Adventures in Nepali Banking…

As part of our upcoming visa applications (“Student” for me, “Research” for Drew), we are required to open bank accounts in a Nepali bank, so that we can produce a statement showing that we have $3,000 USD in said accounts. I know, steep. But okay. I guess we need to prove that we’ll be able to support ourselves for a year without having to find an (illegal) job. Seems reasonable enough.

Here’s what I find NOT so reasonable: Making four trips to the bank over two different days, and sitting in an office for over three hours to open these accounts. Oh, Nepal.

Let me explain. Our FIRST trip to the bank was a non-starter, as the bank was closed for a holiday that we knew nothing about. Okay, okay… our fault. We should’ve known better to call ahead. I’m starting to think there are more holidays than days in a year here in Nepal!

(Lesson #1: In Nepal, it’s always best to check BEFORE leaving the house).

Our SECOND trip to the bank was a few days later (yes, we called ahead), and it started off well enough. We spoke with ‘Mr. Bankerman’ (after he looked at our passports and sat on the phone -on hold- for 15 minutes waiting to speak with a manager so he’d know what to do with us), who gave us the EIGHT page form we would need, and some very kind advice about filling it in.

Unexpected entries on this form included the names of my mother, father, grandmother, grandfather (paternal, I guess?), sons, daughters, daughters-in-law, and father-in-law if I had them (sorry, no need to mention you mothers-in-law out there). Ummm…. Okay. Oh – and don’t forget their “Citizenship Numbers” with date and place of issue…

IMG_0615“We don’t have Citizenship Numbers in the U.S., sir. We have Social Security numbers.”
“No, we don’t want the Social Security number. We need your CITIZENSHIP number.”
“I’m sorry. We just don’t have that.”
Blank, slightly annoyed stare. “Okay, just leave it blank and initial.”

I found including this family history on a bank form a bit odd, but Drew explained that it was understandable in a country like Nepal where there are few ways to asses the identity of a person on paper – mailing addresses aren’t really a thing here, as there are no street names or house numbers, and many people have the same last name according to ethnic group/caste (still trying to figure out how all that works – will report back when I’m able). So in theory, there could be several Brenna Murphy’s living in Jhamsikhel, Lalitpur (my official ‘address,’ which is really just the name of the general area where I live). By knowing the names of my family members, it will be easier to pin down who I actually am. Okay. I buy it.

And speaking of those non-existent mailing addresses in Nepal, never fear! There’s a spot for you to draw a map of where you live on your application…

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Ok, so you’ve got the names of my family members and a map of my house. So why then, must I indicate my religion on this banking form? Yes, you heard that right. My religion. Again, I tried to understand this through the lens of cultural difference – Nepal is a very religious society and this too is an identifying marker of sorts. Despite coming from a secular, separation-between-church-and-state-loving background, I can stretch myself to (sort of) understand why ones’ religion might be required on government forms, ID cards, and the like in Nepal (although I don’t necessarily agree with a system that has such potential for discrimination and/or oppression).  But why would a BANK need this information? Do they charge different interest rates to Hindus than they do to Buddhists?

Another requirement on the form – the name and contact information of a local Nepali citizen, “Just for contacting if we can’t find you.” I suppose this makes sense – maybe foreigners have up and disappeared in the past – but what about folks who don’t yet have contacts in Nepal? How do they open a bank account? I felt lucky for already having a friend who happily agreed to be listed on our forms.

And of course, there are the ever-ubiquitous passport photos that are required – three for each application. These are currency in and of themselves here. Want a tourist visa at the airport? We’ll need a photo for that. Want to buy a SIM card for your cell phone? You’ll need a passport photo for that too (AND a copy of your passport/visa AND two thumbprints – yes, really). Want to go trekking? You’ll need passport photos for your trekking permits. And on, and on, and on… So naturally, we expected to need a few of these for our bank account applications.

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There’s also a letter of support that isn’t necessarily required as far as I can tell, but it certainly seems to help things along quite a bit. I already had one from the university where I’ll be taking art classes beginning in May (they provided this without me having to ask, knowing I would need it), but Drew did not yet have his letter from the university he is affiliated with here. (Well, OK… so now we know we won’t be completing this process in only one trip to the bank today).

We would also need the “Ward Number” for our home (“Ask your landlord”), our landlord’s full name and contact info, and a copy of an electric or water bill to prove our residence. Okay, sure. That seems pretty fair….

“And do you want your account in Nepalese Rupees (NPRs) or US Dollars?”
“I’m sorry? We can open an account in this NEPALESE bank in US Dollars?”
“Yes.”
“Well, ummm… US Dollars, I guess, because the visa requirement is in Dollars, not Rupees.”
“Okay. You’ll need to bring $100 USD in cash to open your account. That is the minimum balance.”
“Can’t we just give you the equivalent of $100 USD in NPRs?”
“No, it must be in USD. In cash.”
“Can the bank not exchange our NPRs for USD?”
“Oh no. It is very hard to access USD. Only when you are at the airport with an outbound ticket can you get it.”
(I quickly begin scanning my mind, trying to remember if I even have $100 USD with me here in Nepal).
“Well, we’ll go home and see if we have it, and we’ll be back later this afternoon.”

With that we were off, back home to get the required information from our landlord, a copy of their electric bill, and the $200 USD required to open both of our accounts (luckily, we had it all in cash). Drew made a quick trip over to his university for his letter (while I went to the kurtha shop for a SECOND time to discuss alterations), and then we sat together at our kitchen table meticulously filling out our forms.

Within an hour or two, we were back at the bank and greeted by our friend,                     Mr. Bankerman. He quickly ushered us upstairs to an office of another banker, clearly a manager or ‘higher-up’ of some sort. And thus began our three hours of waiting. And waiting. And waiting… all the while, staring at the kumari, staring back at us…

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In a quiet moment, when our banker had left the office, I made up this little ditty to lighten our souring moods:

“Sittin’ in a bank, listen’ to a rooster croooow! I know what yer thinkin’, Nepal este hoooo!” (Yes, there really was a rooster crowing – not a sound I generally associate with being inside a bank – but hey! It’s just another one of Nepal’s little surprises!)

So what were we waiting on all this time, you ask? Well, it’s hard to say as I don’t speak Nepali (and I certainly don’t speak ‘Nepali Bureaucracy’), so much of the talk was a mystery to me. But from what I could tell, the banker had never opened a bank account for foreigners before and was having to call various other bank employees/managers every step of the way to clarify the processes.

And then, of course, there was the moment when she informed us that she could not accept cash for the initial deposit:

“I’m sorry, but Mr. Bankerman specifically told us to bring cash.”                                          “Oh. Well… do you have the customs declaration form from the airport?”                     “Ummm… No. You aren’t required to declare the cash you are bringing if it’s under a certain amount. You don’t have to declare a small amount like $200.”

Phone call, phone call, phone call… “OK. We can take your cash.” (Heart-attack subsides).

So here we are, about 2.5 hours into our SECOND trip to the bank that day, and FINALLY we have account numbers! All that’s left is to take our cash up to the counter for the deposit, and we’re golden. Huzzah!

Ah-ah! Not so fast.

(Lesson #2: In Nepal, never say it is over until it is OVER. For sure.)

Bank clerk at the counter: “You are making a USD deposit in bills lower than $50. We charge a commission for this. We need $2 more, $1 for each account.”                               (Stupidly, we had brought exactly $200 back to the bank with us).                                “Can we pay the commission in Rupees?”                                                                            “No.”                                                                                                                             “Can we pay the commission with a debit card?”                                                         “No.”

SIGH. And so, I found myself back in a taxi for a traffic-ridden 15 minute trip down the road to our place for a measly $2. Yup. TWO DOLLARS. I couldn’t stop thinking about the psychotic paper boy in the 1980’s classic John Cusack movie, “Better Off Dead.”

(Lesson #3: In Nepal, ALWAYS bring more than you think you’ll need – money, passport photos, copies of your passport/visa, whatever. Always bring more than enough).

I grabbed the cash – ALL of our USD, minding the aforementioned lesson – hopped back into a taxi, and returned triumphant with our $2. Deposit slips, account numbers, and the bank’s SWIFT code for future wire transfers in hand, we were FINALLY out of there! Phew!

Although ecstatic to be done for the day, I left the bank feeling a bit defeated – we still needed to set up the wire transfer of funds from our US accounts to our new Nepalese accounts, we hadn’t yet signed up for a debit card so we can actually ACCESS our money, and we still needed to sign up for e-banking (which ironically, has to be done in person at the branch). I still can’t tick this off my “To-Do” list, dammit! But Drew assured me that this was a huge success. Yes- it required multiple trips to the bank, yes- it took all day, yes- it was an enormous headache, BUT we have bank accounts! And we managed to do this IN ONE DAY, no less! This is a huge accomplishment for a foreigner here in Nepal, and having thought about it this way, my spirits lifted. And so, we treated ourselves to a late celebratory lunch…

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And now just ONE more trip back to the bank for our debit cards and e-banking registration…. Oh, and then another trip to give them copies of our new tourist visas when we extend them in 2 months (otherwise, they will automatically freeze our accounts)… Oh,  and then another trip when we actually get our student/research visas, so they can have copies of those….

Oh me, oh my. Nepal este ho.

2 thoughts on “Adventures in Nepali Banking…

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