Migrant Tales investigative reporting: Finland’s banks fuel social exclusion of some immigrants

by , under Enrique

Hostility doesn’t always mean that you get pushed around and attacked physically. Hostility can appear near-invisibly as well without laying a finger on you. Social exclusion is a form of aggression that can be fueled by denying you basic rights like opening a bank account, getting life insurance or a mobile phone line

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Nordea is the largest bank in the Nordic region. Making it possible? For whom?

Apart from two-year residence and even Finnish-language proficiency requirements to get a mobile phone line or life insurance in Finland respectively, the banking sector makes it especially hard for some immigrants to open bank accounts.

Those some immigrants include stateless refugees as well as EU citizens.

@Nathl tweets us the following:

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Some bank branch offices may accept you as a client but getting online banking services is a totally different matter.

Some banks employees told one Somali refugee was told that he’d have to become a Finnish citizen before he could get online banking services.

Living in a developed country like Finland without online services is like being sentenced to a bygone time that few if any want to return to twenty years ago. You visit the bank, stand in line, and for a fee ask the teller to pay your bills.

How can any member of society live without a bank account? How can he or she get paid assistance from Kela, the state-owned social security institution? How can you get employment if your employer cannot pay your salary to a bank?

Migrant Tales understands that Finland’s banking laws have hampered as well some Russian companies from establishing businesses in this country.

The banks that refuse immigrants the right to open an account would care less for their welfare and that of the county’s since new businesses could generate growth, tax revenues and jobs.

One of the arguments used by Finnish banks to refuse an immigrant is valid identification. If the travel document reads, “his/her identity cannot be confirmed,” then that person is in trouble and cannot open an account in some banks or branch offices.

That’s right. I wrote in some branch offices. There is no standard rule and it’s totally left to the discretion of the bank branch office whether they’ll allow you to become their client.

The way some stateless refugees get around this problem is by getting a driver’s license, which is considered a valid ID by some banks and branch offices. An identification card issued by the police is not considered a valid ID.

Money laundering concerns is one of the main reasons why banks refuse to open accounts for some immigrants.

I wonder how many of these stateless persons have enough money to launder? Some quote refugees that come here may come from refugee camps and are poor. They have not only lost their homes in their former homelands, but family members as well.

Mark wrote an excellent piece Saturday showing what a country like the United Kingdom, with many more immigrants than Finland, does about being vigilant about money laundering.

He writes: “I’m sure there should be similar guidance available to Finnish banking institutions from a relevant central government agency dealing with money laundering? If not, then why not? Financial exclusion is not a priority or issue for the Finnish government?The reason why little if nothing has changed on relaxing rules that permit immigrants and stateless persons from opening a bank account – never mind getting access to online banking services – is because banks are not interested.” 

Certainly if one spoke to Finland’s major banks like Nordea, OP and Danske bank, they would agree that immigrants that move to this country should learn either of our two official languages and adapt.

The fact that Finnish banks have the power to decided on a one-to-one basis who they’ll accept as a client reveals how our integration program works for some on a small-scale. We want people to adapt to our country but the reception they get is in some cases hostile. You are reinforced as “them” and are socially excluded.

A recent story on Länsi-Savo, a Mikkeli-based daily, revealed that rules for opening a bank account in this city have tightened. Even if this is the case, it doesn’t mean that such rules have tightened in other cities like Kouvola or Tampere.

A Mikkeli city official who works with refugees said that the municipality cannot accept any more refugees because they cannot open a bank account.

“How can we accept such [quota] refugees to Mikkeli if we can’t pay them support because they don’t have a bank account?” the official said.

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  1. SR_Penny

    Even as an EU citizen I had issues opening a bank account …. & am still encountering problems with the bank I ended up going with. And as an Analyst in banking services for 13 years (including in customer onboarding), it’s even more bemusing & infuriating when dealing with these seemingly random rules, laws & processes.

    After obtaining my residency permit I went to a branch of Nordea to try & open an account. Nordea used to be a client of mine & have always seemed fairly competent & have a reasonable reputation in the industry. I queued for nearly an hour, watching other staff just shuffle bits of paper & not really do much (seems to be the Finnish way when having to deal with actual people). I eventually sat down with a staff member, explained my situation & said I’d like to open a basic account. Although I’d already sat there & explained that I wasn’t yet working, I was asked for my work contract. I again explained that I wasn’t working & that I would be receiving money from Kela. I was asked to provide a letter from Kela to prove this. I explained that I was still waiting for this & it may be a number of weeks before I receive this – but in the meantime I need an account so that I can actually give this to Kela to complete all the paperwork & actually start receiving money. I was then told that I couldn’t have an account – not even a basic one – even though I could be identified, had all my documentation (apart from something from Kela) etc. I asked to speak to a manager about what the actual requirements were as I know people in the same situation as myself that have accounts at Nordea, but was told no. At this point I gave up & left.

    Someone recommended S-Pankki to me as they had opened an account there with minimal ID & had had an ok service from them so far. I went to my local Prisma & again explained everything to the staff member & the problems I’d had at Nordea. She assured me I could open a fully functional account – even with online banking (an almost mythical thing to a foreigner in Finland). We completed all the paperwork etc & I was given a welcome pack & another pack containing my online log in & codes.
    Being a paper-obsessed country, the onboarding process took a while, but the account was opened eventually & I got my debit card & PIN number (after a few phone calls to chase them up).

    I used the account for a couple of months with no real problems, but one day I needed to activate the online banking. I went to the webpage & used the information they’d provided. Nothing. I tried again. Still nothing. I got my Finnish girlfriend to check the instructions in Finnish in case the translation was incorrect & I wasn’t doing something correctly. Still nothing.
    I rang S-Pankki to find out what was going on. The woman didn’t really seem to know what she was talking about, but said that it should work & that she would send out some new codes…….. 3 weeks passed & nothing. I rang them back numerous times trying to find out what was going on. Eventually someone called me back & explained that I wasn’t actually allowed online banking as I didn’t meet certain criteria in regards to identification – I had to have a Finnish ID card. I explained that I had been told in-branch that I COULD have online banking & then subsequently on the phone as well. I asked why no one had bothered to contact me – I got the standard Finnish response of “Meh, I don’t know”. At that point I gave up on having online banking (until I eventually get a Finnish ID card).

    A few weeks after that I rang the bank to transfer some money to my girlfriend (as I obviously couldn’t do it online). The person I spoke to couldn’t understand what I wanted so I passed the phone to my girlfriend to speak Finnish. The woman asked why I wasn’t doing this online & my girlfriend explained that I couldn’t have online banking so we just wanted to make the transfer over then phone. The woman then declared that I could have online banking & proceeded to go off & find out why I couldn’t. All I wanted to do was transfer some money, nothing else, but again a farcical situation evolved. After waiting 10 minutes I asked my girlfriend to hang up, at which point the staff member came back on the phone anyway & declared I couldn’t transfer any money from my account as she couldn’t identify me – even though I had gone through their ID&V process when initially calling.

    All in all, the banking system & processes here are pretty terrible & are in no way customer friendly – especially if you’re a foreigner &/or new to the country. As someone who has years of experience in this field, & specifically in actually creating & optimising these processes for banks, I am truly shocked at times at how terrible things are – the annoying & ironic thing is that these poor processes & practices not only negatively affect the customer, but also the banks.

  2. JusticeDemon


    Let me guess.

    You did not get the names or identifying details of any of the people who handled your case at these various banks and you have no documentary evidence of this refusal of service.

    This makes it difficult (though by no means impossible) to investigate the obvious offences that occurred.

    By the way, as an EU citizen you do not have a residence permit. Nobody has given you individual permission to remain. Instead you are exercising your freedom of movement under the EC Treaty. This is interesting and relevant, because Member States are not allowed to obstruct that freedom, so it is up to the Republic of Finland and the bank concerned to decide between themselves where this particular obstacle to Treaty freedoms has arisen.

    The appropriate response is to report the offence of discrimination contrary to section 11 of chapter 11 of the Finnish Penal Code.