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  • Collin Brennan

South African Account Closures in Germany: What You Can Do

In recent months, online community groups for South Africans living in Germany have picked up on a troubling trend. It seems that a growing number of South African nationals are reporting having their German bank accounts closed — often with short notice, and often with no stated reason for the sudden closure. 

Stories disclosed online and between friends tend to follow a similar pattern. First comes a letter, which states that the banking relationship is being terminated and that all funds must be removed from the affected account. Then come several weeks of frustrating customer service calls that go nowhere. The final indignity comes when these spurned customers try to open accounts at new banks, only to be refused on similarly vague grounds.

There are other commonalities between these bank account closures. For one, they seem to be only or primarily affecting South African nationals living in Germany — even those with permanent German residence. And they tend to involve Commerzbank, a major German banking institution where many South Africans have historically been welcomed. 

What’s going on with these Commerzbank account closures? And what can you do if you’re a South African whose finances have been affected? Let’s take a look.

Why is Commerzbank closing South Africans’ accounts?

It’s impossible to say exactly why this is happening, as each customer’s case is different and the string of recent closures may turn out to be unrelated. Several South Africans we’ve talked to have struggled to obtain a specific justification for why their accounts were closed, even when they visit a physical Commerzbank branch demanding an answer.

Anecdotally, we’ve heard that at least one person was told that “a decision has been made to terminate the accounts of South African citizens,” though we haven’t been able to verify this and many South Africans with Commerzbank accounts remain unaffected — at least so far. 

To be clear, this issue seems to be limited to Commerzbank. But South Africans with accounts at other German banks are rightly worried that they may be next. After all, we’ve seen reports that customers spurned by Commerzbank who try to open accounts at other banks (like DKB and ING) are facing rejections left and right. 

All of this can add up to a nightmarish experience, especially if you rely on a current bank account (Girokonto) for making credit transfers, receiving cashless payments, and other essential banking services.

Have account requirements changed for South Africans?

One of the frustrating aspects of the recent account closures is that they aren’t tied to a specific policy or set of publicly available requirements. 

Commerzbank’s website states that you are eligible for a free Commerzbank checking account “if you are at least 18 years old, a German resident and tax liable in Germany (tax resident).” It also notes that the account must be used only for private purposes, and not as a business account. Alas, this does little to explain why Commerzbank is sending closure notices to South African citizens who are at least 18 years old and qualify as German tax residents. 

One possible explanation can be traced to the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a global anti-money laundering organisation consisting of 40 member states (including Germany and South Africa). The FATF sets international standards to combat money laundering and maintains two lists: a black list for “high-risk jurisdictions” and a grey list for “jurisdictions under increased monitoring.” South Africa was added to the grey list in February 2023, following a review period in which the country’s anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing efforts were deemed insufficient. 

So, Commerzbank — and German banks in general — may be reviewing the accounts of South African customers to determine if they pose a money-laundering risk. Commerzbank may be especially sensitive to any activity it deems suspicious, as in April 2024 the bank was hit with a €1,450,000 fine by the German regulatory authority BaFin, which cited shortcomings in its anti-money laundering obligations. 

It’s important to note again that this is speculative, and we can’t say for sure why an individual account was closed. But it may be that South Africans in Germany are entering an era of increased financial scrutiny, which could last until their native country is taken off FATF’s grey list.

Which German banks still accept South African clients?

Plenty! And even if you haven’t run into any issues with your Commerzbank account, you may find a good enough reason to switch. 

It’s worth shopping around for an account with a higher interest rate on deposits and lower costs overall. As of April 2024, Commerzbank charges €12.90/month for a Premium checking account (PremiumKonto) that includes 3.6% APY for funds up to €100,000 for six months as a promotional rate. Here’s how that stacks up to some competitors:

TFBank currently offers a Girokonto with a 3.80% promotional APY for three months and no monthly fee. The interest rate drops to 1.45% APY after the first three months.

Santander offers a free Girokonto (BestGiro) with a welcome bonus of €75. One South African we talked to whose account was closed by Commerzbank received a letter from Santander confirming that they are eligible for an account.

N26 is a neobank that offers a free standard savings account with 1.26% APY. If you want more benefits and more interest on your savings, you can open a Metal account with 4% APY.

Revolut is another popular neobank with savings accounts ranging from the free (Standard) to the extravagant (Ultra; €50/month with 4.75% APY and a host of lifestyle benefits).

We can’t guarantee that your account application at any bank will be accepted, and you will likely need to complete KYC procedures with any bank before you can successfully open an account. With that said, you do have options.

Options for South Africans with investment accounts

At LeX-Wealth, we pride ourselves on helping expats from all over the world protect and grow their wealth. We’re familiar with the financial challenges South Africans face when living in Germany, and we offer a number of solutions for South Africans looking to build their wealth. So, whether you’re interested in saving for retirement, starting a savings plan for your child, or investing a lump sum in the most tax-efficient way possible, contact our experts today to see how we can help.

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