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Economy & Finance

Banking in the UAE — Personal Finance in a Global Trading Hub

If you are planning a longer stay in the UAE, managing your day-to-day finances will be a lot easier if you have a local bank account. The InterNations Expat Guide provides you with a succinct overview of the banking system in the Emirates and explains how opening a bank account works.


The Central Bank of the United Arab Emirates certainly won’t be responsible for handling your individual bank account in the UAE — but it is in charge of the country’s entire banking sector. The successor of the 1973 Currency Board was established in 1980 to manage all the monetary policies of the young nation.

One of the Central Bank’s pivotal functions consists in overseeing, regulating, and developing the banking industry in the UAE. Those duties are mostly carried out by its Banking Supervision and Examination Department. Unlike the head office of the Central Bank, this department isn’t located in Abu Dhabi, the political and administrative capital of the Emirates, but in Dubai, its leading financial hub.

The Central Bank of the UAE issues licenses to all financial institutions (e.g. commercial and investment banks, domestic and foreign banks, moneychangers, financial investment companies, etc.).  It sets standards for the entire industry and keeps an eye on compliance with such regulation. Last but not least, it also liaises with international banking organizations like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

Foreign vs. National Banks: The After-Effects of the Financial Crisis

Expats moving to the Emirates will be mostly interested in commercial banks, also known as retail banks. They provide fundamental financial services to the general public — accept deposits, loan money to individuals and businesses, offer investment products, and so on — and it’s here that you’ll open your bank account in the UAE.

The Central Bank of the UAE provides a list of licensed commercial banks across the country. They list 46 banks and 9 representative branch offices (which don’t offer the usual services of a retail bank), although that figure might be slightly outdated: according to their latest statistical bulletin from February 2016, there are currently 23 national and 26 foreign banks — a total of 49 altogether — active in the Emirates.

Though you have a wide range of places to choose from when it comes to your new bank account in the UAE, expats might take note of the following development: in the past few years, since about 2010, several large international banks, such as Lloyds or Barclays, have completely abandoned their commercial banking services in the UAE. Only a few such banks, especially HSBC Middle East, have consolidated their retail banking business in the region instead.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008/2009, these banks have decided to cut down on costs and focus on their core domestic markets, particularly when faced with the lively competition from the many national banks in the Emirates. Due to these local alternatives, though, you definitely won’t have to worry about opening a bank account in the UAE.

Spoiled for Choice? Choosing a Retail Bank in the Emirates

It would probably be the easiest solution for expats to just opt for one of the bigger domestic banks in the Emirates. Retail banks like Emirates NBD have numerous branches throughout the country: in this particular case, there are over 60 NBD branch offices in Dubai and more than a dozen in Abu Dhabi, and the bank is also represented in all other five emirates. Such commercial banks offer all the standard services you’d expect: current accounts and savings accounts, credit and debit cards, mortgages and personal loans, phone, online, and mobile banking, foreign exchange and remittances, etc.

If you are looking for high-quality customer service when getting a bank account in the UAE, you might want to check out the UAE banks identified by the annual benchmarking index for retail banks: Ethos Integrated Solutions, the leading customer experience consultancy in the Middle East, has been publishing a list of recommended commercial banks in the region ever since 2005. In 2015, the overall winner for the best customer service was the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank. However, their focus on Islamic banking might initially be a little confusing for non-Muslim expatriates.

No Interest in Interest? The Concept of Islamic Banking

If you aren’t a Muslim yourself, you’ll probably be unfamiliar with the concept of Islamic banking. Though not all Muslims agree with that particular interpretation of Islamic theology and law, Islamic finance is a growing sector worldwide.

To put it briefly, Islamic finance forbids investment in practices considered haram (unlawful), such as running a distillery. Furthermore, it also frowns upon charging interest on loans: the respective term riba is often translated as “usury” or “exploitation”. Therefore, many Islamic banks have developed a variety of alternative practices to operate as for-profit businesses nonetheless.

For example, if customers need a large amount of money for an expensive purchase, they won’t take out a regular loan. Instead, the bank will make the purchase for them and sell them the item in question for a higher price. This sum may then be repaid in installments, so the bank still makes a permissible profit on the sale of goods. However, which practices are or are not permitted in Islamic finance is often subject to much debate amongst various scholars and theologians.

A Hassle-Free Part of Expat Life: Opening a New UAE Bank Account

No matter where you decide to open a bank account in the UAE, be it at a foreign or national bank, an Islamic or non-Islamic one, you’ll be glad to hear that the procedure is always pretty easy. Please take note, though, that only residents can have a current account with a local bank. Non-residents can only open savings accounts in the UAE.

Resident expats just need to bring along their original passport and a copy thereof, including of the page with their residence visa for the UAE. They also need a so-called letter of no objection from their visa sponsor and a salary certificate from the HR department of their employer. However, the latter is only necessary if they want to have their salary transferred to their new bank account in the UAE.

For GCC nationals, it’s even less complicated: they just have to show their passport and bring a copy of it, as well as a phone or utility bill as proof of address in the UAE. That’s all it takes for opening a bank account in the UAE!

InterNations Expat Magazine