Mitt Romney’s Tax Returns: Can Just Anyone Set up a Swiss Bank Account?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 27 2012 8:00 AM

How Hard Is It To Open a Swiss Bank Account?

Mitt Romney had one. Can you get one, too?

Mitt Romney's released tax forms show that the candidate had kept money in a Swiss bank


Among the revelations contained in the tax forms that Mitt Romney released Tuesday morning was evidence that the Republican candidate had stored money in Switzerland. According to one of the governor's lawyers, the money in question was sitting in “a bank account. Nothing more, nothing less.” Can just anyone get a Swiss bank account? 

No. Swiss banks have a history of dismissing applications originating in countries that have unusual tax regulations or a history of criminal economic activity. Such blacklists now tend to include the United States, on account of a federal law passed in 2010 called the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act, which requires that Swiss banks submit sensitive information about their clients to the IRS, potentially violating Swiss privacy laws and imposing heavy costs of compliance. Those privacy laws are what make Swiss banks so attractive to foreign investors. (The country's stable economy and low rate of inflation are also plusses.) Romney closed his bank account in Zurich in 2010, the same year that that law was passed, although the lawyer who pulled the plug claims he did so because the account “wasn’t serving any particular purpose.”


Today a few banks in Switzerland, such as Pictet in Geneva and Vontobel in Zurich, still accept American clients, provided those clients do business with a special SEC-registered subsidiary that caters to U.S. citizens living overseas. But these Americans must possess at least $1 million in investments before they can open an account—to ensure that they can afford the steep banking fees associated with carrying out the requirements of the Tax Compliance Act.

Even in the old days, an American citizen might have needed a special invitation or a referral from a current client before he or she could set up a private account at a Swiss bank, and the minimum initial deposit might have been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Matchmaking companies in Switzerland would help set up local accounts for international clients by making overtures to the private banks on their behalf. (This cost about one thousand dollars per application, but the “set-up fee” was refunded if the process didn't go through.)

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Catherine Hall and Patricia Schramm of the American Swiss Foundation.  

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 



Slate Plus Early Read: The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Transparent Is the Fall’s Only Great New Show

The XX Factor

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada

Now, journalists can't even say her name.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

  News & Politics
Sept. 29 2014 11:45 PM The Self-Made Man The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.
Sept. 29 2014 7:01 PM We May Never Know If Larry Ellison Flew a Fighter Jet Under the Golden Gate Bridge
Dear Prudence
Sept. 30 2014 6:00 AM Drive-By Bounty Prudie advises a woman whose boyfriend demands she flash truckers on the highway.
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 29 2014 8:45 AM Slate Isn’t Too Liberal, but … What readers said about the magazine’s bias and balance.
Brow Beat
Sept. 29 2014 9:06 PM Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice Looks Like a Comic Masterpiece
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath The Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.