Opinion, by Sam Flowers

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – One thing foreigners rarely anticipate when they first come to Brazil is the difficulty in opening a bank account. They assume they will find the same ease of access and quality of services that exists in their home country. The fact that some international banks such as HSBC and Citibank have a strong presence here further supports this myth.

Sam Flowers, owner of the Gringo Cafe.
Sam Flowers, owner of the Gringo Cafe.

The reality is disappointing since getting a bank account in Brazilis difficult and time consuming. The good news is that once you have an account you gain access to some valuable benefits, and the key to these benefits is working with a good manager.

The main hurdle to opening an account is that you must already have some type of residence visa and a proven address. This seems reasonable except that in Brazil these things take time. In the meantime you are forced to function with your international ATM and credit cards, racking up fees charged for using cards internationally.

These hurdles to opening an account are likely due to regulation of the banking sector, with rules created to fight money laundering. Whatever the reason, it is best to be prepared that opening a bank account will take some time and effort.

Once you have an account, there is a reasonable learning curve to adapt to using it. The first time I went to write a check I felt like an idiot since I had no idea how to fill in the blanks. Checks were rejected when I wrote a number incorrectly in Portuguese, or used a comma in place of a period (wrong = 1,500.00 versus right = 1.500,00).

When banking online I was really insecure about whether I had transferred money to the right place. To make transfers or pay bills you manually enter codes that are 47 digits long. Luckily for me the codes must be idiot proof, since every time I made a mistake inputting a code, the system rejected the payment and I didn’t lose and funds (WHEW!).

There are other hassles in using your account. I used to moan every time I used my account online since it requires several steps to get access and then for literally every transaction you need to enter a new code, generated by an electronic random number generator that you carry separately.

On the other hand, I realized these several steps made it nearly impossible for someone to access my account without authorization. What seems to be a major inconvenience at first becomes normal over time, and you come to appreciate the benefits these extra processes bring, particularly the security.

Once you have a bank account in Brazil services you may take for granted in your home country now become available, such as buying online and paying bills with automatic payments. Another significant benefit is access to credit.

Interest rates in Brazil are literally insane when compared to those of many other countries, but it still helps to have the option to use a card and carry less cash. If you have a business, credit is crucial to managing your cash flow. Most banks have good options for credit lines that help with working capital.

Access to these benefits is provided by the manager of your account. I’ve had several different accounts at four different banks and the key difference has been the manager. When organized and pro-active the manager can help you navigate the hassles and can save you money, by recommending the best credit products for example.

When you go to open an account, ask friends and colleagues for a bank branch and manager they recommend. While in the other countries, people are being removed from service positions to save money, in Brazil the right people are still very critical to getting things done.

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Sam Flowers is an American living in Rio de Janeiro who created and founded the Gringo Café in Ipanema in 2010. A former executive and consultant with twenty years experience in Corporate Strategy, Brand Marketing and Finance, Sam also offers consulting services to foreign businesses and people entering or adapting to Brazil. Contact Sam at sam@gringocafe.com.

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