Home > About us > Press > Online >,  February 2001 27
Holden Lewis

In David Mamet's 1997 movie The Spanish Prisoner, a con man played by Steve Martin establishes a numbered Swiss bank account with a few keystrokes on a laptop computer in New York. The new account belongs not to him but to his flattered victim.

"All of 15 Swiss francs in it," Martin's character modestly tells his naive mark. "But you ever want to impress anybody, they can find out you have a Swiss account -- but Swiss law prohibits the bank from revealing the balance.
"Thus," he adds after a portentous pause, "are all men created equal."

That bit of dialogue makes M.Micheloud laugh. "No, no, no," the Swiss account broker says. "You can't open an account online." He shakes his head good-naturedly as he talks from his office in Lausanne. He laments that movies give the impression that Switzerland is a "no-questions-asked country."

"But it's not like this at all," he adds. "No, no, no, not at all. The big motto of all banks here is, 'Know your client.' They keep repeating it ad nauseum."

And in our popular culture, misinformation about Swiss banks is repeated ad nauseum. A few points about the above-quoted movie excerpt:
· Fifteen Swiss francs is worth about $9. A Swiss bank is about as likely as an American bank to accept such a low opening deposit: not very. 
· People will "find out you have a Swiss account" only if you tell them. Swiss law prohibits the bank not only from revealing your balance, but from acknowledging that you're a customer or revealing when you made your last transaction. Bankers can go to jail for violating Swiss privacy laws.
· Banking secrecy evaporates if a Swiss judge is convinced that you have used a Swiss bank to commit a serious crime such as financial fraud, embezzling, money laundering or drug dealing. It has to be a major crime under Swiss law, even if it was committed elsewhere. 
· On the other hand, it's not a major crime in Switzerland to hide money from an ex-spouse or the taxman, so an American divorce attorney and the IRS can't pry information from a Swiss bank. 
· All men may be created equal, but not all Swiss bank accounts are created equal. You'll find private banking, retail banking, named accounts, numbered accounts. 

Doctor, dodger, consul, spy
By adulthood, we have absorbed lore about Swiss bank accounts from movies, TV shows and spy novels. A lot of that lore is inaccurate. Micheloud says he gets calls occasionally from script writers. Still they take artistic license. 

Who opens a Swiss account? Swiss citizens, mostly. Nomadic consultants who hopscotch from Brussels to Lisbon to Berlin for a few months at each job. People who live in countries with unstable governments and shaky banks. And, yes, the occasional spy or tax dodger or doctor who worries about malpractice suits.

Swiss banks prefer people to open accounts in person, but they'll work with brokers such as Micheloud, who runs Micheloud & Cie., a company that helps foreigners open Swiss accounts by mail.

If you ask Micheloud to help you open an account, he will send you a Matterhorn of paperwork to fill out, including details about your life and job, and a letter of introduction from a stateside banker. Your signature and identity have to be "authenticated" -- by a notary public or consul or someone else, depending on circumstances -- and you send the completed paperwork back.

Micheloud says he vets applicants as strictly as Swiss banks do. His credibility is on the line. "It's a serious business, so it means we don't help criminals," he says. "We don't help drug dealers. The identity of the client and the whereabouts of the client and the economic origin of the money have to be known." 

When someone wants to open a Swiss account by mail, bankers wonder why. They might understand why someone in India or Japan might not want to pay airfare to Geneva, but generally, Micheloud says, "someone who deposits money and doesn't want to come and see it is strange, OK?"

Micheloud says his company rejects about half of applicants. He has to feel comfortable with the applicant's motive for getting a Swiss account, and he has to understand how the applicant earns the money. And the applicant has to be from a country he understands. For example, he's not interested in applicants from Kazakhstan.
Although it's better to do it in person, he will even open a numbered account by mail for trustworthy people -- ambassadors, for example.

Closed mouths, many tongues
The Swiss numbered account looms large in the popular imagination. We think of spies and blackmailers and exiled dictators who demand to have money deposited in numbered accounts. If you believe that a numbered account confers anonymity, think again. There's no such thing as an anonymous account. When you have a numbered account, at least two bank employees know who you are: the manager and the director and maybe a few other high-level employees.

Beyond those people, your identity is hidden. Bank documents are printed with the account number, not a name. You or a minion need not speak your name in dealings with the bank; the number is enough.

Because the bank has to maintain numbered accounts separately from other accounts, numbered accounts cost more. Micheloud says an annual service charge of 200 francs (about $121) is common, "whereas with any other account, you don't have to pay anything."
And a Swiss bank would be reluctant to open a numbered account with a balance of less than $100,000. Any less than that would be unprofitable, and bankers would wonder why you want to go through the hassle.

Switzerland isn't the only place that touts banking secrecy. Luxembourg and Liechtenstein prize secrecy, and so do banks based in the Cook Islands (a Polynesian tax haven roughly halfway between Hawaii and New Zealand) and in the Caribbean. The Bahamas and Cayman Islands are popular offshore banking destinations for Americans.

The Swiss boast that they have hundreds of years of political stability and well-educated bankers who are able to discuss financial matters in English, French, German and Italian. If you need a banker who speaks Hindi or Cantonese, they'll produce one. Caribbean bankers, they sniff, are not as well-educated and are prone to rolling over when the IRS knocks on the door.

Opening the door
You can get a named account at a Swiss bank, which means that your name appears on statements and in the bank's internal documents. It might make sense to get such an account if you work out of a corporate office in Europe. If you're a regular Jane or Joe eking out a living in America on less than six figures a year, there wouldn't be any point to it. Who's going to accept your checks? 
Say you wanted to open an account with $10,000. It would be best to open it in person because a banker is unlikely to return phone inquiries from a foreigner about opening such a wimpy little account.

Banks raise the bar higher for private banking, in which the bank manages clients' investments. There are 15 privately owned Swiss banks -- some have been owned by a single family going back generations -- that discreetly handle the financial affairs of the rich. They might be willing to open an account if you have a million francs to invest -- about $600,000. The private banking departments of financial giants UBS and Credit Suisse might open their doors to someone with $200,000 to invest.
Just make sure you walk through the correct door when you visit the bank to open your account. If you're looking for the retail banking lobby, don't walk into the private banking office. A private banker will turn you away politely. Then, after you leave, the bankers might share jokes at your expense -- in English, German, French and Italian. is a site that regroups all ways of information on the various banks and financial services that exists at the world.

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