Last updated January 30, 2017
Dateline: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
P.T. Barnum is widely noted for proclaiming that there is a sucker born every minute.
By my count, there are more than 1 billion suckers in the western world right now, all of whom store the majority, if not all, of their wealth in an insolvent banking system.
Forgive me if that sounds harsh, but the reality is that many Western banks could go bust at any minute.
Now before we get carried away, let me clarify that I am all for diversification. I’ve even said that US banks are worthy of strong consideration for business banking. That said, the key word is “diversification”, of the carefully crafted and cautious kind.
Sadly, most Westerners believe their government will solve ANY problem that comes up. Twelve or thirteen years of government schooling have conditioned the average American or westerner to believe that the people in your home country’s capital will find a way out of even the most potent financial meltdown.
While I’m not suggesting that you should move your entire life savings to the safety of an offshore bank, I am saying that the risk that the US, Canadian, or European banking systems could see serious hiccups and lose depositor savings is a real possibility, particularly in the wake off bail-ins and other denial of service incidents in places like Cyprus and Greece.
The idea behind offshore banking is jurisdictional diversification to ensure return OF capital in addition to better return ON your deposited capital.
What is an offshore bank?
The reality is that any foreign bank in a jurisdiction other than your own can be considered an “offshore bank”. Plenty of multinational banks like HSBC operate in a number of countries, and having a bank account with one of these banks is just as “offshore” as working with a bank that only operates in, say, Panama.
That doesn’t mean that HSBC is the best offshore bank – in fact, HSBC is among the worst banks on earth – but merely that a US person banking with HSBC Hong Kong has an offshore account.
Offshore banks have long had a reputation for being in shady, lawless “third world countries” on half-deserted islands. While it’s true that small countries with few natural resources often turn to the offshore financial sector as a way to generate revenue, there are now dozens of countries with reputable offshore centers.
Where are the best offshore banks?
Recently, my team and I went through a list of hundreds of banks in about 40 countries around the world in search of the best offshore banks with which anyone can open an account.
Our criteria were simple: not only did the banks need to be stable, but the jurisdictions they operated in needed to be so as well.
That means countries that respect capital and even go out of their way to attract it. Countries like Singapore that realize that their lack of oil and other resources, such as endless land, leave them in need of a way to bring in revenue.
Increasingly, some of the best banks in the world are located in the Middle East. Middle Eastern banks are frequently capitalized far better than Western banks that are stuffed with worthless paper. Middle Eastern banks can also be easier to deal with once you have a business relationship with them, especially if you’re on the up-and-up.
Banque Audi in Lebanon, for instance, has gained a reputation among many experts as a top place to park your cash. Banks in Qatar, namely Qatar National Bank, are off limits to Americans and some other foreigners, but do have an excellent reputation.
And of course, Dubai has plenty of banks in the same way Hong Kong or Singapore do; some good, some bad.
While Germany is statistically the safest place to bank in terms of the number of well-capitalized institutions, there are plenty of low-tax countries such as those in the Middle East, Asia, the Caribbean, and even Africa that beat out European banks.
This is even more true considering that many Western European banks expanded heavily into Eastern European economies that have produced horrible results like Croatia, Greece and Albania.
What are the best offshore banks for 2017?
The problem with determining a list of the best offshore banks is that such a list doesn’t matter if you can’t bank there.
As I mentioned above, Middle Eastern countries like Qatar see little need to open accounts for Americans or other Westerners who want to plunk a few bucks in a savings account and never return. There’s very little upside for them when you consider the high compliance costs and the far greater profits to be made catering to wealthy oil sheiks.
The same is true in Asia, where one banker in Hong Kong told me that their average mainland Chinese customer was worth 35X their average US expat customer.
If you were running the bank, would you spend time doing paperwork to deal with dreamy-eyed Americans putting $5,000 into a savings account? Of course not.
That’s why the best offshore banks that are actually accessible to you are either in places like Singapore that cater to foreign wealth and have maintained an open door policy, OR places that actively encourage Americans… again, because they have an open door policy.
I’ve talked at length about the idea of finding “the next Singapore”, and that as well-developed countries attract so much capital they can’t use it all, your focus should be on the places that need your cash as much as Singapore did twenty years ago.
Those are the places where you will be welcomed. That’s because finding the best offshore banks is all about finding the best culture. Spain’s government is such a disaster that they chase away foreign capital like dogs chase cars, while countries like Georgia realize they need capital.
Along the same lines, banks from countries on the brink of collapse tend to be less open than some of the “new safe havens” I frequently speak of. For example, Japanese banks are all but impossible to work with, even in Singapore. The staff always seems one step away from chasing you out of the bank branch with a broom.
Along the same lines, I wouldn’t recommend you bank in Europe if you’re European. There’s too much risk. Governments in the same hemisphere tend to get along too well, too much of the time.
In order to get specific though, understand that the best offshore banks for you depend on several factors:
- Are you willing to travel there? The most reputable banks want to see the whites of your eyes. This is often due to enhanced regulations in their country of origin, but most banks in Singapore, Europe, and elsewhere want to see you. Even some of the easiest banks with which you can open an account — for example, those in Eastern Europe — need to see you in person at least once. If you can’t visit, your options will be more limited. However, my team and I found several dozen banks that will allow you to open an account remotely, without leaving home. I recommend these very rarely in 2017, but there are a few exceptions particularly with a power of attorney and a local lawyer.
- What is your citizenship? US citizens are at a severe disadvantage due to FATCA. Even non-US citizens living or spending time in the Land of the Free have seen their foreign accounts shut down as punishment. However, my team and I found 34 banks that earned our seal of approval and still open accounts for Americans. Some require travel, others don’t.
- How much money do you have? It’s true that you can open an offshore bank account with as little as $500… sometimes even a little less, depending on currency fluctuations. However, as with anything in life, you can’t be too greedy. Don’t expect white glove service for plunking a few hundies in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. In fact, HSBC Private Bank in places like Vanuatu requires $5 million. The aforementioned Banque Audi in Lebanon wants $10 million or more for private banking. Other private banks will settle for as little as $1 million, but you get what you pay for. HSBC Premier accounts require only $100,000 in many countries, but service isn’t that good.
There are other factors, but those are three of the biggest ones. It is indeed easier to open an account with a multi-national bank, but some of them flat out suck (like Citi) while others can be difficult to deal with if you’re a Westerner (HSBC in Hong Kong and Singapore).
That doesn’t mean those banks aren’t stable, but it does mean you’ll have to change the way you approach customer service.
What does an easy offshore bank account look like?
If you’re a US person, banks in Belize used to be really easy to deal with. Then the US government went down to Belize and started snooping around. Many of the banks in Belize ran into problems, and people had trouble getting money out. Sure, some banks will open an account for as little as $500, but fees are high and you’ll eventually run into problems.
Ditto for many of the islands – even the Cook Islands – that have offered easy remote account opening. It was too good to be true in an era of the Panama Papers and countless new regulations.
It seems every time I turn around, I’m hearing some horror story about a guy who opened a bank account in Seychelles and can’t get his money out now. These offshore “starter banks” used to be good, but not any more.
These days, the easy offshore bank account is one that is not only easy to open and accepts depositors from your country, but one that will be easy for the long term.
Even I had problems dealing with HSBC in Hong Kong and eventually decided to leave Europe and fly there to close my account after several months of unbelievable stupidity dealing with their various offices by phone and email. It was a total mess.
In the good old days of 2014 and 2015, every guy and his dog were helping people open accounts at HSBC. It was a total joke; almost no offshore service provider in Asia even bothered sending people anywhere else. Now, nobody likes HSBC… not even their own employees in many cases.
What seemed oh-so-easy turned into a total nightmare for many people who suddenly couldn’t access their funds or, in cases like mine, got sick of the horrible service.
I can’t say I’m surprised. While Hong Kong banks were never big on opening accounts for foreigners, capital inflows into Hong Kong are so high now that banks can afford to be extremely picky. The result: anyone who isn’t a multimillionaire isn’t needed, which means everyone else will be treated poorly.
In countries like Georgia or Montenegro or Panama, however, anyone with a couple bucks will be welcomed with open arms. In the Latin world, those open arms will come with a wheelbarrow full of paperwork, but at least you can open an account.
Opening a foreign bank account is still a great legal and practical way to diversify your wealth and even hold foreign currencies. However, it’s not as easy as it used to be, and you do need to plan ahead. Knowing which banks work and which don’t based on your profile is a must if you don’t want to chase your tail.
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