Getting a bank account in Botswana

When living in Maun, it is not essential to have a local bank account. At least in my case, my U.S. ATM and credit cards work fine, both at ATMs and in stores. There are plenty of banks in Maun and the ATMs usually have money to dish out, with maximum withdrawals ranging from 2500 pula (US $250) at FNB to 8000 pula (US $800) at Standard Chartered Bank. I have encountered broken ATMs and machines that are out of money about 5 times in the last 6 weeks. ATMs are more likely to be empty on Sundays, presumably because everything is closed and they are not refreshed until Monday.

That said, if you need to pay larger sums of money (rent for instance) and you are not interested (rightly) in walking around town with wads of cash, obtaining a local account will reduce the expense of electronic transfer fees charged by U.S. banks. People here use electronic transfer between accounts to pay all sorts of expenses, including rent, utilities, insurance, and bills from doctors or mechanics.

Since I have to pay rent, I decided to get a local bank account.

There are several banks in Maun. First National Bank of Botswana (FNB) has the most branches and ATMs around town, but they also have long lines in their lobbies. They seem to be the most popular locally. I use their ATMs the most. There is also Stanbic Bank and Standard Chartered Bank, which are historically related as offshoots of Standard Bank. Stanbic has at least two branches that I know of (one at the Airport) and Standard Chartered has one that I know of, in the Old Mall plus some ATMs around town. Barclays Bank has at least one branch, and finally, I’ve seen a branch for Botswana Building Society.

After waiting in a lengthy line at FNB, I enquired about opening an account and was told I needed residency first. Standard Chartered Bank agreed to open an account for me with a letter of employment from ORI and my passport. Plus, their lines are shorter and the lobby is air-conditioned. I arrived at 8:30 this morning and was immediately assisted by an Account Opening Person.

The letter of employment needed the following information: my full name, passport number and nationality, my local address where I live (separate from a postal address in Maun), the amount of my salary, and postal addresses and phone numbers for both my employer and me. Technically I am not actually an employee of ORI, but they can verify my stipend from Fulbright and thus stand in as my employer for the purposes of opening an account.

I’m writing this post while I wait in the bank lobby.

It’s 11:19 am right now and they are still processing my paperwork. So far I’ve been here for 3 hours. Twenty minutes ago they presented me with a packet (30 pages at least) of forms to fill out for U.S. tax purposes. But, five minutes of reading revealed that the paperwork was only for businesses and other income generating entities. Thankfully, not for me.

The U.S. government wants to know what other international accounts I hold, and that’s fine, but now my Account Opening Person has to figure out what forms are needed. This has led to several phone calls and conversations – all in Setswana.

Maybe I don’t need this account. How much longer? I was planning to work on a paper today. I’ve been sketching out graphs while I wait.

At least the lobby is air-conditioned and I brought my lunch. I can also people-watch and decide what kind of skirt to buy by getting inspiration from other customers as they walk by. I’ve been thinking I need another skirt. I brought two with me and they are really the best thing in this heat. A third would be nice just to get some variety to my wardrobe. On the other hand, Mark Zuckerberg (of Facebook fame) apparently wears the same thing every day to avoid spending mental energy on making clothing choices. The point is – find something you like and go with it – no need to switch. I bet he has more than one red hoodie though. I mean you need to wash it from time to time.

My Account Opening Person is still making phone calls. No one is answering. It seems that the U.S. Internal Revenue Service requires a W-9 form – Request for Taxpayer Identification Number and Certification. That way, Standard Chartered Bank can let them know how much interest I make on my fat Botswana Savings Account – all 30 pula or whatever!

I suggested he google it to find the PDF.

He wants to make a phone call.

Ah – we got an answer – the form was emailed. I filled it out. My Account Opening Person has gone off to get signatures and stamps and have a cup of tea. Back to the blog.

Filling out the W-9 felt strangely homey – a little slice of the USA here in dusty Maun. It was rather nice to write the date with the month first – as in 2/15/2016, instead of day first as they do here (15/2/2016) and have a place to write down my zip code rather than my plot number.

I’ve just eaten a plum in the bank lobby. I’m sure there are rules about not eating in the lobby. I also have an egg salad sandwich and that will need to come out soon. I hope they have a bathroom in this place.

When I left Sewanee, one of my friends who also did a Fulbright in Africa suggested that I always carry a book to read while waiting in line. That advice has been valid a few times now. It allows you to be relaxed while spending your day in the waiting place. I didn’t bring my book today, but I have my computer and a nice air-conditioned desk to work at, and no one interrupting me, so I can blog away. I should ask them for login information for the internet.

Waiting also gives you a chance to have conversations, find out about people, learn things about Maun or banking or how to get permits or where to buy skirts. For instance, I just learned that I am the first American in a long time to walk in here and ask to open a personal account that is not connected to a business. Most foreigners opening accounts are doing it to manage business finances. Good to know. If I ever open a business in Botswana, I will need to bring more than lunch with me, and be ready to fill out a mountain of forms – for the Bank, for Botswana, and for the US IRS. I wonder if you can do them online? (Probably not).

Around 12:30, my Account Opening Person brought back my passport and gave me a deposit slip to put cash into my new account. It was an exciting moment really – long in the making for him and me – I took a photo of my deposit slip to remember the triumph.

I will say, that although the process took WAY longer than it should, my Account Opening Person was super nice and patient and helpful. At the end, he did say with a smile, that even for him, this seemed like it took a long time.

By 12:48, I was all finished, free to go, deposit receipt in hand, with the promise of an ATM card to arrive in two weeks. I can do online banking from now on for the rather nominal fee of 7 pula per month (70 cents). Seriously! 7 pula. I did my best to select the account with no fees (as long as you keep US $50 minimum in the account). And now I have to keep 7 pula a month in mind. I’d rather have a totally free option with a somewhat higher minimum balance.

I hope all this effort was worth it.