Such a great city! And such an expensive one. In Paris it’s possible to burn through money pretty fast, and you feel awfully vulnerable when you run out.
So, how do you replenish the coffers? And how do you do it while minimizing the fees and commissions, and while getting a decent exchange rate?
For this article, I’m assuming you have funds in the US that you want to move to France. There are a few good ways to do it, and a lot of bad ones. You should review the ideas I list below, and then check out all the comments that are bound to pop up as people chime in (or set me straight).
There are lots of options—from PayPal to toting gold coins in your carryon (just kidding!)—but in every case you want to ask two questions: 1) What are the fees for the service; and 2) How good is the exchange rate? The answers can have a huge impact on what you get for your money.
Oh, one last thing:
Disclaimer: We're not sponsored by any of the services/companies mentioned here, and we're also not financial gurus. The information provided is checked to the best of our abilities, but it's provided "as is."
OK, now let’s start with a couple of questions:
Do you want to transfer funds to a bank account (your own or someone else’s) in France? If yes, skip to Item 1, below.
Do you want to transfer cash? If yes, skip to Item 2, below.
Do you want to withdraw cash (on credit or debit cards)? If yes, skip to Item 3, below.
1. Transferring funds from the US to a French bank account:
First off, make sure you have a French account to transfer funds to! If you’re looking to open your own account at a French bank, be forewarned: the IRS has made reporting of American accounts so burdensome, that many French banks don’t want to bother with it! (Maybe we should do an article on opening a bank account!)
But let’s day you already have that French account, or else you are transferring money to someone else’s account. To start the process, you need to have the banking information for the account you are transferring to—otherwise known as the relevé d’identité bancaire (or RIB). This will include the bank codes, the account holder’s name, and, especially the IBAN (the International Bank Account Number – a system used throughout Europe, but not domestically in the US).
Once you have that information, it’s possible to move to the next step. Here are your principal options:
- You can send an international wire from your US bank to the account identified on the RIB. Note that in most instances you’ll have to go to your bank and fill out the wire paperwork. With most major US banks you can also create a standing order—one that either transfers set amounts on a regular schedule, or that is available for occasional transfers, which can be triggered by a phone call or via the web.
Pros: You get to deal with your own bank, and you don’t need to set up any accounts with third parties.
Cons: The biggest disadvantage is that many commercial banks charge absurd fees, and/or they give you terrible exchange rates. In general, this is a bad option for large transfers. (One exception: Charles Schwab seems to use market rates for exchange, and their international wire fee is only $25, regardless of the amount. This is the service I use most.) Also, typical bank transfers take several days; be patient.
- You can use an independent money transfer service. Services like TransferWise (https://transferwise.com/fr) allow you to set up an account for transferring money. As soon as you pay them (by credit card, domestic wire transfer, or EFT transfer), they release funds at the other side. (This page at moneytis.com will show you what the best rates are currently for the main providers.) These funds must be directed to a bank account.
Pros: It’s pretty cheap, and it may be faster than some bank transfers (usually 3-4 days). TransferWise gives you market rates, and their current fee runs about $10 per thousand dollars transferred.
Cons: Most of these services are relatively new, and you may feel nervous about trying them out. (Do your homework, and go with a proven name.) These services do require a bit of set-up, so you’ll want to think about whether it’s worth it for a one-time transaction. Also, if you’re sending large amounts (more than $2500), the fees can be more than you’d pay with some banks (such as Schwab).
- PayPal. You can actually send dollars from your PayPal account and have them converted to euros when they arrive in the target account. (Note: you can send this money between your own US PayPal account and your own French PayPal account—but you can only have a French PayPal account if you have a French bank account, too.) The money goes to the recipient’s PayPal account, after which it can be transferred to the recipient’s bank.
Pros: It’s very fast (practically immediate). Also, you only need the recipient’s e-mail address, not his full banking information.
Cons: The fees are pretty high. Best to use this only for small amounts or when nothing else will do.
2. Sending cash from the US to be received as cash in France:
What could be simpler than cash? Well, you can always carry cash (or other monetary instruments) with you (although US customs requires you to fill out a “FinCEN 105” if you take out more than $10,000). But the real problem isn’t bringing the dollars; it’s changing them into euros.
- The main options for getting cash to someone is to send it by Western Union (www.westernunion.com) or MoneyGram (https://secure.moneygram.com/). You pay on the US side by credit card, wire transfer, EFT, or cash, and the money is transferred to Paris in just a couple of days. It can be picked up in euros at any of the available centers in the city. (Western Union, for instance, has many. See their listing for Paris here.) The recipient does need to present ID in order to pick up the funds.
Pros: It works. It gets cash to people who need it.
Cons: It’s expensive. The fees add up quickly. This is a useful stopgap, but it’s not a good method for transferring money on a regular basis.
- Cash. That’s right: you could just tote a bunch of cash with you. It’s a bad idea for a bunch of reasons, but if you happen to have a bunch of dollars, you can go to various bureaux de change, where you’ll pay high rates and/or commissions. Consider this your second-to-last resort. Check our page for the best places to do this, if you really want to.
- Hock it. That’s right. If you’re in real straits, you can always hock that wedding ring. It’s called a “prêt sur gage”, and you can learn about it here: http://www.pretsurgage.fr/. The practice is run by the government via the Caisses de crédit municipal. You need an ID (passport) and a proof of where you live (typically a utility bill, but a hotel bill might suffice.) This is your last resort.
3. Withdrawing cash (on credit or debit cards)
This is a surprisingly acceptable option—provided you aren’t trying to transfer large sums of money. In fact, with some credit cards you might decide you don’t need to bother with much cash. Using credit cards abroad used to be terribly expensive, but several cards (most American Express cards, for instance) now offer commission-free international purchases—and their exchange rates aren’t too bad. However, this is definitely not true of all cards, so check with your credit card or debit card company to be sure you understand the terms.
But what if you really need cash?
- Use a carefully selected debit card. Lots of debit cards will charge you a fee when you’re “out of network”—and when you’re in Paris, good luck finding a US Bank or Wells Fargo ATM! However, a small number of debit cards charge no fees (or reimbursed fees) on foreign transactions—including cash withdrawals. On www.wallethub.com you’ll find a list of the current cards recommended for this purpose. My personal favorite is the Charles Schwab card: it allows up to $500 on a given day, and you can make several withdrawals for free per month. (You are actually charged any fees the local bank imposes, but then Schwab reimburses you for them automatically.) Plus, the Schwab card gives an excellent exchange rate.
Pros: Fast. Cheap. Effective. Also, if you’re a student and your parents are helping you out, they can transfer dollars to your account, and you’ll be able to pull those dollars out right away in euros.
Cons: This is great for daily expenses, but not so great for moving large sums of money.
- Taking out cash advances on credit cards is generally not a good idea, because you start paying interest right away. (There is typically no grace period for cash advances.) However, there is a work-around for this: you can overpay your credit card bill, which leaves you with a positive balance. This means that when you draw out cash, there is no interest to pay, because you haven’t actually racked up any debt. Still, you want to check for any transaction fees, and verify the exchange rate before deciding that this is for you. Make sure you have your four-digit pin for your credit card; otherwise you won’t be able to take cash out at a French ATM.
Pros: It’s a little finicky, but it can work if you’ve tapped out the debit card but can get a positive balance on the credit account.
Cons: Many people find this too much trouble to bother with.
Phew! That was quite a chore. OK, everyone: tell me what I've missed!