South African Banking and Feeling Like a Child


Confession: every time there is a “how do you manage marital finances?” post on APW or other marriage blogs, I tend to fall asleep on my keyboard about ten comments in. I really want to care, honest. I feel like I should care as a feminist and as a grown up, especially one who has a) legal training and b) a fairly unusual financial situation. But, god, money talk really hits my zzzzzzz button. I know, UGH, I’m one of those stereotypical loser chicks who simpers, “Money scares and confuses my uterus! I just leave it up to my husband, he’s better at that stuff anyway.” (These are usually the same chicks who say things like, “I’m just better at housework so I do more of it!”, but that is not the case here. Unfortunately, if Collin and I really divided up responsibilities based on who was “better at” something, he would be left to do EVERYTHING except read and parallel park.)

Two weeks ago, I would have told you that the extent to which our finances were separate or merged was blurry and unimportant to me. Then we went to open a bank account in South Africa.

The plain fact is that while we are in South Africa Collin will be the sole breadwinner. This had been pretty much true in the US, too, but I at least had the potential to earn. I don’t have a South African work visa and it will be really hard for me to get one. We are fortunately able to live off Collin’s salary alone, but it definitely helps that I have savings to grease the wheels and throw money at some of the problems with settling into life in a new country. So we brought over a chunk of my savings in a certified check to open our South African bank account and use as “seed money.”

Then we found out that South Africa does not have joint bank accounts. And because my name was on the check it could not be deposited in Collin’s account. And because I do not have a work visa I am ineligible to open a South African bank account. The teller said, “You’re basically on extended holiday.” I ran out of the bank in tears. This is not vacation, this is life.

I pulled myself together and we sat down with a banker and opened Collin’s account. He explained that I could be added as a signatory on Collin’s account and use a bank card in Collin’s name. The last time I was in that situation I was 16 years old and on my parents’ account. That was twelve years ago, and for half of the time since then I haven’t even had parents. I am past that phase of life.

For all practical purposes, it will be a fine solution (I at least won’t be putting my hand out for a weekly cash allowance, which is the terrifying vision that first flashed through my head), but it just… makes me feel like a child. It hurts.

So our seed money is going back in my US account and we’ll be eating some foreign transaction fees for a while. And I’ll be swallowing my pride as I buy groceries in my husband’s name.


  1. Wooow…. but that doesn’t make any sense. I’m sorry !
    Weren’t you able to change the check for cash , and then deposit it in “Collin’s” account ? (Thus avoiding all the international money transfer fees ? )

  2. This is kind of eye-opening. I know that there is a big push in the US to ensure that everyone is granted the ability to open a bank account. For a long time, whenever I heard this type of news story, I just didn’t get it. Like, what’s so difficult about opening a bank account? All you need is a little bit of money and an ID.

    But apparently a lot of people in the US are scared to do it, often because of immigration issues. And a lot of poorer people don’t know they *can* do it, because in the past it often was quite difficult. So these people end up taking their work checks to check cashing places and paying a fortune to get them cashed. They don’t have checkbooks or debit cards, which makes daily life difficult (and dangerous) at times.

    My point is that hearing this story makes me remember that we are not like the world in a lot of things. I think that having a job, meeting certain requirements of citizenship, etc., is the standard rather than the exception in most of the world. I think our own system is a byproduct of hands-off capitalism, which I obviously have my problems with, but sometimes it has its good points.

    • I thought of this too, and the feeling of powerlessness and less-than-personhood that not being able to open a bank account gave me made me aware another hunk of privilege I had back home. And maybe this is my silly American naivte at work, but I kinda had this feeling of “Really? You won’t TAKE MY MONEY?”

  3. it’s crazy how many things you wouldn’t even think to consider before leaving the US. that is bananas, I totally understand the weirdness!

  4. I hadn’t considered that might be an issue (not that I think about these things in general, but wanting to go back to Namibia and all). Does your credit card charge for overseas transactions? You could maybe use that, and pay that bill online. Doesn’t really solve the problem, but then you’d be able to buy groceries in your name.

    • Our credit card (Green Amex) does charge us a small amount for foreign transactions, but we think there is a way to make it so we are not charged in South Africa but would be charged in other countries (including the US), however, we are not sure that is worth when we have a South African bank/credit card that will be accepted everywhere (although the only place so far that didn’t take American Express was the Internet store. I suspect this is because Cape Town is used to chichi vacationers). Also, the foreign transaction fee is something like 3%, I just keep reminding myself that is less than half of the sales tax I paid back home and less than a quarter of the South African VAT.

  5. Little bit of context here (since I work in a bank in South Africa). The main reason why you can’t deposit foreign funds into an account not in your own name is because of the highly stringent international terrorism laws (not drawn up by South Africa!) that regulate movement of money to prevent money laundering. This is also somewhat complicated by the regulation of foreign exchange in SA. Point being – a lot of the complexity here is created by outside forces.

    That said, the bizarre rule about joint accounts still applies (in my case I am the account holder and my husband just the signatory) and banking in general is just complex and frustrating to deal with.

    Hope you’re dealing with FNB as your bank – lowest fees, best rewards, coolest products and services – no, not biased at all :)

    • Thank you for the insider perspective! I am trying to be understanding of the laws needed to protect the country’s banking system—Collin also pointed out that the ZAR has been steadily weakening against the USD so they need to be mindful of influxes of outside cash. I’m just at the same time wanting my way, because I am a whiny American.

      We went with Standard because that is who the International Office at the UCT recommended (because they deal with them regularly or have some kind of sponsorship thing going, I assume). Also… what is the deal with only being able to have one bank account? The woman in front of us was closing her account because “FNB is giving me better rates” and the teller was like, “You can’t have an account here and an account there!” What!?

      • You can totally have more than one bank account! I have two different bank accounts with the same bank and lots of people I know have accounts at multiple banks.

  6. Pingback: South African Banking and Feeling Like a Child | HitchDied | South Africa Bank Blog

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  8. I have recently gone through the ridiculously long process to get a bank account for myself ( I’m a dual USA / SA citizen ) and my husband is a US citizen. He is not here on a work visa – but he has temporary residency. Although they gave us grief, it took over 100 pieces of paper, and 2.5 hours in a bank, and then a 1 week waiting period, we are now the owners of 2 pretty shiny checking accounts hahaha! Never has it been so difficult to give a bank my money!

    Hang in there – one thing I’ve learned is that if you ask multiple people in an institution the same question – you will very often get different answers. On our first attempt we were told that we would have to send wire transfers to my one savings account with salary in the notes to prove income. We’d have to do that for 3 months before they would consider giving us a checking account. Feeling that the requirement was absurd – we went to a private banker sales consultant – and voila – checking accounts!! And those were 2 sales reps from the same bank!

    Needless to say – shop around – things can get easier. Also – FNB is known for being easier with foreigners trying to get bank accounts.

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