For the vast majority of consumers, a bank account is one of the basic tools for financial security. But accessing something as essential as a bank account can be a challenge when you don’t have a Social Security number.

Without a bank account, non-U.S. citizens face a range of serious difficulties in managing their finances, including figuring out how to keep their money safe and how to avoid high fees for check-cashing services.

Fortunately, it is possible for non-U.S. citizens to open a checking account or savings account to prevent these issues, though it involves a bit more legwork and documentation than for U.S. citizens.

Key takeaways

  • Non-U.S. citizens can open bank accounts in the U.S., but may need to go through extra steps, especially if they're nonresidents.
  • Some banks and credit unions accept alternative forms of identification, such as an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), for non-U.S. citizens to open accounts.
  • Opening a bank account can provide benefits such as lower fees, extra protection for your money and opportunities to build credit.

Can a foreigner open a bank account in the U.S.?

While the process might be more complex than it is for U.S. citizens, it’s entirely possible for non-U.S. citizens to open a bank account.

One of the main challenges for non-U.S. citizens when opening a bank account is the requirement of legal status. To open a traditional checking or savings account, you typically need a valid U.S. visa or permanent residency status. This requirement aims to ensure that account holders have a legal presence in the country.

If you’re neither a U.S. citizen nor resident, you can still open a U.S. bank account, but your options may be more limited and you’ll likely need to go through a few more steps, including submitting extra documentation and potentially undergoing an interview. You may also need to provide a U.S. address — such as that of a friend or relative who resides in the U.S. — so the bank has somewhere to send important notices and correspondences.

Required documents

To open an account, a bank or credit union needs to know it’s really you. It’s part of the U.S. government’s customer identification program, which sets the standards for how financial institutions should confirm their customers’ identities.

Verifying your identity will be different depending on the bank or credit union, but it typically involves providing the following:

Photo ID
Eligible documents to prove your name and birth date include an unexpired passport, an alien registration card and a foreign driver's license.
Proof of address
A recent utility bill, formal letter with your name and address or employer paycheck can serve as a proof of your current address.
Initial deposit
Not all banks or credit unions require an initial deposit, but many do. Wells Fargo, for example, requires a $25 minimum deposit to open an Everyday Checking account.
Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN)
Many bank accounts pay interest, which is taxable income. Banks require an ITIN for nonresidents in order to supply information to the IRS for tax-reporting purposes.

Many consumers are accustomed to doing many tasks online, including opening a bank account, but non-U.S. citizens will likely find that’s not possible.

“Online account opening systems do not work well with individuals without (a Social Security number), due to the nature of identifying questions,” says Rebecca Morris Hoeft, CEO and founder of St. Paul, Minnesota-based Morris Hoeft Group.

As such, non-U.S. citizens will likely need to go to a branch to open a bank account.

Alternative identification options

For a nonresident or noncitizen without a Social Security number, there are other options including. Often, you may need to provide one or more of the following to verify your identity:

  • A passport number and country of issuance
  • An alien identification number
  • Visa or other U.S. immigration documents
  • Driver’s license with photo
  • School ID with photo
  • U.S. Employment Authorization Card with photo.

Non-U.S. citizens can apply for an ITIN, which is one of the most commonly used alternative forms of identification.

How to get an ITIN

An ITIN can be obtained by applying through the IRS. With one of these numbers, noncitizens are able to file their taxes. An ITIN doesn’t authorize someone to work in the U.S. and is used solely for tax reporting purposes. Getting an ITIN requires completion of Form W-7.

Mail the completed Form W-7 to the IRS, along with proof of identity and foreign status documents to:

Internal Revenue Service
Austin Service Center
ITIN Operation
P.O. Box 149342
Austin, TX 78714-9342

If you prefer not to mail the forms, you can take the form to an IRS-authorized certifying acceptance agent.

The IRS issues ITINs through the mail, but it’s not a speedy process. Approval typically takes about seven weeks or more.

The benefits of opening a bank account

Filling out forms, going to an agent’s office and waiting for nearly two months may sound like a hassle, but the benefits of a bank account outweigh those troubles.

Some ways that bank accounts help consumers manage their money include:

  • Lower fees: Without a checking account, cashing checks has to be done through check-cashing services or prepaid debit cards, which often charge high fees.
  • Extra protection: Storing money in a bank account is much safer than keeping it in a drawer. Banks and credit unions offer federal deposit insurance up to $250,000 per depositor, per insured bank, per ownership category.
  • Saving for the future: With a high-yield savings account, consumers can practice good habits for building up their wealth over time and staying prepared for emergencies. Savings accounts usually only allow for six withdrawals each month under Regulation D (in April 2020, the Federal Reserve removed the limit to provide consumers increased access to funds, but many banks today still enforce Reg D).
  • Credit-building opportunities: Establishing a good banking history can provide a gateway to larger life goals such as buying a car or owning a home.

Banks and credit unions that accept alternative IDs

At first glance, many bank websites would seem to indicate that none of them accept alternative IDs. Though many of the biggest banks list a Social Security number as a requirement on their websites, it may only be necessary for opening an account online.

In some cases, banks will assist if you are missing a piece of information. Appointments can be scheduled with many big banks that accept an ITIN instead of a Social Security Number online, including:

Some credit unions also accept alternative IDs. DC Credit Union, Washington, for example, offers a SAFE Checking Account, specifically for non-U.S. citizens. Because the account earns no interest, it doesn’t require a tax ID number — only a foreign ID.

Another option for non-U.S. citizens to consider is a Bank On account, offered as part of the banking industry’s push to welcome unbanked customers. In addition to having low fees and no overdraft fees, one of the standards Bank On lists as “strongly recommended” is that participating banks and credit unions accept alternative IDs.

But the acceptance of an ITIN or foreign ID to open an account isn’t the only point that matters for non-U.S. citizens. It’s also important to compare fees and minimum balance requirements attached to those accounts. Read Bankrate’s guide to avoiding bank fees to avoid paying too much money to stash and manage your cash.

Bottom line

The banking industry’s traditional identification requirements may seem like a barrier to non-U.S. citizens when trying to open a bank account, but numerous banks and credit unions accept alternative forms of ID to make it easier. Though obtaining an ITIN does mean some extra work, the ability to open a checking account and savings account — and in some cases, apply for a home loan — can make a meaningful difference in achieving financial security.

–Freelance writer David McMillin contributed to a previous version of this article.