What is a “Swiss bank account”?

Dear Cecil:

What is a "Swiss bank account"? In what ways and under what circumstances would it behoove me to have one? Who would I contact to arrange the deal?

Cecil replies:

A Swiss bank account, dollface, is an account in a bank in Switzerland. It seems to me you could probably have noodled this out for yourself. Most likely what you are really interested in is the legendary numbered Swiss bank account, made famous in innumerable trashy novels. Such accounts are misleadingly named, since all Swiss bank accounts (and, for that matter, all American bank accounts) are numbered; the difference with the ones in question is that they are referred to solely by number, rather than by name and number, in the course of the bank’s internal bookkeeping operations. The bank does keep a list of depositors’ names, of course, but access to it is restricted. The supposed advantage of this is that no one will be able to bribe some clerk to reveal the size of your balance, which may be useful if you happen to be, say, the deposed ruler of a large Middle Eastern country.

The usefulness of numbered accounts is greatly exaggerated, particularly in light of the trouble you have to go through to get one. The secrecy for which Swiss bankers are renowned extends to all their accounts, not just numbered ones; under Swiss law, the disclosure of any information about an account, including such elementary facts as whether it even exists, is a crime, except as ordered by the Swiss courts. Numbered accounts have been so closely associated with the stashing of ill-gotten gains that Swiss bankers are extremely reluctant to open them anymore, especially if you insist on having statements sent to a post office box or some similarly fishy destination. You must open such accounts personally in Switzerland, you must have references, and you must convince the bank that you have a legitimate reason for wanting one (originally they were intended to prevent the Gestapo from learning about illegal German foreign deposits during the 1930s). Finally, the minimum balance for such accounts is usually in excess of $25,000.

This is not to say that Swiss bank accounts in general do not have their uses. Swiss bankers will perform many highly specialized financial services not widely available elsewhere, such as the purchase and storage of precious metals. With some types of accounts it’s possible to note on your checks which foreign currency you want them to be paid in, which greatly facilitates international commerce. Finally–let’s face it–the secrecy laws do make Swiss banks a favored haven for boodle, although various international agreements in recent years have made them less attractive to criminals than they used to be.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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