Tips & Tricks: Develop Bank Redundancy

Earlier this month, I woke up to an email that said my bank had frozen my account due to “suspicious activity.” I couldn’t withdraw funds, I couldn’t pay my bills, I couldn’t transfer money, I couldn’t deposit checks, I couldn’t receive bank transfers, nothing. Two weeks later, despite providing a ridiculously intrusive amount of private information to the bank, they just unilaterally closed my account.

Unfortunately, this experience isn’t uncommon as an expat, but there’s good ways to minimize the disruption to your life by this possibility (eventuality?); as always, The Prepared Expat is here to equip you to survive and thrive as an expat, even if your bank account gets frozen.

This week’s expat tip: Open and develop redundant bank accounts.

Read more: Tips & Tricks: Develop Bank Redundancy

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Why you need redundant bank accounts

You need multiple bank accounts because there’s no telling when one of your will be shut down, because the consequences are severe, and because unfreezing an account when you’re an expat can be incredibly difficult.

The reality is that an expat’s bank account is more likely to be frozen or closed than a “normal” person’s bank account. Just living a normal expat life looks suspicious to a bank’s algorithm; as I’ve talked with my friends, they all had similar horrors to share with me–and after I published this article, even more horror stories from expats flooded in. Yikes; banks do not like expats.

So if your account hasn’t been frozen or closed yet, then consider yourself lucky…and it’s probably just a matter of time. You don’t have to be doing anything particularly odd, you just have to live your normal expat life: make an ATM withdraw in multiple countries, transfer funds between countries, or just log into your account from around the world–your activity will look suspicious to bank algorithms that are used to people living in one country their whole life.

And if your account is frozen, it’s a massive disruption to your life. My experience is typical: I couldn’t login to my account, couldn’t transfer funds, couldn’t pay my bills, couldn’t receive payments, and couldn’t make ATM withdrawals…for an entire two weeks. Just imagine what that could do to your life (or credit score) if you didn’t have another bank you could use to live and pay bills.

To make matters worse for expats, unfreezing a bank as an expat can be horrendous; some banks will require that you physically bring your ID to a bank branch in order to verify your identity; if your bank has this requirement, you’d have to travel back to your host country in order to un-freeze your account. If you can’t, then the bank will just close your account and send a check to your address on file; if you don’t have bank redundancy, your money will just be stuck in a check until you can return home to open a new bank and deposit it. Not good.

Bank redundancy will reduce the consequences of all of the above. Set up accounts at a diversity of banks so that, if one is closed or frozen, you’ve created backups to continue your financial life (without having to return to your host country).

How to develop bank redundancy

The simple answer is to open up several different accounts at several different banks. I recommend three, but you could get two or ten if you like; just know that if you only have two and one is frozen, then you have no backup (why “triple redundancy” is a standard principle for backups).

In addition to just opening accounts at multiple banks, here’s some considerations to build in some more diversity, redundancy, and resiliency into your financial life.

  • Get multiple accounts in both your host country and in your home country; you should be able to sustain your life no matter what happens
  • Get accounts at traditional brick-and-mortar bank AND online-only banks; the former have more stability but the latter are more likely to verify your identity online
  • Get accounts at local credit unions and large national banks; the former often have better service but the latter may have better online access options
  • Get accounts that are for just you and accounts that have joint ownership with a spouse or trusted friend; the former are easier to verify but the latter should need to verify identity less often as they assume more than one person is using the account.
  • If possible, get accounts in countries other than your host and home countries; this creates options for you in extreme scenarios (like if your host and home country go to war and seize each others assets)

After you open up multiple bank accounts, you’re mostly done, but you’ll want to take a few more steps to reduce problems you may encounter down the road:

  • Put an amount of money in each bank account; not so much that it’s a headache or hardship, but enough to pay your bills and live for a few weeks if your main account gets frozen
  • Enable all bank accounts to pay your bills; this way, if your main account gets frozen, you can make sure your bills get paid with just a few clicks
  • Make sure you have an active ATM card for each account that you can use overseas. Make sure to set “traveling notifications” at each bank if they allow those.

Personally, I like to keep one bank as my “main” bank out of which all my US bills get paid and which I don’t withdraw from in my host country; instead, I transfer funds from that bank to a different bank account and use the latter for my international withdrawals. I can’t prove this, but my theory is that one account gets used to paying US bills and the other account gets used to international transfers and thus each banks’ activities look less suspicious to the algorithm.

Bank Recommendations and Dis-recommendations

Here’s some quick notes about banks that I’d recommend and not recommend for expats. If you have other experience with banks, please email me and let me know and I’ll update this list so we can help everyone.

Recommended Banks

  • Schwab Bank – While usually thought of as an investment bank (which it is), they also have a checking account available that has fee-free international ATM withdrawals. Use this link to get a free $100 when you sign up (I don’t get anything).
  • Capital One – I’ve been happy with them, though you’ll need a US phone number (or VOIP number like Google Voice) to sign up. Good interest rate too, at time of writing. Sign up with this link and we both get a free $50. Note: Multiple readers have had positive experiences with Capital One, including that you can call them and have them add notes to your account that make a freeze less likely.
  • HSBC is another internationals-focused bank, but they tend to cater to high net-worth individuals and opening an account can be difficult (I and my parents were all denied).
  • Citizens Bank. Mentioned by a reader as being expat-friendly, though I don’t have personal experience with them.
  • Delta Community Credit Union – Another bank mentioned by a reader as being expat-friendly, though I don’t have personal experience with them.

Be cautious

  • USAA – I originally listed this as a “recommended bank” because my experience was very good. However, I used this about 10 years ago and multiple readers commented that their more recent experience was negative because of the difficulty of making international transfers with USAA.

Not Recommended (Banks of Shame)

  • Chase. Ugh, I can’t tell you all the horror story here, but the end result is that they required me to travel to the US to unlock my account. No thank you. One of the few companies I’ve promised I would never give my business to again.
  • Empower Bank. Same as the above; they froze my account without even an apology and then closed it despite prying into details of my financial life. Do NOT recommend.
  • Bank of America. Multiple readers commented that Bank of America freezes your account just for trying an international withdrawal and that unfreezing the account is quite difficult, including require you to visit a branch in the US to unfreeze your account. This was a clear “do not use” bank among my readers.
  • US Bank. A reader commented that their bar for flagging a transaction as “suspicious” is quite low.
  • Citi Bank – Their “fraud” filter is pretty low but, more than that, the effort it takes to life a freeze is quite annoying (lots of phone calls). Don’t recommend.

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Tips & Tricks: Bring an extra lock to your hotel

Just two weeks ago, this happened to me; imagine if it happened to you: you’re in a hotel that’s nice, but not luxurious. You’ve cleaned up, changed into your pajamas, locked the door (no chain in this hotel), and are starting to fall asleep in bed. You hear a couple of very loud and obviously drunk men come up the stairs and walk towards your room. You hear them stop outside your door and then something juggles the lock and the handle starts to turn. What races through your mind?

On the one hand, they’re obviously drunk and they probably just have the wrong door. On the other hand, what if they somehow got a copy of your key and the door is about to open? There’d be nothing to stop them from getting in. Are you about to be robbed? Assaulted?

Thankfully, though I was alert, sitting up, and had my strobe flashlight and tactical pen ready, I wasn’t worried. Why not? Because I had my own lock on the door; even if somehow they got the hotel’s lock open, they wouldn’t be able to get into my room unless they broke down the door. As it turned out, they quickly realized their mistake and stumbled down the hall. I went back to sleep quite quickly, feeling secure that there was an extra lock on the door.

Today’s tip to help you survive and thrive as an expat: Bring your own lock or door alarm when staying in a hotel.

Read more: Tips & Tricks: Bring an extra lock to your hotel

Articles on The Prepared Expat may contain affiliate links, which help support this site at no cost to you. See full disclosures & disclaimers.

Why do you need to bring your own lock?

Doors have locks for which there is a key, but this provides a very low-level kind of security; locks can be picked or opened with just a piece of paper, keys can be copied, electronic keys can be sniffed and duplicated, hotels use contractors that can’t always be trusted, hotels use contractors that can’t always be trusted, hotel staff can be bribed or tricked into making new keys–and in some places of the world, the hotel staff is in cahoots with criminals! That’s why most Western hotels also have a secondary lock (chain or deadbolt) so that, even if the main door lock is compromised, an intruder can’t gain access to the room.

There’s a reason for that–though not widely known, crimes in hotels are common; criminals know that people in a hotel are relatively vulnerable: the hotel guests are by definition in unfamiliar territory, the hotel staff doesn’t know the faces of every person in the hotel, and they have to provide customer service to hotel guests who actually did lose a key. While no one quite knows how many crimes are committed in hotels, some examples are suggestive. For example, in just the New York Metro area in 2017, there were 2,656 hotel crimes, an increase of 45% since 2011. And that’s in the US, in hotels that meet US standards. Including the extra lock.

As an expat in a foreign country, your risk is far higher; you’re far more likely to be targeted, you’re far more likely to face corrupt hotel staff or even police, and you’re far more likely to have a hotel that doesn’t have a deadbolt or chain. The hotel I stayed in last week didn’t have either. That means your safety depends on only one lock between you and an assault, kidnapping, or robbery–safety that can easily be compromised by a copied key, a picked lock, or corrupt/incompetent/tricked staff. After publishing this article, several readers pointed me to terrifying stories of people “accidentally” walking into guests hotel rooms in the middle of the night. Check out these headlines:

Avoid this by bringing your own extra lock when you’re traveling. They’re small, take up almost no space, but can save your life by denying a criminal access to your room, alerting others to the crime, or even just delaying an intruder’s forced entry so that you have time to defend yourself.

What kind of extra lock should you get?

There’s a variety of kinds of extra locks, each with pros and cons. Here’s a few different examples:

This is a door handle lock by a company called Master Lock; it jams between the floor and the door handle, bracing the door and preventing it from moving. While I like that it adds another point of resistance to the door, it’d be quite bulky to travel with.

Here is a door stop alarm by DMDMAK; it can help to jam the door, but its main feature is that it activates an alarm when pressure increases on it (i.e. the door is pushed against it). I love the alarm, but it won’t do much to stop someone from opening the door.

This next is a lock plate lock by AceMining; one part that fits into the door lock plate and another that connects to it, bracing the door against the lock plate. This is a common design, but a problem with it is that the piece that fits into the lock plate (the silver piece on the left) has to fit the lock plate and lock bolt. I have one of these style locks and it only works in the US; it doesn’t fit other countries’ locks.

Next up is different style of lock plate lock made by Trustella; it also has a piece that fits into the lock plate and another that connects to it, blocking the door. This variation looks like it would work in more styles of locks than the above version, but both are only as strong as the door jamb is (which is usually not very!).

The one in the middle is a simple alarm made by a company called Lewis N Clark; there’s a piece in the door jamb so that if the door opens, an alarm will sound. It’s a great and simple alarm, but it won’t stop an intruder from entering your room, so I wouldn’t use it just by itself. It might be great when paired with another style lock, though.

This last style of lock is the one that I own myself; the picture is from my hotel room the other week. This is called the DoorJammer; it goes under the door and creates pressure between the floor and the door, bracing the door surprisingly well ( I couldn’t budge it).

Now all of these have different advantages and disadvantages, and any of them would be better than nothing. I’ll be happy if you just pick something and go with it, but I do think the DoorJammer is better than other options, especially for an expat. It’s small (unlike the door handle lock), I’ve never found a door where it won’t work (unlike the lock plate style locks), and it will physically stop someone from opening the door (unlike the alarm-only locks). I wish it had an alarm, but you can easily pair it with the Lewis N Clark door alarm.

But regardless of what you get, definitely get some kind of extra lock to bring with you the next time you go to a hotel. It’ll protect you in–or even prevent–a robbery or assault; but if those never happen, you’ll still sleep better at night knowing that its there. I know I do.

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How to: Get a Social Security number while overseas

Each week The Prepared Expat publishes information to help you survive and thrive as an expat; todays’ deep dive “How To” will help you get a US Social Security number while living overseas. Most of The Prepared Expat posts are for expats of any nationality, but since most of my audience are US citizens, some, like today’s, are specific to US citizens.

The most likely reason you’d need to get a Social Security number (SSN) while living overseas is because you had a child (congrats!) and need to get them a number so you can file your taxes with the proper exemptions. The guide below assumes you’re getting a SSN for your child who has never had a number before. It can be a daunting task and, unfortunately, US government information online isn’t clear, but never fear–The Prepared Expat is here to guide you through the process.

Read more: How to: Get a Social Security number while overseas

Disclaimer: By continuing to read this guide, you agree that The Prepared Expat cannot be held liable if you follow this guide and things don’t go the way you wish. Other disclosures and disclaimers apply.

Articles on The Prepared Expat may contain affiliate links, which help support this site at no cost to you. See full disclosures & disclaimers.

1. Check where and how you’ll apply

The Social Security Office maintains FBU offices in US embassies around the world; to see if your local embassy has a FBU office, contact your local embassy, or, better and faster, check the FBU’s list of offices yourself. It’s critical to note the address of the office, because the office that serves people in your host country may be located in another country entirely. To pick one row as an example, the FBU for China is in the Philippines, for Colombia it’s in the Dominican Republic, for Comoros it’s in Greece, and for Congo it’s in France.

Depending on what you find, you’ll be in one of three scenarios:

A) Your local embassy has a FBU unit: If so, congrats–you’ve got an easier process than the rest of us expats (please don’t gloat). Use the listed contact information to contact the FBU office and make an appointment (they won’t take walk-ins), then follow their instructions for the SSN application.

B) Your local embassy does not have a FBU unit: This is most countries. Contact your local embassy to see if the embassy accepts SSN applications on behalf of the FBU, then follow their instructions for the SSN application.

C) Your local embassy does not have a FBU unit and they do not accept applications on behalf of the FBU: Contact the FBU office that serves people in your country and follow their instructions for the SSN application. In most cases, you will need to mail your application and documents to the FBU office (see notes below).

2. Prepare your documentation and application

Follow the FBU instructions, but in most cases you’ll need to complete a SS-5 application ( and provide a parent’s original US passport, the child’s original US passport, and the child’s original Consulate Report of Birth Abroad (CRBA). If you’re in situation A or B, above, then bring those documents to your appointment, along with any other information the FBU office indicated. That’s relatively straightforward.

What’s tougher is if you’re in situation C, which usually (always?) requires that you mail those items to the FBU office…which is in a different country. Now, I’d say it’s quite unwise to mail you and your child’s passport books to another country: your host country may require foreigners to have their passports with them at all times, your passport could get lost/stolen in the mail, you may need your passport to live/travel in your host country, or an emergency could arise and you need your passport to travel internationally. So I strongly recommend that you not send in your passport book.

So how can you avoid that and yet still meet the FBU requirements? You have two options:

A) Get certified copies made.

Make an appointment at your nearest US embassy to get a certified copy of your passport, your child’s passport, and your child’s CRBA. It’s a free service that most (all?) US embassies offer, but note that you must bring all three items to get certified copies made; they will not certify only one document (I learned that the hard way!)

Your local embassy may allow someone else to get certified copies made on your behalf. Contact them to see if this is the case; this may be a good option if someone you trust lives near the embassy who is willing to do you a favor.

Note that your local embassy can also make the certified copies when you pick up your child’s passport and CRBA from the local embassy, but only if you pick up the passport in person. If you have the US embassy mail you the new passport for your child, they cannot also send you certified copies. The reason is that the embassy requires the passport to be signed in order to make a certified copy; since your child’s new passport is unsigned, they cannot make certified copies before mailing it to you.

Regardless of how you do it, once you obtain certified copies, then you can send them to the FBU office while keeping your passport books in your possession.

B) Use passport cards instead of passport books.

This option works especially well if, like me, traveling to the nearest US embassy is a hassle and expensive.

This option only works if you have, or can get, a passport card for one parent and your child; if you’re following The Prepared Expat then you would have seen this tip to do just that. If you have the cards, then you can send your passport card, your child’s passport card, and your child’s CRBA to the FBU office. The FBU accepts passport cards as proof of identity on par with a passport book (though probably email them just to make sure), but you can keep your passport books in your possession.

Of course, the passport cards and CRBA could be lost/stolen, but these can be far more easily and inexpensively replaced than a passport book.

3. Arrange for the mailing of the SSN and the return of your documents

So you have your application and proof of identity. Now you need to make sure that you get back the SSN card and the documents you’re providing. This step is critical for expat and is a lesson I learned the hard way–my son’s first SSN is lost somewhere in the mail because I didn’t know any better. I’m here to make sure that doesn’t happen to you!

Once your application is accepted, your child’s SSN will be printed and then shipped from the US via United States Postal Service (USPS) to the address listed on your SS-5 (box 16). However, since the form requires you to use the Roman alphabet to input the address and since the USPS does not always reliably ship around the world, I recommend that you do not list your foreign mailing address on the form. That’s how my son’s card got lost somewhere and I had to start my application all over again.

Instead, on the SS-5 you should write the US address of a friend/family member who can receive the card on your behalf and tell you the number or send you a scan (make sure to do it securely). Since it’s unlikely you’ll need the actual SSN card in your host country, this is what I think most expats should do.

Thus, if you’re in situation A or B, then you’re all done; the FBU or embassy will return your documents to you at your appointment and then the SSN will be sent to the US address you listed on the SS-5. All set.

But if you’re in situation C and you have to mail in your identity documents with your application–then it’s slightly more complicated. By default, the FBU office will send your original documents to the address on the SS-5. If you used certified copies of your passports, no problem–they’ll shred the copies and ship the SSN to the address on the SS-5. But if you send in original passport cards and CRBA, then those also will get shipped to the US address. That’s probably not what you want, but there’s a way around it.

So here’s the trick: contact the FBU office that serves your country and ask if they will ship the original documents to a different address than where the SSN will be shipped. I can’t promise every FBU office will be as helpful as the one I’ve worked with, but in my experience they were more than willing to help out. What they’ll have you do is provide them with a prepaid shipping label (Fedex, UPS, DHL, etc.) and any other shipping instructions (for example, my country needs the local address and phone number taped to the outside of the package). They’ll then ship originals documents back to you using your prepaid shipping label (and shipping instructions) and then the SSN number will be shipped to the US address on the SS-5.

There you go! You’ve successfully applied for your child’s SSN even while living overseas!

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This information is accurate as of time of writing (January 2023) but, as always with bureaucracies, things change. If there is a mistake or inaccuracy, please let me know so I can update this page.