Using a bank is a pretty basic part of life in Finland, even if you don’t need any loans or saving accounts or anything. A Finnish person may get his/her first bank account as early as the age of 10. Without a bank account you are basically crippled. This contrasts to Russia; I’m not sure if there are still jobs there that pay in cash (legally as least; there’s certainly no shortage of jobs with “grey” salary, paying a minimum wage legally, and the rest under the table in cash), but many people just use whatever bank accounts their employers open for them, and immediatelly withdraw their entire wages in cash in ATMs upon being paid. There are options for online payment like Webmoney and Qiwi that do not require you to have a bank account as well; Qiwi, notably, has a wide-reaching network of payment kiosks that accept cash. I myself got my first bank account the same time I got my first salary, when I was 22; this job actually paid completely under the table (“black salary”) so I didn’t even really need that at the moment, but I still deposited my envelopes of cash on that account for convenience.

All of this wouldn’t really fly in Finland. There are three things you most definitely need a bank account for:

1. Receiving salary and paying bills, i. e., bank payments. Your salary must come to your account from your employer. I’m pretty sure this is the only legal option in Finland. You also almost certainly will need to pay some bills from that account from time to time, at least rent and utilities. Buying really expensive things, like a car, is also done from a bank account. And while transferring minor sums between friends and the like has special apps to make this very easy and swift, these still do a usual bank payment between accounts.

2. Bank card. This is going to be a simple debit card at first, of course. This is what you’ll use for everyday grocery shopping and the like. There might be some places where you need cash (public buses, if you don’t have a bus card; old parking meters, possibly some markets) but these are very few and far between, and it doesn’t really make sense to carry more than 50€ or even 20€ of cash with you; you’ll use it very rarely anyway.

3. Online banking authentication, which will be used by various government online services, including, but not limited to, population register, tax office, Kela (social insurance service), post, traffic safety agency, and others. Thus you won’t have to visit all these organisations in person (unless it’s for something relatively exotic). Online banking is quite useful by itself as well; for example to pay invoices online which is, of course, hugely more convenient than going to a bank branch for that.

Finland isn’t a very big country and doesn’t have very many banks. Many of them actually merged in recent decades. Currently your choice is limited to about 10 retail banks. The biggest three are probably Nordea, OP (Osuuspankki, meaning Cooperative Bank), and Danske Bank. But there’s also S-Pankki, Aktia, Säästöpankki (Savings Bank), and, well, I don’t think there are any really bad ones. Of course bigger banks have more offices, but after opening an account you’ll have to visit those extremely rarely if ever. Anyway the important thing is to choose one and to apply for an account as soon as possible. You must do this yourself (unlike in Russia, where as I mentioned above it’s common to have an employer arrange an account and a card for you in the same bank he uses) and in person. I did that on my very first day, right after registering at the magistrate.

Ålandsbanken in Vaasa. I wonder how many non-Ålanders (people from Åland Islands which are an autonomous region of Finland) actually use it

Nordea is one of the few (if not the only one) banks that have their online banking interface in English in addition to Finnish and Swedish, which is of course quite convenient, but Google Translate again makes this not such an overwhelming advantage. There are on the other hands lots of reports online of Nordea being fairly shitty to foreigners, making them fill more papers and not allowing them to get online banking for months. I don’t know how true is that, but I decided to go to OP instead, which is actually the most popular bank in Finland. OP bank offices are quite easy to spot in Finnish cities, with their round bright orange logo looking like Russian Ф letter. It always reminded me and my friends of Diksi (Дикси), a huge Russian chain of small shitty grocery stores, whose logo looks exactly the same but with Д instead of Ф.

OP is a little unusual among other banks in that, as its name suggests, it is a cooperative. Many of its consumers actually legally own a small share of the bank (although it’s not required), which gives them some additional benefits. (Another major cooperative company you’re likely to encounter is S-Group, which owns pretty much every second grocery store and supermarket, an insurance company, a hotel chain, a gas station chain, and god knows what else.) As far as I understood, OP branches are actually legally somewhat independent banks as well. While OP itself dates in some form from 1902, a significant fraction of its banks, mostly South Ostrobothnia-based, split off in 1997 and formed another cooperative, named, perhaps not that imaginatively, POP.

Vaasa OP bank is located right at the central city square (Tori), visible from the windows of our office, which is actually located at Tori as well. The building does not look all that fancy from the outside, but inside you kind of get the vibe of an old serious established bank. I’m pretty sure there must be some huge money vault in it, the kind you see in the movies. Well, I took a queue ticket for bank account-related matters, and waited for my turn. There were quite a bit people inside, but most of these were elderly and queued for cash registers, probably to pay some invoices. I on other hand was invited into a small room, where a nice girl let me fill in a short application for an account, and a much bigger anti money laundering form that asked how I was going to use your account, and some things about my background (like, do I have any politicians as close relatives).

The anti money laundering stuff is the reason why it’s not as easy for an immigrant to open an account these days. Current EU regulations force banks to be really paranoid about their new customers. In fact some five years ago or so banks often refused opening accounts for immigrants outright. There were news stories about immigrants from third world countries who were forced to live for years without having an account. In the end it became bad enough that in 2014 the EU had to release a directive forbidding banks to refuse “basic banking services” to legal EU residents.

Still, banks can process an application for up to 10 working days, and that’s what my visit ended with; I was promised I’ll get a call in 10 working days. The bank still can reject an application but only if it can actually prove that there is something fishy about the customer, not just based on suspicions.

More subtly, “basic banking services” include an account and a card, but not online banking and identification, and banks are still totally allowed to be paranoid about that part. A Finnish ID card issued by the police (henkilökortti) is currently a basic requirement for online banking in all banks; that’s why I described getting one in the previous part. It takes some days to get one though, and I actually applied for it later than for an account, so at the moment of account application I only had a Russian passport and a residence permit. Well, I think they looked at my employment contract too. The clerk girl said I’ll get online banking access as soon as I get the ID card, and receive my first salary into the new account. The latter part was annoying, but I suppose I could manage for a few weeks before that salary came.

So I waited for that call. And waited. And ten working days passed but the call never came. On the twelfth day or so I decided to pay OP a visit again. By that time I really needed that account, to pay my first rent, and there were less than two weeks remaining until my first salary and it was still impossible for me to actually receive it.

Weell guess what. It turned out they actually somehow lost my application! Good thing I went to check! But the woman talking to me was very nice and friendly and apologetic about the whole situation, and I wasn’t really mad. And thankfully I didn’t have to wait another 10 days (if they would have said that I actually would have said I’d file a formal complaint to the financial regulation agency, or however it’s called). It took about an hour or slightly less but she opened the account for me on the spot. Moreover, since by that moment my ID card was with me, I got online banking right away, and there wasn’t any talk about waiting for the first salary. I deposited 400€ to my brand new account, and was able to pay my first rent online on the same day (not the security deposit; that one I had managed to pay in cash before). And when I got back to work they recorded my bank account number there, so the salary eventually came as it should have.

I did not, however, get a bank card right away; for some reason it takes quite significant time to get them made. I actually got it in the mail, about two weeks later — after the New Year already, which meant that for some days I had money in my account but not any good ways to actually spend it, and by the time the card finally arrived my cash reserves were nearly exhausted. The bank card was a pretty regular Visa Electron, with that wireless payments feature which I never use. (A bit annoying that it’s an Electron, since there might in theory be places where it’s less usable than a Visa Classic, as Electron always needs an Internet connection to authorize transaction, unlike Classic; but Electron is all they offer to new customers.)

You may wonder how it is even safe to send cards in mail. Apparently not all banks do that, since even some of my Finnish acquaintances wondered the same thing. But they send the PIN code and the actual card by two different letters, with an interval of a week or so between them. Of course the card could still be used for online payments as is (the card was immediately usable and didn’t require any additional activation), but such transactions can be charged back through the bank. In general I haven’t really ever heard about anyone tampering with mail here. Apartments generally have slots on their front doors rather than actual mailboxes, so stealing mail from them is particularly difficult.

I was also offered to become a cooperative share owner when I was opening the account. That came with a one-time payment of €100, and the benefits would be lower monthly fees (something like 2€ instead of 5€ or so) and other things I don’t really remember. That seemed like a fun idea, but I didn’t really have 100€ to spare at that moment, waiting for my first salary and stuff. In the end I don’t think the benefits are all that great, so I may possibly spend €100 on an S-Etukortti card instead.

What I did leave the bank with was a thick heap of papers mostly in Finnish (I hope there’s nothing about selling my soul there or something), a business card where they wrote down my IBAN account number, a sheet of paper with a login and initial password for online banking (on a special sticker, which is impossible to tear off and re-stick again without it being obviously visible), and a card with 300 one-time passwords.

An IBAN account number is the only thing someone needs to know in order to transfer money to your account within Finland. It has “FI” in front of it, then a bunch of digits split in groups of four, and two digits in the end. Like “FI21 1234 5600 0007 85” (random example from the web). This is in stark contrast to Russia, where the account number itself is 20 digits long, but you often need a bunch of other long numbers, and bank full name and address too. IBANs are used throughout Europe (and in other countries their length may be different, and there might be some more letters). When getting payments from another country, it’s usually also necessary to know your bank’s BIC code, which consists of eight letters, like “OKOYFIHH” for OP, but still nothing more than that. (IBAN has your bank and its branch encoded in it as well, but it’s in a country specific format.)

For online banking access two factor authentication using a one-time password card is used by OP and, it seems, by most if not all other banks as well (unlike in Russia, where one-time passwords are often sent by SMS instead). You have a login, a password, and a card full of this codes. In OP the login consists of 8 digits and is fixed, and the password consists of 4 digits and you can change it (and are required to immediately change it from the default one you initially get). After that, the bank shows you the number of one of the 4 digit one-time passwords from a card you physically own, and you look it up there and type in. The card contains 300 of these passwords, which should be enough for quite some time. I’m not sure if you are mailed the next one automatically or if you have to pick it up at a bank branch, but probably the first.

For some “especially secure” operations (a bank payment to abroad) you actually have the number of the one-time password (not the password itself — you still need to look it up on the card) sent to you by SMS. You have to manually turn this feature on in the settings, otherwise these operations are not accessible. Why they can’t just send the password itself by SMS is beyond me. Although of course it’s easier to lose a phone than a password card (which you probably keep in your wallet), and while the password card without anything else is useless, you may have the regular login and password stored by the phone’s browser, in which case you’re, well, fucked.

Paying an electrical bill

I don’t quite know what to tell you about the online bank. People say online banks in Europe are usually pretty terrible (one of the areas where Russia is surprisingly ahead with adoption of modern technologies), but at least in Finland and at least this one is pretty fine and nice-looking. There’s quite a lot of things you can do there, but things like loans or insurance are of course not something I have any experience in yet. So far I used it only to pay invoices and to make payments to abroad.

Paying invoices generally needs only five things: recipient IBAN (saajan IBAN), recipient name (saajan nimi) which if I remember correctly the bank actually autofills sometimes, amount (maksun määrä), due date (eräpäivä), and reference number (viite/viitenumero). All of these are pretty self-explanatory, except the reference number, which is a sequence of digits that identifies that specific invoice for the recipient organization, so that it knows that 500€ which just fell into its account are, for example, rent payment for a specific rent contract, and not just some random 500€ which it would probably just have to send back. In any case all of this information will be present and clearly marked on an invoice.

Multi-month invoice for apartment rent from Pikipruukki housing company

The invoice may actually include several possible IBANs/BICs in several different banks. You probably should pick the one matching your bank, but in any case that doesn’t matter too much, as transfers between major banks are still very quick (maybe instant, I don’t know) and no fee is charged for that.

Invoices might be sent by regular mail or email; of course you don’t have to print them out in the latter case. Finnish post provides a free service named NetPosti which makes sure you receive emails from various organizations instead of paper mail, and I turned that feature on for me, but I don’t think I have received anything through that NetPosti thing so far. In my case I only regularly have to pay rent and electricity invoices; for rent they actually gave me a single invoice with a payment schedule extending well into 2019, and for electricity I get quarterly bills in paper mail. It’s possible to set up payment templates in the online bank so you don’t have to retype all things; it’s also possible to set up automatic payments, but I didn’t try that and in general I feel a bit uneasy with any sort of automated payments.

I also use the online bank to make payments to Russia, to my old account in a Russian bank (Alfa-Bank) actually. I still have a few installments to pay on my old car loan (just three more, at the moment) which I’m doing from that account. There’s more information to fill in that case, including BIC code of my Russian bank, its internal account number, and payment purpose (“Salary paid in Finland” is what I type). Such payments are processed manually, I think, and it takes a few days for the sum to arrive, but surprisingly enough there’s no fee. Since the Russian account is also denominated in euro, there’s no currency conversion going on. I should note that there was a question about whether I was going to do any payments abroad, and how common they would be, in the anti money laundering form I filled when opening the account. I answered truthfully of course.

(I could also receive money from a Russian bank pretty similarly. However according to Russian laws I don’t actually at the moment have the right to transfer money from my own Russian account into my own Finnish account. The reason is that I’d have to notify Russian tax service about the existence of my Finnish account first, otherwise the Russian bank would reject the payment. I’m not in principle opposed to making such a notification as well, but as with many things in Russia it’s just annoyingly difficult to do, especially when you’re not physically living in Russia.)

Payment options in VR (Finnish Railways) online store

When buying something from a Finnish online store you will often if not always have at least two options; apart from paying with your card as in the rest of the world, you can pay through your online bank. There’ll be a set of links to all major banks, and you’ll have to pick yours and authorize there the same way you would for logging into online bank, with one-time password. This way the transaction fees for Finnish retailers are smaller than when using cards, so I always pick that option whenever it’s present. Of course, as usual with such things, you have to pay attention you’re actually being redirected to the bank website, not to some fake one. And similarly, online card payments with 3DSecure also will ask you for a one-time password from your bank.

Online identification through online banking works much the same way; you pick your bank and log into it, and then the bank verifies your identity to some other website. The website doesn’t need to be a government one (government sites generally redirect you to page for identification, but it works pretty much the same way, you pick a bank there and continue with it; although there are options for ID card (with a card reader) and mobile certificate (whatever these are) identification as well). If you are a curious web developer like me you can read the specification of the protocol used, which is internally known as TUPAS. It’s rather simple but if you want, for whatever reason, to implement TUPAS on your website, you’ll have to make separate contracts with each bank and get secret keys from each of them.

Online identification options when logging into Kela

If you’ve just got access to online identification, the websites you might want to check out are population register, Kela (social insurance service), tax service (in particular with regard to tax cards), and Posti (post). You can log into each of these, although not all of them have English option for interfaces.

In Russia I had an SMS coming to my phone after each card purchase, which was a very helpful way of tracking the current balance. It was annoying to learn Finnish banks do not provide that service. I installed OP-Mobiili application on my phone which helped a bit, but was still pretty annoying to log into. (Incidentally, this application is only available in the Finnish version of Google Play Market, and I had to figure out how to switch my home country in Google from Russia to Finland permanently. This is a ridiculously non-obvious procedure.)

Expenses in Pivo app

Eventually I learned there’s an application called Pivo. Its name still remains a source of cheap fun for me, since “pivo” literally means “beer” in Russian (пиво); I have no idea what that is supposed to actually mean. But Pivo allows you not only to look at the balance by entering a single PIN code (it’d better be distinct from any other codes and passwords of course), but actually sends notifications to your phone on every purchase, and they look nicer than SMS. It actually has a few other purposes, like tracking your spendings by category and sending money to people by knowing their phone only, but I don’t really use any of these. Pivo is originally developed by OP and integrates with it best I think, but can also be used by customers of other banks. And maybe there are other similar applications, I didn’t really do any research.

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