within a week.
Opening business accounts
To open a business account, you will likely need to book an appointment with the bank. I recommend calling at least 2-3 days in advance to ensure that you get your preferred time-slot. During that call, the bank will inform you of their due diligence requirements and of the location of their commercial banking center. Simply show up at for the appointment with the requested due diligence documents. Depending on the bank, the account may be opened on the spot or in the following days. A debit card will usually be issued and in some cases, a two-factor authentication device.
Stripe Atlas offers a 500$US package that includes the registration of a Delaware company and the remote opening of a corporate bank account with the Silicon Valley Bank. This is a great deal for those who wish to do business in the US and can be considerably cheaper than doing it on your own.
Using the accounts
Once the account is open, you should register for the online banking facility using the information the bank provided to you. I do recommend doing this while in the US. If there is any problem, you can simply visit the bank in person. Once registered, make sure all the information displayed on the online banking is accurate.
US banking is not very different from banking in most other countries. You can view your balance and initiate transfers at any time using online banking, an app or over the phone. The debit card you received should work everywhere in the world, simply make sure that the processing machine / ATM has the logo displayed on your card (Visa, MasterCard etc). If you have an iPhone or and Android phone, you can link your card to Apple Pay or Android Pay.
While you need a bank statement or utility bill as a proof of address when opening an account, it is usually possible to register a new address without any proof once it is open. Having a local address can greatly help when it comes to applying for credit or when buying investment products. The most cost-efficient way of getting a local address is via a mail forwarding service provider. You can find more details here along with a list of the best service providers.
Apply for credit
Without an SSN number, applying for credit in the US will be hard. On the day when you open the account, ask the bank if they offer secured credit cards. If so, get one. After a year or two, the security deposit should be returned to you and the card will become a real credit card. Without the SSN you will not have a credit file however so you will be limited to the cards offered by your bank.
Opening a merchant account
I maintain a list of the best payment processing services per country, you can access it here.
I have written a comprehensive guide on how to transfer money internationally. You can read it here.