Whilst working in France, I had to set up a bank account in order to get paid, so it was in my interests to find a good bank and open an account quickly so I could send off a stack of RIBs (statements with your bank details on that you need for official paperwork). I received lots of advice from friends and colleagues, which was more confusing than anything else. I was told I would need a billion different pieces of paper to open an account (not true), that it would be really difficult to get an account set up (not true) and that to understand anything, I should talk a French person into coming with me (again, not true).
As I received numerous recommendations for different banks, I decided to just follow my own instincts instead, and ended up opening an account with Crédit Mutuel, a decision I have never regretted.
WHY I CHOSE CREDIT MUTUEL
I chose Crédit Mutuel for several reasons. Firstly, there was a branch located within a short walking distance of my home. Secondly, the bank operated on a national level and I knew I would have no problems finding another branch whilst travelling around France, should I have any urgent problems. Thirdly, when I walked into my local branch, everything seemed well organised and the staff were polite.
OPENING A BANK ACCOUNT
You don't need an awful lot. I needed something to prove I had a job (an official piece of paper signed by my employer), something to prove I had an address in France (a piece of paper signed by my landlord which took all of five minutes to knock up), and something to prove I was who I was (my passport). None of these documents were particularly difficult to get hold of.
Opening an accountant with Crédit Mutuel was a very simple process. I walked into the bank and made an appointment to see a conseiller the next day. He was a lovely young guy in his early 30s who had studied English many years previously, and remembered the difficulties of trying to communicate in a foreign language. The appointment was conducted entirely in French, but he did obviously take care to make sure he was making himself understood, which I appreciated.
My conseiller asked me what I needed my account for, and after explaining that all I really needed were the means to write cheques and take money out of an ATM, he set me up with a Eurocompte 18/25. In France, you have to pay a monthly charge for the privilege of having a bank account (if you've never had a French account, this concept is difficult to get your head around!), and in this case, I paid the grand total of 3,83 per month. I pointed out that I wasn't likely to receive my first payment for a while as my employers would need to sort out the appropriate admin on their end, but he didn't think this was a problem, and waived the monthly charge for the first three months as a goodwill gesture.
The staff were very helpful, and after my first few visits, they began to recognise me on sight and I stopped having to show proof of identity. This may have been partly down to the fact I was one of very few foreigners in the town, but I think it mainly because it was a small town (40,000 residents).
Whenever I had a problem or query, the staff were very helpful and efficient. Although it was easy enough to make deposits using one of the special machines in the bank, when I first started depositing money, I went to the front desk and got the conseiller to do this for me! They weren't really supposed to do this, but kindly obliged anyway. When I realised I had been issued a cash withdrawal card instead of a debit card (carte bleue), I popped into the branch and they ordered me a debit card straight away.
This was by no means their fault, I have to make clear: when asked what I needed my account for, I said I would need a card to take money out of an ATM. I did in fact mean I wanted a debit card, but never actually asked for a carte bleue. Apparently you can get cash withdrawal cards in the UK too, but as I'd never heard of one, I didn't realise this was a potential option! Anyway, they sorted it out quickly.
My cards were issued promptly, and my chequebook too. I had to pop into the bank to check if they were ready as I never received a letter to advise me they were ready for collection, but this wasn't a major issue for me, as it was convenient for me to just pop into the bank on my way home from work.
On one occasion, I asked for help sorting out an international money transfer, and the conseiller kindly sorted this out for me, despite having never been asked to do one before and not knowing exactly what the procedure was! He made a few calls, looked up some instructions and arranged the transfer without complaining. Learning curve for both of us!
These do vary slightly, but in my départment, all branches were closed all day on Monday and Sunday, and on Saturday afternoons. These hours are fairly standard for France, and you should bear in mind that none of the towns in my départment were that big.
In large towns such as Aix, you can find branches that open on Mondays, and in Paris, there's even a branch that stays open until 4pm on Saturdays. Crédit Mutuel has a presence in most places, and can even be found on the islands (outre-mer).
Outside opening hours, you can get in touch by email, and often by telephone too. You can book appointments online, and organise bank transfers without leaving the house. Internet banking is readily available. Even when the bank stops, you don't have to.
WOULD I RECOMMEND THIS BANK?
With my account, I could withdraw money from any country in the eurozone without getting charged. As a frequent traveller, I found this very useful. I knew people with accounts at different banks who were charged every time they used another bank's ATM (even within France!) and I found this ridiculous and restrictive.
The staff at my bank were always polite and helpful, and managed to find solutions to complicated questions that my friends just couldn't get answered at their different banks. To give you an example, I asked a conseiller for advice when asked to write a guarantee cheque for an Italian hotel, and was advised that any sort of cheque would be expensive for someone to cash in Italy, and the best way to pay for anything would be to wire money, or just take out the appropriate sum via an ATM, getting my withdrawal limit temporarily raised if necessary. I could write a cheque for the hotel owner to hold onto, but should advise him not to bother cashing it as part of my payment when I left, but rather to give it back to me and I should pay the total by other means. A friend of mine went to Crédit Agricole, and was advised to go to the post office. That was the full extent of the advice she was offered. Not exactly great customer service, is that?
A friend of mine with a Crédit Lyonnais account opened her account, was told her carte bleue and chequebook had been ordered, then when she popped in to complain one month later because she hadn't heard anything, it transpired that the original conseiller hadn't bothered to order anything, so there was a further delay for her. Whilst waiting for her carte bleue to come through, she had to rely on a UK card (not touching her French salary!) and had to pay bank charges every time she took money out.
I realise that these are all isolated episodes, but everyone I know who had a Crédit Mutuel account, like me, never had any problems. Based on that, and the fact that my experiences with Crédit Mutuel have always been positive, yes, I would recommend this bank.
I'm in the process of closing my account as I have sadly admitted to myself I'm not likely to return to France anytime soon, and I'm wasting money in bank charges as I'm not actually using my euros, so I don't get any referral gifts for recommending new clients! A friend of mine recommended a Crédit Mutuel bank account to her sister, and she got a shiny new MP3 player for her trouble, so if you're moving to France along with your family, it's probably worth trying to sign up together.
If there's a branch near you, I would definitely recommend Crédit Mutuel.