American Depositary Receipts (ADRs): Accessing Foreign Stocks in the U.S.

American Depositary Receipts (ADRs): Accessing Foreign Stocks in the U.S.

5 Min.

ADRs are U.S. bank certificates for foreign stock, traded on U.S. exchanges in dollars. They're easy for U.S. investors but may lead to double taxation, with limited options.


An American Depositary Receipt (ADR) is a certificate issued by a U.S. depositary bank, representing one or several shares of a foreign company's stock. ADRs are traded on U.S. stock markets like domestic shares, allowing U.S. investors to buy foreign company stock that would otherwise be inaccessible. This benefits both U.S. investors and foreign firms by simplifying access to American capital.

ADRs are U.S. dollar-denominated securities representing foreign stocks and are held by U.S. banks. They trade in dollars and are cleared through U.S. systems. U.S. banks buy foreign shares, and issue ADRs for trading, which can occur on NYSE, Nasdaq, or over-the-counter (OTC) markets. Foreign firms provide financial data for U.S. investor assessment.

A Brief History of ADRs

American Depositary Receipts revolutionized how U.S. investors access foreign company shares. Before ADRs emerged in the 1920s, buying non-U.S. listed company shares meant dealing with complex international exchanges, a daunting prospect. Even today, challenges persist, including currency exchange and regulatory differences. U.S. investors must navigate foreign regulations and may require foreign accounts, as not all domestic brokers facilitate international trades.

ADRs were born to simplify this process, pioneered by J.P. Morgan's predecessor, Guaranty Trust, in 1927. The first ADR allowed U.S. investors to purchase shares of the British retailer Selfridges. Subsequently, in 1931, the bank introduced the inaugural sponsored ADR for British music company EMI. Today, J.P. Morgan and BNY Mellon remain key players in the ADR market, facilitating global investments.

ADR Categories

American depositary receipts come in two main categories:

  1. Sponsored ADRs:
    • A bank issues sponsored ADRs on behalf of a foreign company through a legal agreement.
    • The foreign company typically covers the issuance costs and maintains control while the bank handles investor transactions.
    • Sponsored ADRs vary based on the foreign company's compliance with SEC regulations and U.S. accounting procedures.
    • Most sponsored ADRs are SEC-registered and trade on major U.S. stock exchanges.
  2. Unsponsored ADRs:
    • These ADRs are issued by a bank without direct involvement or permission from the foreign company.
    • Multiple U.S. banks can issue unsponsored ADRs for the same foreign company, potentially with different dividend offerings.
    • Unsponsored ADRs trade exclusively OTC and do not grant voting rights.

There are over 2,000 ADRs available, representing companies from 70+ countries.

ADR Levels

ADRs are categorized into three levels based on the foreign company's engagement with U.S. markets:

  • Level I ADRs are the most basic. They are used when foreign companies don't qualify or prefer not to list their ADRs on an exchange. Level I ADRs are traded OTC and have minimal SEC requirements. They offer an inexpensive way for foreign companies to gauge U.S. investor interest.
  • Level II ADRs, like Level I ADRs, are not used to raise capital but to establish a trading presence on a stock exchange. They have slightly stricter SEC requirements than Level I ADRs but offer higher visibility and trading volume.
  • Level III ADRs are the most prestigious. Issuers float a public offering of ADRs on a U.S. exchange. They can establish a significant trading presence and raise capital in U.S. financial markets, with full compliance with SEC reporting requirements.

Representation, Tracking, and Fees

An ADR can represent the underlying shares on a one-to-one basis, a fraction of a share, or multiple shares of the foreign company. The depositary bank sets the ratio of U.S. ADRs to home-country shares to attract investors. If the ADR's value is too high, it might discourage investors; if too low, it may seem riskier.

ADRs closely track the company's stock on its home exchange due to arbitrage, where assets are bought and sold simultaneously in different markets to profit from price differences.

Investing in ADRs may involve additional fees not seen with domestic stocks. The depositary bank may charge a custody fee, typically ranging from one to three cents per share, detailed in the ADR prospectus. This fee is either deducted from dividends or passed on to the investor's brokerage firm.

Dividends and Taxes

ADR holders receive dividends and capital gains in U.S. dollars, with the bank typically deducting currency conversion expenses and foreign taxes. To prevent double taxation on capital gains, American investors must seek credit from the IRS or a refund from the foreign government's taxing authority. For further insights into ADRs and related financial subjects, exploring top investing courses is a worthwhile option.

Advantages and Disadvantages of ADRs

ADRs offer distinct advantages and disadvantages. Like stocks, ADRs trade on exchanges or over the counter and offer easy accessibility and tracking through market data. They are available directly through American brokers, which eliminates the need for foreign channels. However, ADRs carry currency risk as their value depends on exchange rates.

ADRs help diversify investment portfolios globally, but they may involve double taxation and have a limited selection of foreign entities listed. Unsponsored ADRs may not comply with SEC regulations and may lack company involvement. Although ADRs mitigate direct currency exchange risks, investors may encounter currency conversion fees to link foreign and domestic securities.


American Depositary Receipts enable Americans to invest in foreign companies not typically traded on the U.S. stock market. ADRs simplify foreign stock investment, making it as straightforward as domestic stocks. This arrangement also benefits foreign firms by facilitating capital raising in the U.S. market. It's important to note that ADR prices are influenced by both the local share price and fluctuations in the national currency exchange rate against the U.S. dollar.

American Depositary Receipt (ADR)
Over-The-Counter (OTC)
Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC)
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