San Francisco, United States

Bank On San Francisco

City of San Francisco, Office of Financial Empowerment

December 2, 2012

A local government partnership provides banking services to the financially excluded

In 2005 San Francisco city leaders learned that 20% of the adult population (and half of the city’s Blacks and Latinos) did not have bank accounts. Along with low-income immigrants, many paid steep fees to predatory lenders and cheque-cashing services or became victims of crime because of the large amounts of money they carried or held at home. People mistrust banks for a variety of reasons. For undocumented immigrants or those fleeing oppressive regimes, it might be concerns about the need for U.S.-issued identification. For others, it’s a matter of basic consumer education to overturn a general mistrust of banks and formal institutions.

A bank account is a critical part of financial empowerment. With an account, people save more and can access financial services that are essential to save for the future, establish credit and access asset-building instruments such as loans for a car, small business or home mortgage. When people are “banked,” they are also in a position to contribute to the overall health of the city. Each time a cycle of financial insecurity is broken, a cycle of growth begins, and everyone benefits.

In 2006, the city of San Francisco, led by the Mayor Gavin Newsom, launched Bank On San Francisco to introduce the “unbanked” to mainstream financial services. The program is a partnership of various local bodies including the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE), the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and EARN (Earned Assets Resource Network), as well as local financial institutions, and community-based organizations.

Participating banks and credit unions allow individuals with no or poor banking history to open no- or low-fee accounts with no minimum balance, to have their first overdraft charges waived as they learn how to bank and receive financial counseling. One particularly unique aspect of the program includes permitting Mexican Matricula and Guatemalan Consular ID cards to be used as primary identification when opening accounts.


Bank On San Francisco’s success has also attracted national attention. In 2007 the City of Seattle started its own Bank On program, followed by Evansville, Illinois. Soon after, the San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment (OFC) began work with the National League of Cities’ (NLC) Institute for Youth, Education and Families to launch the Bank On Cities Campaign as a way to help other cities start their own programs.

To provide technical assistance to support these efforts, the OFE and NLC (with support from the James Irvine Foundation) created a web portal ( offering tools and resources for other cities planning Bank On programs. It now includes a “Research Your Community” tool which provides estimates of the number of unbanked and underbanked households in a community and, with a mapping tool, shows you the neighbourhoods where those households aggregate.

The city’s OFE initially aimed to reach 10,000 unbanked families. Today, more than 72,000 accounts are active. In  2008, the reported average account balance was $980 in mainstream financial institutions such as Bank of America, San Francisco Federal Credit Union, and Citibank. More than 100 U.S. cities have launched, or are making plans to implement a Bank On program (including the U.S. Department of Treasury).

“Bank On San Francisco makes a bank account something that everyone in San Francisco can have,” said José Cisneros, Treasurer for the City and County of San Francisco. “Now there’s no need to use high-priced check cashers. The banks and credit unions participating in Bank On San Francisco are offering so much more to individuals who open these accounts.”

Making it Work for You:

  • Invest in research that can help you measure, benchmark and monitor the issue your program seeks to address. This will help you set targets, provide measureable outcomes and help you make a case for new or sustainable funding
  • Community-based organizations and service-providers should be encouraged to seek support from local government and business leaders who can help foster greater awareness of the issues across the wider community
  • Building strong partnerships with community stakeholders, city officials, and financial institutions can increase the credibility of your venture and attract new audiences
  • Involve all partners and stakeholders early and often to plan, implement and evaluate your program

For this Good Idea contact:

San Francisco Office of Financial Empowerment
1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place
San Francisco, CA, US,