Life is difficult without a bank account. Renting a flat, setting up an internet connection, paying bills – you need a bank account for everything. Even for work: are there still employers who pay cash? Without an account, it is virtually impossible to participate in normal economic life. This kind of marginalisation also has psychological effects. People who do not have an account feel that they do not belong, have failed, are in debt or not deemed trustworthy.

Although only a small minority are affected – as approximately 99% of all adult German citizens have access to a bank account – in a country with more than 80 million people, the missing one per cent still represents several hundred thousand individuals. And with the massive influx of refugees into Germany, the number of those without an account has increased sharply. At the time of writing this Report to Society, Germany is to be the new home to more than one million people. And like every adult, they need a current bank account to participate in everyday life.


On chocolate and current accounts

The Savings Banks are pioneers in Europe when it comes to so-called “Citizen Accounts”. In fact they have a head start on other banks, which since 19 June 2016 have been obliged by law to provide a basic account to all EU citizens. Although German banks made a commitment to do this back in 1995, only the Savings Banks have consistently implemented this commitment.

Help for refugees through expert knowledge, the Citizen Account and cheerfulness: customer relationship manager Ferit Tarak of Stadtsparkasse Barsinghausen.

Employees of the Savings Bank in Barsinghausen, near Hannover, had gone to great lengths. Warm waffles and hot chocolate were ready. Interpreters were standing by, but no one knew whether the Syrian, Moroccan or Afghan refugees who had been invited were really going to come. They did, and the atmosphere was friendly and excited. The municipal administration and the Savings Bank had decided to hold this Open Day to help refugees who need a bank account to participate in everyday life.

However, even in a town like Barsinghausen, it’s not only refugees who need to be able to open an account easily, without having to overcome major obstacles. As in any town, there are citizens who, for example, have no income or have declared personal insolvency. “For a while now, we have experienced a slow but steady rise in demand for Citizen Accounts”, says Martin Wildhagen, spokesman for the bank. Over the past years, Mr Wildhagen and his colleagues have noticed that an increasing number of people have experienced difficulty in opening an account: “There are many different reasons for this. Some people, for example, are dependent on social security payments others are affected by old-age poverty.” The local soup kitchen confirms that there seems to be a trend in the region: according to Mr Wildhagen, the number of their customers is also increasing. 


Why does a bank need to offer a Citizen Account in the first place? To open a regular current account in Germany, a customer has to provide, among other things, proof of permanent residence and, especially, creditworthiness. However, not everyone can meet these requirements. As a consequence, people cannot participate in daily economic life, as without an account it is impossible for them to rent a flat or sign an employment contract.

In the city of Barsinghausen, approximately 150 German citizens and 270 refugees rely on their Citizen Accounts. “In the case of refugees, these figures keep changing because not all of them stay,” says Mr Wildhagen. Compared with the total of 11,000 private accounts held with the Savings Bank, the share of Citizen Accounts is limited. And yet, even though the number of Citizen Accounts may be small in comparison, to those concerned they mean a lot. “You hear many sad stories”, Ferit Tarak, customer relationship manager at Stadtsparkasse Barsinghausen and of Kurdish origin himself, says.

In the city of Barsinghausen, approximately 270 people who had to flee their home countries opened an account with the Savings Bank.

“This is another reason why we have to make it possible for the people to handle their money more independently“, he adds. The goal of the Open Day in Barsinghausen was to help people who find themselves in very difficult situations. That goal was met, thanks to the Savings Bank's employees, and the account itself.

The Savings Banks’ policies in Germany towards the Citizen Account are clear and well-documented: “The possibility of participating in cashless payment transactions is an important component of business life, and should be available to all sections of the population, regardless of their income or personal assets”, the Declaration of the German Savings Banks on the Citizen Account states. So Savings Banks in Germany have a head start on other banks, which have been obliged by law to provide a basic account to all EU citizens since 19 June 2016.

The Citizen Account

The Savings Banks’ Citizen Account is a credit account that allows the owner to transfer money, have direct debits collected and make payments with his/her SparkassenCard. The Savings Banks have made a promise to open a Citizen Account for anyone in their business region who wishes to have one regardless of their personal situation, income, age or nationality. Getting into debt is impossible with a Citizen Account, as it is held on a credit basis only.

This means that the account can not be overdrawn. The Savings Banks’ Citizen Account has another advantage: if held as a so-called “seizure-protected account” (Pfändungsschutzkonto), it is exempt from seizure, meaning that credit balances of up to EUR 1,073.88 per calendar month cannot be impounded. Up to this amount, the account holder can pay their rent, gas and electricity bills. The Savings Bank can only close or refuse to set up a Citizen Account with very good reason – e.g. when services are abused or agreed bank charges have not been paid.