Difficult start for non-EU students

Scraping by without a bank account

Non-EU students are struggling to open Dutch bank accounts. The result? They can’t rent bikes, buy groceries at Albert Heijn, or recharge their OV-card.
By Isha Lahiri / Fotos Félipe Silva

Exchange student Samantha Maria Kokkat from India thought it would be simple: ‘I’ll come to Groningen. I’ll open a bank account and receive my refund from the university soon.’ But she’s been in Groningen for three weeks now and she still doesn’t have an account.

As the first month of the academic year comes to a close, most international students are starting to settle in. But for those from outside the EU it’s much harder. Many students from China, India or South-Africa are still struggling just to open a Dutch bank account. And without it, they can’t rent bikes, buy groceries at the Albert Heyn, or even take a bus to class.

I had to wait almost two months before I could schedule an appointment

Samantha knew she had to get a BSN number before she could do anything – the university had told her so. ‘So I was hesitant to schedule an appointment before receiving it’, she says. ‘By the time I tried to schedule one, I was too late.’

She went to ABN Amro, just to learn that they do not open bank accounts for students who are staying for only one year. So she went to ING, which does offer bank accounts for a shorter period. ‘But I was shocked to see that I had to wait almost two months before I could schedule an appointment’, she says.

No residence permit

The Immigration Service Desk at the university had told students how to open a bank account after arriving, and even helped students register with city hall. At that point, students still had to wait two to three weeks before finally getting their BSN number in the mail.

Without a bank account, students can’t access their monthly allowance or receive their 4500 euro refund for the money they paid the university up front.

But Samantha never realised it would take that long. ‘The university asked us to carry extra funds for the first month’, she says. ‘But that month is nearly over.’

In the meantime, Samantha and her fellow students struggle to get by. They can’t get bikes, for example, without a Dutch or European bank account.

No bike

‘I am just here for five months’, says Shenghua Liao from Taiwan, exchange student at the Faculty of Economics and Business. ‘I feel it is more economical to rent a bike instead of buying one, as it also includes theft insurance and repair facilities. When I went to Swapfiets and couldn’t rent a bike because I don’t have a Dutch bank account, I was really disappointed.’

The internet is also a problem, says Liao. ‘I need it for certain apps while I’m on the road and I wanted to get a Lebara SIM-only data plan. I am now required to pay almost double the amount, because I had to get a prepaid connection. It’s really a lot of trouble.’

I’m slowly beginning to run out of cash

Chinese exchange student Fleur Liu from the Faculty of Economics and Business found she couldn’t even shop at Albert Heijn. Most stores in the Netherlands, unlike in many other countries, don’t accept credit cards. ‘I’m slowly beginning to run out of cash and in most places I cannot pay with my credit card’, she says. ‘Aldi and Albert Heijn accept chip credit cards, but mine is a magnetic stripe card.’

Even something as simple as taking the bus causes problems, because you can’t top up your OV-chipcard. ‘The machines at supermarkets only accept Dutch bank debit cards or European credit cards’, says Taiwanese Lu Huang, from the Faculty of Economics and Business. ‘I always have to pay extra money to travel to the train station for my OV-card top-up. I can’t rent a bike, because I haven’t been able to open a Dutch bank account yet. So I take a bus to class. I have to pay more for every ride when I use my credit card.’

Online bank account

Many students approached the university for help and were advised to open an online bank account that doesn’t require a BSN number. That’s what Muhammed Abdul Majeed Ameen did, an exchange student at the Faculty of Science and Engineering. ‘I still had to wait two weeks to get my card, but my IBAN was generated instantly. So I could fill in my reclaim form on the same day.’

But South-African student Nondwe Mpuma from the Faculty of Arts is still waiting, even though she opened an account online. ‘I have filled in my university reclaim form and the process will take two weeks or so. But I still cannot get my scholarship because I don’t have the card yet, and the letter from the municipality hasn’t arrived. I am really worried about paying rent.’

How to deal with not having a bank account:

1Open an online bank account so that the refund process can be initiated. The university lists certain banks, such as Bunq and N26.

2In that first month it’s a good idea to have lots of cash instead of carrying credit cards – you’ll need it for everything.

3Buy a second-hand bike. Yeah, that might be a little expensive, but just  console yourself with the advantages of owning one. Or, you could walk. You might be late to class, but at least you’ll get to know the city.

4 If you are stubborn and want to rent a bike, you could probably ask one of your friends with a European bank account to help you pay the bike rent. Many rental shops such as Boogle Bike accept payments via European bank accounts.

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