One of the first things you'll need to do when you get to the United States is to open a bank account. A bank account is necessary in order to manage money, make deposits, transfer funds and use a debit card. Keep in mind that some vendors might charge extra fees for or not even accept non-US cards.

In the US it is considered extremely unsafe to keep large sums of cash at home. Using a debit card is more practical than cash for the majority of your everyday transactions.

Need to open a bank account?

Wescom Credit Union is the official banking partner of the UCLA Dashew Center. They can help you open a personal bank account, assist you with using a debit card in the U.S., and even set up wire transfers internationally! Learn more on how to open an account today with Wescom.

Wescom Credit Union and Dashew Center Video

Types of Account


When you go to the bank, you will want to open a checking account, which is a payment account that stores the money you will use to pay bills or make purchases. With your checking account, you will have easy access to your stored cash via checks, debit card, or online bill pay. When opening a checking account, you need to come in person to the bank with your student identification card, passport, and the funds you wish to deposit.

As many bank accounts charge monthly fees, you should also ask the banker about "Student" checking accounts because they usually have better rates and waive any minimum balance requirements. There are also certain checking accounts that will accrue interest if a minimum amount of money is kept in the account. Such accounts are known as "Checking with Interest." Please see the bank for more details on all types of accounts they offer.

Make sure to set up online banking or download the banking app for your cell phone to have easy access to your accounts, make transfers, cancel cards, put in travel notices, etc.


Additional to a checking account you may want to open a savings account to securely store your savings. Saving accounts are used for the additional cash you have that you do not need at the moment. Funds in this account can’t be used to make purchases directly through your debit card. You can transfer money between your checking and saving accounts; however, most banks will enforce a maximum number of transactions you can make from your savings account per month.


Americans use debit cards much more often than cash and it is not unusual to use a debit card for something as small as a $2 purchase. Do not hesitate to use your card when making purchases, many vendors expect that you will use a debit card instead of cash. You will receive a debit card in the mail several days after you open your bank account. Along with your debit card you will receive a PIN (Personal Identification Number), usually a four-digit number, to access your account with the card. Always be mindful that the amount of money you have in your account should cover your debit card transactions. Spending more money then you have in your account will result in what are called “overdraft fees” which are usually between $30 - $50 (depending on the bank) so make sure you always know your balance!


Your debit card allows you to get cash, make deposits, transfer funds, or check your account balances at any time from an ATM (Automated Teller Machine). ATMs are usually located at the bank and at various locations throughout the campus and city. The money withdrawn from an ATM will be taken out of your savings or checking account immediately. Please note that using an ATM that does not belong to your bank will result in charges (usually $2-$5) so it’s better just to find and use an ATM of your bank if possible.
If you wish to use your international card in the ATMs here, you are only allowed to withdraw money in dollars. Most ATMs will not allow other actions for foreign cards and bank accounts. For more details contact your bank in your home country.


Checks are rarely used in the US anymore EXCEPT when paying rent at your apartment. Typically landlords only accept checks as the form of rent payment; however, some landlords are starting to accept credit cards.
Upon opening your checking account, you will receive free starter checks but most likely you will need to place an order for more checks through your bank so you can pay rent for the whole year.

If there are insufficient funds in your account to cover the check, the check will "bounce" and your account will be overdrawn. This means that the bank will refuse to honor the check and will return it to the depositor. In addition, the bank will charge you a bounced check fee of $25- $50. If the payee tries to redeposit the check (sometimes the bank will do this automatically), you will be penalized with a second bounced check fee for the same check. Many international students expect the bank to pay checks even when their account is overdrawn but American banks will not do this and penalty fees can add up quickly if you are not aware of your balance!

Credit Card

A credit card allows you to borrow money from the bank and pay it back usually at the end of the month. The limit for how much you can borrow is determined by your credit score. A lot of factors, including your employment status, your income and debts, are considered when calculating your credit score. For more details about eligibility contact your bank.