Published: Globe and Mail
February 26, 2022
Last year, when we moved from Vancouver to France, my wife Susan and I joined the several thousand Canadians who leave the country each year to settle elsewhere in the world. It was a permanent move, and we believed that we had planned carefully for every eventuality.
We were mostly correct, except for one thing: Our bank worked incredibly hard to keep us from moving the money from our house sale to our new country. Our first month in France was spent on international phone calls, talking to bank employees at several levels, sorting out conflicting advice, and having our account frozen a half-dozen times. To those following in our footsteps, we say: Take nothing for granted.
Like many Canadians our relationships with our banks began and ended with websites and bank machines. The only time when we actually sat down with a bank employee would have been every few years for mortgage renewals.
That’s not enough. If you’re planning an international move you’ll need to work on establishing a much closer relationship with your banker. As described by Joe Reid, Vancity credit union’s vice-president for wealth management and impact investing, you should begin early in the planning process by talking to “your trusted advisers … your lawyer, your accountant, any of your professional advisers.” That necessarily includes someone at your bank with experience in handling international money transactions.
Begin this process immediately upon deciding to move internationally, and when you meet with a representative at your local bank, be prepared to question them. Not all bankers have experience in this area, and they may need to pass you on to someone else who knows the ins and outs of large funds transfers, exchange rates and money laundering rules.
Beyond your bank, take time to thoroughly review things such as pensions, registered retirement savings plans and other investments, and especially your will. Inheritance rules in other countries can be very different. You may need two different wills, and an understanding of how your children can avoid inheritance taxes in your new country. You’ll also need to make sure that your family members understand the steps that they’ll need to take when you die.
John Lyng was a customer of Toronto-Dominion Bank for more than two decades when he and his wife left Canada for France. “I thought I had a good relationship with them,” he says, but when he needed to borrow money to secure a lease on an apartment in Paris he found himself turned down even though they were about to sell a home in downtown Toronto. Because Mr. Lyng was new to France, the landlord demanded that he place three years of rent payments in an escrow account or with a guarantor that would guarantee his ability to make rent payments.
His TD banker apparently had no experience in France and refused the loan. “It’s a very unusual way of doing it,” the banker told Mr. Lyng of the landlord’s request. Mr. Lyng eventually found a loan through a mortgage broker.
We relate Mr. Lyng’s experience with TD only as an example. He’s a member of the popular Canadians in France group on Facebook; other group members, using various Canadian banks, tell similar stories.
“Please be aware that TD customers have several options for transferring funds out of country,” a spokesperson for the bank said in response to an e-mailed query from The Globe and Mail.
Vancity’s Mr. Reid is more specific in advising people leaving Canada: Understand that the rules will be different in other places, both in government and at individual banks. Although technically there’s no limit on the size of a transfer that you can make, individual banks have their own internal rules, and almost all international transfers above $10,000 will be reported to the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Centre of Canada (FinTRAC). As well, you need to understand that even if your local banker is prepared to move funds to you in France (or wherever), the receiving bank may have its own barriers, or may require that you meet local anti-money-laundering rules.
In many cases, it isn’t possible to open a bank account in a foreign country until you arrive. In France, for instance, you invariably will be asked to provide a copy of a current electric bill to prove your residence, and it may take weeks for the new account to be active. In the meantime, don’t cancel your Canadian cellphone number. You can be sure that at least one financial institution will insist that you can’t log in without them sending you a secret code to a Canadian phone number.
Once you’re finally in your new home, and have your new bank account set up, you should still expect surprises from Canada. Mr. Lyng was settled in the suburbs of Paris, and every month arranged to transfer a few thousand dollars from Canada to France for living expenses. Until one day he couldn’t.
“For about one year I was able to do wire transfers, I was able to call the branch manager at the TD branch and they would do it. Until about three years ago when they said ‘we have new security precautions … if you want to do a wire transfer you need to come into the branch in person.’”
When Mr. Lyng explained that spending thousands of dollars to fly to Canada and stay in a hotel made no sense, the bank suggested that he write himself a cheque on his TD account and deposit that in France. According to Mr. Lyng, the cheque bounced when TD claimed there were no funds in his account to honour it.
Since then, Mr. Lyng has done what many other Canadians in Europe do. He relies on a money-transfer company to move funds out of his bank account and into his French one. Companies such as Wise and TorFX can make this easier, and often also offer better exchange rates and lower service charges than the Canadian banks.
Sharon Anne Kean, is senior director of global expansion at Wise, one of the leaders in global money transfer services, and one of the companies frequently recommended on the Canadians in France Facebook group. Ms. Kean’s advice echoes that of Vancity’s Mr. Reid: Start planning early, especially if you need to move large amounts for a home purchase. Like the banks, she says Wise takes security seriously. That means making sure the sender is who they say they are, “but then also doing a check on where you’re sending money to, such as a sales agreement for your new home, or something that verifies that the money is going to a good place.”
Ms. Kean also encourages customers to do their homework. In particular, understand that the “best exchange rate” quoted by your bank may include hidden fees that make it less attractive than what Wise might charge. “That’s a massive revenue stream for most banks. That’s why our rates appear to be more competitive.” Ms. Kean says that both their consumer and corporate customers also appreciate that Wise moves money much faster than the big banks.