According to Swiss law, nonresidents of Switzerland who would like to open a Swiss bank account must be at least 18 years old. Other than that, there aren't a lot of restrictions. Your account can be in almost any currency, although most choose the Swiss franc, U.S. dollar, Euro or Sterling, and there is often no minimum balance required to open an account. Once you've started making deposits, however, there is a minimum balance you have to maintain that varies from bank to bank and by type of account.
Choosing a bank and an account
The Swiss bank you choose to deal with depends on what types of investments you want to make and the type of account you want have. One thing to keep in mind is unless you don't care about the privacy aspect of a Swiss bank account, you shouldn't choose a bank that has a branch in your country. Bank branches have to follow the laws in the countries in which they're located -- not where the corporate bank office is located. For example, a Swiss bank branch in the United States has no greater privacy capabilities than a regular U.S. bank does.
The type of account you open depends on the number of investments you want to have access to and the amount of money you want to maintain in the account. The more extensive the investment services and options are, the higher the required balance for the account. You can also have access to a safe deposit box at a Swiss bank.
If you maintain your account in Swiss Francs you will earn a small amount of interest, but will then have to pay the Swiss withholding tax. For this reason, most account holders that don't live in Switzerland have their Swiss bank account in some other currency such as U.S. Dollar, British Pound or Euro. When you do this, your money can be put into a money market fund and will earn interest there.
Opening an account
While it's usually better to open your account in person, there are many Swiss banks that will allow you to open an account by mail or fax. There are also many firms that exist to assist people in setting up offshore accounts.
Because Swiss anti-money-laundering law requires you prove where your money is coming from, many certified documents are required in order to open an account. These include authenticated copies of your passport; documents explaining what you do for a living such as tax returns, company documents, professional licenses, etc.; proof of where the money you are depositing is coming from such as a contract from the sale of a business or house; and all of the typical personal information about yourself such as your birth date, a utility bill to prove your residence, all contact information, and, of course, your name. They'll also want to know what you want to do with the money once you have the account.
If you're opening your account by mail, you'll need to have the bank applications sent to you to complete and sign along with the rest of the documents mentioned above.
One difference between opening an account in person and doing it by mail is the requirement of an apostille on the authenticated copy of your passport (and no, a driver's license won't be accepted as proof of your identity).
An apostille is a seal used to certify that an official document is an authentic copy. In most countries, you can get it from a notary public but sometimes notaries aren't familiar with them. If this happens you must either find another notary who is, or find out what other authority in your country can issue apostilles. Any country that participated in the Hague Convention designates an authority that can issue apostilles (e.g., in the United States, the office of the state's secretary is authorized to do this). The most important thing is to always make sure the seal says APOSTILLES.
Opening a numbered account
Numbered accounts are usually not as easy to open. They typically require that you physically go to the bank in Switzerland. They also typically require an initial deposit of at least $100,000 and cost about $300 per year or more to maintain. And remember, they're still not anonymous since there has to be a connection at some level between who you actually are and your account.
Minimum deposits/balances and fees
Minimum balances vary greatly by type of account (i.e., a few thousand dollars to one million dollars or more). And, banks charge differing fees based on the types of transactions and the account type you have. For example, on a basic account, international bank transfers (outgoing) might cost $3 or $4 each. They may also charge $5 to $10 when you deposit international checks to your account. Annual account maintenance costs are charged based on the number of entries in your account statement and are sometimes in the neighborhood of 0.5 Swiss Francs (i.e., $0.41) per entry.
Accessing Your Money
- Credit card: Most Swiss banks will issue a credit card with your account that you can use to make purchases, as well as withdrawals at ATMs around the world. Cash advances, however, will charge a fee (usually 2.5 percent). Use of a credit card can also be traced back to your Swiss bank revealing the fact that you have the account. These credit cards are issued differently from typical credit cards, however. Rather than pulling a credit report and actually issuing true credit, Swiss banks require that you make a security deposit that is 1 to 2 times your monthly credit limit depending on the type of account you have. The security deposit itself is held in a separate account and invested.
- Cash withdrawals: If you're in Switzerland you can walk into your bank and make a direct cash withdrawal, leaving no record of the access.
- Travelers' checks: Buying travelers' checks is one way of using the money from your Swiss account and maintaining your secrecy. They're easy to use and widely accepted, but you will have to pay a 1 percent commission on the amount of the check.
- Bank transfers: A simple way to use the money in your Swiss bank account is to request a bank transfer. But, again, you're essentially revealing the existence of your account, as well as your account number. To prevent revealing your account number and name, most Swiss banks will send money from your account in the bank's name without releasing your identity, but sometimes those types of transfers aren't accepted outside of Switzerland.
- Checks: Swiss bank accounts do offer checking (except on numbered accounts). However, if you're after privacy, you're leaving a trail of breadcrumbs directly back to you. You lose the confidentiality most people want with a Swiss account and, therefore, checks are rarely used with these accounts.
Closing your account
You can close your Swiss bank account at any time with no restrictions or cost. You can get your money immediately and invested money as soon as it is liquidated.