By Jeffry D. Patton

 Expatriates sometimes find that the banking arrangements that they made prior to leaving the US are now inadequate. They may have left a friend or relative in charge of paying bills – an arrangement that may not be working out as hoped. They may not have the types of accounts they really need while living outside the US. They may have concerns about banking arrangements upon repatriation. Whatever the problem, it is not too late to get the banking products and services needed to make expatriate life a bit simpler and repatriation less frustrating.

A recent survey conducted by Wells Fargo found that 59% of the expats surveyed leave bill payment responsibilities with a family member (parent, child, sibling or other relative), while 30% asked a friend to pay the bills while out of the country. Amazingly, only 11% of the respondents had a bill payment service of some kind.

Also interesting is the fact that one third of the current expats were highly interested in online account access and bill pay. This statistic indicates that many expats are not satisfied with the arrangements they made for paying their bills while out of the country.

This same survey tells us that the types of accounts expats are most interested in adding to their current arrangements includes: checking accounts, credit cards, bill payment, brokerage and basic foreign exchange services.

Given the stories in the newspapers about the challenges some expats have experienced in obtaining banking services at the time of their repatriation, there is a lot of concern about this issue. Ideally, expats will maintain, use and properly handle at least two or three of their credit accounts while abroad.

This helps keep their credit file active, current and strong. Many expats experience a tremendous spike in banking needs upon their return to the US. There is usually a need to purchase or remodel a home, along with the need for automobiles, insurance, brokerage services and additional retirement planning.

Ideally, expats take the time to establish a solid relationship with a bank that can meet all of their expat and repatriation needs prior to departure. But too often, that is not the case. Although the laws that came out after the September 11 tragedy make opening bank accounts while living overseas more complicated than it used to be – even for US citizens, it is still very manageable. The Internet provides a channel for some technologically savvy US banks to help their overseas customers open accounts.

Some US banks provide their customers with the online capability to open checking, savings, certificates of deposit, and arrange for online account access and bill pay services. In addition to online access of the account opening forms, applicants do need to go through one of several processes that will provide their US bank with positive proof of their identity so that the account opening process can be finalized. Although this identity verification process can be somewhat time consuming, it should not discourage those who have the desire and need to provide themselves with additional banking services.

Here is a quick check-up questionnaire that will help you, as an US expat, determine the current status of your banking services:

What can/should I do to improve my level of satisfaction with the performance of the bill payment arrangements currently in place?

What type of bank accounts and services do I need right now that I do not currently have?

Checking Account
Credit Card
Savings Account
Online Account Access and Bill Pay
Foreign Exchange – international money movement
Brokerage Service
Retirement Plans
Insurance
Mortgage/Home Equity Line

Do I have the accounts and services I need and am I satisfied with the expertise and quality of service I receive from the financial institution(s) involved?

Am I handling my US credit accounts (credit cards, personal loans, mortgage, credit line, etc.) in such a way that my credit history will stay alive and well while I am gone?

What banking services will I need when I repatriate? see list above

Will my current financial institution(s) be able to help me get ready for my return?

Whether you are preparing to move out of the US, you are already living abroad, or you are preparing for repatriation, your banking needs can be provided from virtually anywhere in the world. Be sure you are dealing with a bank that has developed the proper infrastructure and customer service to assist with the unique challenges of being an expatriate.

Mr. Patton is manager of Wells Fargo's International Personal Banking.