The Joys of Banking in Bali (or How I Learned to Forge My Own Name)

I opened my first bank account, back in Canada, while I was in high school. Since then, I’ve set up accounts in several other countries where I’ve lived; namely France and Israel. I opened my first account in Bali a number of years ago, which after laying dormant for a long while, eventually shut down due to lack of activity.

Fast forward to early November 2015, when the subject of banking comes up again. With suggestions from expat friends, I go to a branch on the main road where many hold accounts. I’m assured that it’s straightforward. And, with a couple of bank managers who speak English, I expect a quick and painless process.

Ha. This is BALI. If you crave the experience of an endless chain of surprises, a whopping amount of frustrations and rampant bureaucratic folly, this here is your paradise.

Here’s how it began last month. Hi Kadek, I’d like to open up two accounts, please. One in Indonesian rupiahs and one for US dollars. Sure, says Kadek, no problem, please have a seat. Hmmm. “No problem” usually translates to: Breathe, because problem #1 is just around the corner. Since it’s rare for any transaction to happen effortlessly in Bali, I brace for whatever. I flick off my sandals, kneel on the seat and wait for him to switch on his computer and gather paper.DSC00778

I’m told that, in order to open the USD account, I need to deposit at least $200. And a copy of my passport. I hand over a copy of my passport and two bills. Kadek looks up from the well-used money and shakes his head. I’m sorry, he says with some degree of embarrassment, we cannot take these. They are too old.

But, I counter, the money exchange shops take them, with no problem! Quite the contrary; banks seem to have a serious problem with them. I’m told the bills must be spanking new and spotless. Which is quite the double standard – and a shocking revelation, since I’ve yet to receive in my hand a single piece of Indonesian currency that doesn’t come with rips, folds and an assortment of stains directly related to the previous bill owner’s recent enjoyment of nasi campur or jamu. In other words, rupiah bills are, as a rule, a terribly messy lot.

So off I go, to the money exchange lady who knows me well. I share the story and she too grimaces in embarrassment, displaying her substantial collection of deposited US dollars – all of which are already bear their stamp. Tough luck: It’s clear to us both that none of them will make the cut. So she promises to keep a few on the side – untouched – for me, so I can return to retrieve them the following day.

With clean and crisp bills in hand, I return to the bank a few days later. Kadek mulls over them as if inspecting a rare antique. He lowers his glasses, puts the bills up to his nose, as if he’s taking a whiff. (Is that an inspection criteria, the perfume factor?) Kadek excuses himself, carrying the two bills over to the teller behind me. I’m sure they’ll pass muster as there are no creases or wrinkles. They’re as close to newly minted as you can get.

Tough luck. No good. I’d need a magnifying glass to spot the millimeter-length nip at the top of one of the bills. No, sorry, it won’t do. We can’t accept this, says Kadek, sorry…. His voice trails off as I feel the heat rising in my body.

I’m done. I gather the assorted paperwork (for my accounts) off his desk, bid him goodbye and dart out the front door.

DSC00779Fast forward again, once more, to this morning. With a new crop of US 100 dollar bills, I venture back into the bank and ask to speak to another manager, Wayan. Maybe I’ll have better luck with her. No chance.

More of the same rigamarole. Not about the bills, they pass muster. This time, the issue is with my signature. My signature has a lot of flair and flourish – for no reason in particular. I’m also unable to sign exactly the same way twice – who does? But here, in Indonesia, bank regulators demand nothing less than perfection.

I’m sorry, says Wayan, this signature doesn’t look like the one on your passport. I try again. Still not good. I try again and again and again. She hands me one paper after another as I attempt to precisely replicate the passport version. Nothing doing. I apologize and explain that I can’t do any better.

Then Wayan asks for another piece of ID. I fish my driver’s license out of my wallet. She compares the signature on that to a different signature on my passport. There, she says, can you sign like these two?

Wayan is unflappable, so I ask her if I’m the first customer who’s been unable to provide an exact signature replica. No, she laughs, there are many others. Some locals give up on this, and they go down the road to the government office. When they get a new ID, they use an easy signature that they can sign over and over again. With a pen, she draws a horizontal line with a little curlicue. Like this. It’s harder for you, she says, because you can’t get a new ID card easily. You got that right.

With Wayan’s encouragement, I change strategies. It dawns on me that they don’t actually want my signature. So I’ll give them what they want, an ever-so-slowly drawn, nearly perfect, faithful copy of those two specimens. Under her watchful guidance, I attempt a new crop of signatures. Almost good enough. She’s coaching me now: You see that squiggle line in the middle of the J? Yes, make sure you do that. When Wayan sees enough squiggle, her face lights up. Yes, like that!

Which is how, after I’ve learned to (legally!) forge my own signature, and I’m asked to sign and re-sign a mountain of documents, meet a teller (more signatures!), plug in a whole slew of usernames and passwords (too many to remember, aduh!), and I’m handed a token (for online transactions) with an English user manual, I somehow manage to walk out of the bank with a debit card in hand.


  1. My one and only trip to the Bali bank helps me appreciate your story. It’s an adventure to just watch the goings-on while waiting interminably for a simple transaction. Congrats on your perseverance and patience.

  2. I can relate. But when they asked for my social security card, yes, the ACTUAL CARD, that was the clincher. I could picture it tucked in an envelope in a folder marked ‘Personal’ in the bottom drawer of a file cabinet shoved in the back of my daughter’s storage closet in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s