One of the fundamentals of living somewhere is the need for a functioning bank account. I should know; I spent four years of my life creating a business helping people migrating to Australia open bank accounts. This business opened accounts within 24 hours for customers around the world. It even worked in India. Although after a few years of slogging it out in the Indian market, the business lapsed for reasons I could never understand. After trying to open a functional bank account in India for three months now, I think I finally understand why the proposition failed: it was simply too easy for the Indian consumer to believe.
Banking in India brings together a range of challenges that can be frustrating for expats. Here are some that I encountered.
Understand the Importance of Relationships: I opened my first bank account with a bank that was recommended to me by my cousin. He suggested this would be the best course of action if anything went wrong. Thankfully, I did, because 20 days after opening my bank account, I was still waiting for the ATM card to arrive (now 15 days outside of its promised arrival). I sent my cousin into the bank to work his relationship and sure enough the card arrived the next day.
Bureaucracy for Bureaucracy’s sake: Excited by having a new account, I did an online international funds transfer so I could start using the account. Two weeks later, there was no sign of my cash so I called on my cousin to weave his relationship magic again. Unfortunately, relationships only get you so far, and where bureaucracy is involved, it will prevail. My Indian bank claimed to have no record of my funds transfer. After another two weeks of liaising with the bank, they finally conceded they could see my funds but still refused to credit my account for no apparent reason other than someone in their bank hadn’t filled out the correct paperwork. Paperwork from who? For what? They had no answer and certainly no solution. I was sure I would never see my money again. Then magically, two weeks later, my funds appeared in my account, no warning and no explanation. I still don’t know what changed; I just know I am never going to risk my money with that bank again.
Privacy is for No-one: I decided to be brave and attempt to open an account at another bank that had come recommended. In the branch was a single row of desks crowded with 10 branch staff on one side and, at least, 30 customers on the other. Everyone was talking at the same time, competing for the attention of the poor staff; it was chaos. Looking lost and forlorn and obviously foreign, I was called into the manager’s office where two others sat and were discussing their banking. They were obviously highly valued customers, but even they were not offered any discretion with regards to their financial affairs. Privacy is something that has no meaning anywhere in India.
Broken Promises: Finally, I opened another bank account and was again awaiting my ATM card. Seven days later, I went in and was advised with a smile that my card had been issued . . . and sent to Australia. I was leaving the city in five days, “Don’t worry, Madam, we will have it couriered back here in three days. I promise”
Three days later, I returned and was promised it would be arriving that evening.
Another two days later, my card was still sitting in Australia with no estimated date for return. Everyone was very polite and apologetic, it was hard to stay mad at them, but this didn’t bring me any closer to seeing my ATM card.
So over three months after arriving in India, I have two Indian bank accounts, neither of which is fully functional. Regardless, I am always greeted at the bank with a smile, a shake of the head, and a promise that it will happen. Of course, I know it will happen. I just have no idea when . . . and that is just one of the ways India keeps you suspended in anticipation.
*This post has been published in Jetsettlers Magazine