To most people a Swiss Bank account is something for the super rich, crooks, dishonest government officials or just a good way to hide assets. They’re the stuff of thrillers like The Bourne Identity or James Bond.
The allure of Swiss banking comes from Switzerland’s stable currency–and the country’s much vaunted bank secrecy laws.
The Swiss have some of the tightest regulations in the entire world as far as who can gain access to your account. Swiss bank secrecy has protected funds deposited in Swiss banks for over 300 years. The Swiss were bankers to the kings of France; Louis XVI even had a Swiss banker, Jacques Necker, as director general of French finances. Until 1934, bank secrecy was covered by various provisions in the Swiss civil code. The courts fixed bank secrecy firmly in actual practice, so that a client who fell victim to violation of bank secrecy could henceforth obtain damages from the bank.
In 1934, the Swiss passed a law that made it a criminal offense for bankers to reveal the identity of account holders. There are two reasons why this protection was reinforced:
- Nazi spies:
The 1931 crisis led to intensified foreign exchange control in Germany. Hitler promulgated a law whereby any German with foreign capital was to be punished by death, and the Gestapo began espionage on Swiss banks. When three Germans were put to death, the Swiss government was convinced of the necessity to reinforce bank secrecy.
- Pressure from the French: The 1932 Basler Handelsbank affair revealed that over 2,000 members of the French elite had accounts in Switzerland. French Leftists took advantage of this to denounce the austerity program of the government. It called for legal authority over French accounts in Switzerland, but to no avail.
Unlike American law where law enforcement agencies, the judicial system, and private citizens can gain access to all kinds of financial information, under Swiss law neither the bank’s officers or the its employees are allowed to reveal any information, relative to any account to anyone, including the Swiss government.
No private citizen, or their legal representative can ever receive any type of information about anyone’s Swiss bank account under any set of conditions. That includes all types of legal proceedings that the Swiss classify as non-criminal behavior.
The Swiss consider tax evasion a political offense. Divorce, inheritance disputes and bankruptcy cases are considered private matters, and as such the secrecy of the account is protected from any legal action to verify the presence of, or attempts to seize any assets.
There are some notable exceptions. The Swiss are bound by a treaty with the US to reveal accounts connected with organized crime, drug trafficking and insider trading. But the final say on revealing the identity of the account holder is up to the Swiss authorities. There are no US restrictions on having Swiss bank accounts, but the IRS requires you to report your foreign accounts when you file your annual income tax return. Interest earned in a foreign account is still taxable under US tax laws, but you usually get to offset foreign taxes that you may be required to pay.
There are Swiss bank accounts and there are Swiss bank accounts. The first is accessible to (almost) anyone. Such an account will offer credit and debit cards, checking or whatever else you may want in a bank account. Opening such an account can be done in person–some Swiss banks have branches here in the US–or by mail. Some red tape is involved in that you have to get a signature from someone at a Swiss consulate, but not much more is required.
Then there are the Swiss bank accounts you’ve heard about from the movies, which–surprise, surprise–aren’t always accurate. These are the numbered accounts, the ones with minimum balances anywhere from $100,000 to $1 million. It’s known as private banking and it’s reserved for folks who have a lot of assets to manage and who demand a lot of service. Many private banks require a special invitation or referral by current customers. The services you receive at a private bank focus on private counseling in aspects of wealth management including investments, tax concerns, and estate planning.
The numbered accounts aren’t anonymous, but only a few people know the name of the account holder and Swiss law forbids them from revealing it to most anyone. They can’t acknowledge that you have an account, give out the name of a numbered account holder or reveal any information about the transactions of any account holder.
Generally, numbered accounts must be opened in person, though lawyers and/or brokers can perform this service for you by mail. You’ll have to fill out a mountain of paperwork and provide details about your life and job as well as a letter of introduction from a US banker. Your signature and identity have to be authenticated by a notary public or consul, depending on circumstances.
If you’ve got the money and want to open such account, here are links to the private banking departments of some well known Swiss banks:
- UBS, The Union Bank of Switzerland
- EFG International
Switzerland isn’t the only place to put your assets. Banks in Anguilla, Belize, Bahamas, Cayman Islands and Panama offer similar services.