I was just contacted by a college acquaintance of mine I hadn’t talked to in a few years. We used to belong to the same cafeteria gang, but had lost touch during the hectic-ness of senior year. (Actually, this amigo even took part in my thesis project!) I was happy to hear that he is going to experience Spain this spring semester for part of his grad school studies. We chatted about all-things Spanish, as he has many of the same questions I had before I arrived. I thought I would copy-and-paste part of our conversation to answer some general questions about living in España. Afterward, I’ll elaborate on my own experiences with banking.

*********

Cassandra: Are you planning to buy a phone here? I would recommend it.

N: Do you have to sign contracts? We’ll only be there for a semester.

C: No, you can get a pay-as-you-go plan. That’s what I have, because contracts are a minimum of 18 months.

N: Eek, yea.

C: Phones are pretty inexpensive, though, and can be the difference between having a social life or not. You’ll probably need one just for school business. Will you be here through June?

N: Yep. Exams are in the first week de junio.

N: Where do you live?

C: I live in Malasaña, very near the center of Madrid. If you look on a metro map, I live by the stop called Tribunal.

Click here to access Madrid’s metro map in flash format. Tribunal lies where the two blue lines intersect.

N: I hope I love it as much as you.

C: I hope you will. Are you nervous about anything in particular or just the general unknown?

N: Yeah, a couple of particulars. What’s rent like?

C: I would bank on paying between 400-500 euros a month. Do you have to find your own housing? I recommend looking at websites such as www.idealista.com and http://www.easypiso.com. I found my place through Idealista. Plunk in: alquilar and habitacion.

N: So what time is it there?

C: It’s 8 in the morning, we’re 7 hours ahead of Arkansas.

N: Cool cool.

C: Also, I would recommend bringing your favorite deodorant. I remembered from the first time I was over here that the European stuff just didn’t cut it, and actually made me break out in a rash. So, while you can often find American brand-names at the larger supermarket, it’s always possible that they won’t have the particular scent or brand you’re used to. (Also, it’s more expensive here, for sure). So, you may want to stock up on that.

N: Is it easy to find furnished apartments?

C: Yes. Look for the word “amueblada” which means furnished.

N: What about food?

C: Definitely shop at supermarkets, it’s cheaper than going to a fish store then to a fruit stand then to the bakery. (However, Spain has a lot of amazing bakeries!) You can find everything in the supermarket, though. Dia is the one closest to me, you can check it out at: http://www.dia.es/webdia/gestorContenido.html;jsessionid=12CCA5122AC977A8A0FD229AD0B1CDF2?action=getCajas4Pagina&idPagina=1

Other supers include Eroski, Mercadona, Carrefour, and El Corte Ingles (the largest, most expensive, and most central one). There are a lot, though.

N: Ok cool. Which brings me to another question. Money. Do you have a bank account over there?

Right, good question. I didn’t open a bank account when I studied abroad for 6 months. Of course, I incurred ATM fees each time I had withdrew cash. I didn’t rememberit being that expensive, but this September I’ve been charged 10 dollars each time I’ve withdrawn money. That’s going to add up!

Anyway, this time around I’m required to open a bank account since that’s how I’m going to be paid. I can tell you that it costs roughly 45 dollars to transfer money from the US to a bank in Spain. You can open up a non-resident account at a bank here with just your passport.

So, really, it’s up to you. Credit cards are accepted at most major places (supermarkets, many restaurants, clothing stores, etc). You’ll definitely need cash, though, to pay for things like taxis, bars, some restaurants, etc. It’s been a real headache to open an account here, as customer service is NOT at all like it is in the states

N: Alright. Do you really think it’ll be 10 dollar charge for withdraws? That sucks.

C: I’ve withdrawn money 3 different times, from 3 different Spanish banks. Each time I’ve been charged $10.

*********

Ahh, yes, banking. During orientation, banking sounded like a winter breeze—slightly harsh, but manageable. In theory, any bank can open up a non-resident account for us. All we need to take is our passport and the paperwork which shows that we will be employed for the upcoming months. Then, once the non-resident account is opened, we must go back and switch the account to one of a resident once we receive our residency card. Sounds easy, right?

I am only halfway through this process.

The main difficulty is that not every branch wants to take the time to open a non-resident’s account. Two Fulbrighters shared that they were turned away from 6 different branches, so right off the bat I knew that this was going to take some time.  After orientation one day, three Fulbrighters and I took the metro to a residential area of the city to try our luck at opening an account.

Armed with my passport and banking jargon, I volunteered to be the one to speak with the banker. To reach aforementioned banker, I had to walk through a glass box of sorts. I watched the person in front of me do this. They entered the human container. The area beepbeepbeeped, they exited, put something in a small locker, then re-entered the container. The wall closed behind them and the far wall opened up. They were now in the bank. I could do this.

I walked into the glass container. Beepbeepbeep! “Please leave your metal objects in the lockers provided” said the box. Except, I didn’t understand yet what the electronic Spanish was saying. The tellers looked up at me. The other clients looked up at me. The side where I had entered the box had been sealed up, and wasn’t opening. Desperate, I put up my hands, as I’d seen yet another client do. I felt like a criminal, but this action made the teller’s face relax. He opened up the container for me and I exited on the other side.

This whole process was repeated for McKenzie, who came in behind me. Each person is admitted to the bank one-by-one; you have to wait outside until the client in front of you has successfully made it through.

McKenzie and I finally made it through the line to talk to the Directora of the bank. She mentioned another branch we could try. She also rambled something about fees for foreigners and non-residents that sounded unfamiliar to us. We decided to try somewhere else.

The next day I tried again, this time by myself. I went to a branch of Santander, a large Spanish bank, close to the center of town. I was out and about hunting for a piso, and this bank was on the way. Also, this bank was attractive in that the metal/criminal detector was a simple walkway as opposed to a box. After 40 minutes I made it through to the Directora, who was all business. She was willing to help me out, and made copies of my passport. This was a Thursday, and for some reason she told me my account couldn’t be ready until the following Monday. I didn’t argue. Monday, Tuesday—anytime this month—sounded fine to me. By the end of our appointment she even offered to help me find housing if I hadn’t seen anything promising in the next few days. I’m in!

I returned this past Monday to set up the rest of my account information. This time the subdirector helped me out. He actually remembered our brief meeting, which was a shock to me. He had me sign half a tree’s-worth of paper, the kind of printer paper with perforated edges. He gave me a little bank book which will be used each time I withdraw or deposit money.

My bankbook! It’s very unlike a checkbook, really. There are no checks inside.

I hadn’t withdrawn any money on Monday, so I went to go do this on Wednesday. This excursion took place at the Santander by my house, which is much, much closer than the bank at which I’d originally set up my account. There was no line, which was nice, but there was also no cash available for me just yet. “You just opened up your account on Monday, you can’t withdraw cash on Wednesday!” the teller explained. Oh, sure. Yeah, I knew that. (What?!)

The inside view of the book, where deposits and withdrawals will be recorded.

On Friday I tried again. Success—I withdrew cash for the first time. This is momentous in that now I can stop using my American credit cards to withdraw cash from ATMs, and thereby halt the cash fees. It also means that I’m learning more about how to maneuver life in another country. Next week I have to go back to my main branch office to pick up my debit card. I’m bracing for another adventure.