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Banking for Expats in China

Author: Gavin Adie
Submitted: September 2013

Establishing a bank account in China would be a simple affair were it not for the language barrier. Identification and minimum deposit requirements are minimal and fees are low, but applying for an account is simpler with the help of a Mandarin speaker.

While the language may present a hurdle for expatriates seeking to establish an account it is possible to set up an account entirely in English. China's four largest domestic banks often have at least one person at sizable branches who speak English. These are Bank of China (BOC), China Construction Bank (CCB), Agricultural Bank of China (ABC), and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). International banks such as Citibank and Standard and Chartered also operate throughout China.

Due to the long queues in China, it's best to ring your chosen bank in advance to ensure someone at the bank will be there to process your application in English. Make sure to ask whether  English-language online banking services are available to limit time spent returning to the branch.

As noted, a key benefit of choosing a major bank, aside from reliability, will be the availability of an English-language website and online banking services. Other banks' online facilities, particularly smaller banks, can be solely in Mandarin.

The identification requirements in place in China are substantially more relaxed than elsewhere. In most cases you will be able to establish an account with just a passport, although you may be asked to provide other evidence, such as your visa details, proof of address (such as a utility bill), and/or a local phone number.

Cash is generally used for most non-digital transactions  with the use of credit and debit cards less common. Cards are becoming more widely accepted in larger businesses. Due to ATM withdrawal limits being significantly lower in China than elsewhere it might also be beneficial to establish a second account to double your daily withdrawal limit. Advance notice of at least 24 hours is required for withdrawals above these limits.

While cash is favored, a key consideration when choosing where to bank will depend on the type of card available to you. Unlike elsewhere, transactions using Visa and Mastercard are not widely accepted so it may be better to get a Union Pay card, operated by the state government. Union Pay cards are more widely accepted by Chinese traders online, and ATMs accepting Union Pay cards are more common, particularly in rural areas where other cards may not be accepted. Online transactions and transfers in China are generally verified by electronic signature.

Fees in China are low, normally limited to nominal ATM withdrawal fees. Banks seldom slap fees on inbound international transfers, but often require that you maintain a minimum deposit – these may be higher for the international banks. That being said, accounts with higher minimum deposit levels may offer lower or non-existent fees. Fees for transactions processed online or through automated telephone services generally tend to be lower than transactions facilitated in-branch.

In practice there aren't restrictions on transfers of home currency to a Chinese bank due to very high capital control limits. The process for returning funds to your home country are more onerous however. To convert Renminbi into foreign currency (a prerequisite to transferring funds), you will need to provide documentation proving that the funds were either initially transferred from your home bank, or income earned in China which has been taxed.



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