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The best banks for foreigners in Spain (and what you should be aware of)

Opening a Spanish bank account is a must for most foreigners living in Spain, but that doesn’t making choosing one any easier. We asked you, our readers, to share your knowledge and experience of what’s on offer in Spain’s banking sector.

The best banks for foreigners in Spain (and what you should be aware of)
A man withdraws cash from a Banco Sabadell ATM. Photo: PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/AFP

If you’re a resident in Spain or planning on becoming one soon, the chances are you’ll have to open a Spanish bank account.

Even though EU banking regulations should facilitate being able to use an overseas account in Spain for EU nationals, there are many cases in which anyone – Spanish, European or otherwise – will be asked to set up direct debits (domiciliación) for utility bills, rent, social security payments and other expenses from a Spanish account.

It also makes a lot of sense if you’re spending most of your time in Spain and your overseas bank charges you for every ATM withdrawal you make.

With that said, we have to admit that choosing a Spanish bank account isn’t at all straightforward.

Whether it’s due to the vast array of choices available or that Spanish financial jargon and small print tends to be very convoluted, pinpointing ‘un banco’ that suits your particular needs as a foreigner in Spain takes some research and asking around.

Before you embark on that challenging mission, we’ve enlisted the help of our readers so that everyone can share their personal experiences and tips on Spanish accounts with each other.

Firstly, the things to watch out for with banks in Spain.

Most of the respondents acknowledged that Spanish banks often charge hidden costs for everything from direct debit to not having enough money paid in on a regular basis.

Over the past two years, this has become the norm among most of Spain’s big banks, with clients expected to commit to financial products and meet certain conditions to be able to have an account that’s free of charges. 


Pay special attention when opening ‘cuentas sin nómina’ (accounts without salary) as most Spanish banks that offer these accounts will ask you to pay in a certain amount of money every month or trimester if you don’t want be charged. These types of current accounts also tend to have more requirements and hidden costs than salary accounts.

According to Guillermo Vicandi, cofounder of Banking app BNEXT, “Spanish banks base their strategy on selling accounts that are apparently free of charges, but with lots of requirements.

“The first trick they play to get their hands on those extra costs is to include conditions that most people are unaware of or aren’t be able to meet, because they don’t read the extremely small print”.

Spain’s six biggest banks alone (Santander, BBVA, La Caixa, Bankia and Sabadell) made more than €5billion in hidden costs alone in 2017.

Our advice as well as our readers’ is to insist on getting the lowdown on these “comisiones ocultas” before opening the account.

There were also several respondents who said they hadn’t been informed of changes to account requirements or branch closures.

Make sure you’re signed up to online alerts with your bank, and if you’re receiving post from them in the mail, don’t forget to give them your new address if you change home. 

What Spanish bank account should I choose?

If you need to open a ‘cuenta sin nómina’ because you aren’t a salaried employee in Spain, bear in mind that most of them are online accounts that either have very few branches across the country or may not grant you access to in-person customer service at the bank due to their status as online accounts.

Some examples of these are Santander’s Openbank, Cajamar’s Wefferent account, Bankia Cuenta ON and then the non-salaried accounts offered by smaller Spanish banks Abanca (Cuenta Clara), Coinc (Cuenta Coinc) and ActivoBank (Cuenta Activa), although bear in mind that Spanish financial entities are quick to phase out certain favourable accounts when the conditions no longer suit them. 

The reason why you may not be eligible for the full array of accounts that Spanish banks have to offer is because some of them will require you to submit proof that you’re signed up to Spain’s social security system within 30 days of opening your account, due to a Spanish law on the Prevention of Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism.

If you’re self-employed you will be able to provide proof that you’re a taxpayer, but if you’re a non-working resident only a handful of banks will let you open an account, probably with the condition of having to deposit regular money into the ‘cuenta’.

If you are working, the account most of our readers spoke highly of was Banco Sabadell’s Cuenta Expansión, which they say offers no charges on current accounts or credit cards, but does have some requirements.

Photo: AFP 

Smaller banks mentioned by readers received more praise on average than Spain’s banking giants for having lower or fewer charges and not as many hidden costs.

For former Barcelona resident Alexandra Osvath, Evo is a great choice for travellers. “Really low or no transaction fees on transfers to foreign accounts. Evo was more advantageous than bigger banks like La Caixa (I had an account there and closed it).”

Mickey Minchs also from Barcelona speaks highly of N26, a Berlin-headquartered online bank that offers its services across the Eurozone and the UK.

“As their ad says, ‘bank without the bullshit’,” he says of the bank that’s partnered up with Transferwise and offers a free account, free cash withdrawals and no charges on foreign transactions.

The only problem Minchs says he’s faced with having a German IBAN is that it’s sometimes given him problems when setting up direct debits for Spanish utilities.

Another bank with similar perks to N26 is Revolut, a good option for those interested in a handy account for travel and currency exchange.

A handful of other respondents also commended ING Direct. Charles Vella says the Dutch Bank has “no transfer fees, international transfer with no limit, English help available, very secure, easy on-line banking, no withdrawal fees from certain teller machines”.

What Spanish banks offer English customer service?

The matter of what Spanish bank had the staff that spoke the best English was also brought up by respondents.

Obviously it’s impossible to determine how fluent in English the average staff member of any given Spanish bank is, but Banco Sabadell was given the thumbs up by several readers on this matter, as well as the fact that it has a 24-hour English customer service line.

“Their accounts are geared to non-Spaniards with documents in many languages,” says Catalonia resident Sally Veal. La Caixa staff was also commended on their linguistic abilities.

In any case, most banks in Spain have online information about their financial services that’s in English, so it’s worth asking if they have a contract in English as well.

That can be a real help for people who aren’t fluent in Spanish banking lingo and want to be completely sure they don’t miss anything in the small print.

What else should I keep in mind?

Spain’s banking sector is undergoing somewhat of a crisis, others may call it a transformation.

Two of the country’s biggest banks announced thousands of staff layoffs in April 2021, with 8,300 jobs to be axed at CaixaBank (which is also due to merge with Bankia), or one in five of its staff, and 3,800 at its smaller rival BBVA, accounting for 16 percent of the workforce.

In the process, thousands of bank branches have closed and will close in 2021, including many of those belonging to Santander, Liberbank, Unicaja, Sabadell, Ibercaja and other banks.

All of them have made the same argument: that in a context of low-interest rates which is expected to continue, they have to cut costs by reducing the number of branches rendered unnecessary by the growth of online banking.

Nonetheless, the Spanish banking sector’s move is considered particularly discriminatory for the elderly and those living in more rural settings.

In practice, what these changes mean for foreigners and locals who are looking to open a Spanish bank account is that if in-person banking matters to you, it’s worth factoring in how many branches of the bank you’re interested in are in your vicinity. Bigger banks will likely have more branches even though many are being closed.

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Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.


Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 


Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.


Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.


The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.