Josh Summers
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October 16, 2020

Money and Banking for Expats in China | FAQ

In this FAQ, I will try to answer the most common questions about expat banking in China. This means I will be covering Chinese bank accounts, accessing and transferring money across borders, and more.

I tried to make this comprehensive but I’m sure I missed a few things. Drop me a note in the comments for other items that I should cover.

And of course, I have to give the disclaimer that I’m not a banker or financial professional. I may not have fully or correctly represented everything below. Keep also in mind that regulations are constantly changing in China. What is correct today may be outdated tomorrow.

Feel free to scroll down to read or use the following links to jump to the appropriate question about expat banking in China:

If there are still questions you have about expat banking in China that you don’t see here, please message me and let me know!

Use Cash or Card in China?

In China, cash used to rule for everyday life. Everybody had cash, everybody was paid in cash and all stores accepted cash.

However, in recent years WeChat Pay has been taking over. More and more people use this mobile payment feature of the hugely popular Chinese messaging app to pay by simply scanning a QR code. Some places don’t even accept cash or card payments anymore.

As an expat in China, you can use WeChat pay only if you open a Chinese bank account (more on this below). Otherwise, you’re stuck using either cash or card.

International credit cards are often accepted but are not as widely accepted as local Chinese credit cards branded with UnionPay (China’s domestic network). Visa and Mastercard are better than American Express, but all three of these have a relatively low acceptance rate throughout the country. The problem is that Chinese bank cards are harder to get (but not impossible).

For cash, the biggest bill is 100 RMB, about US$14 or 12,75 EUR. “RMB” is short for Renminbi, the name of the Chinese currency. One unit is called yuán 元 or, in more colloquial terms, kuài.

Other Reminbi notes are 50, 20, 10, 5 and 1 RMB. Units smaller than 1 kuai are called máo 毛 and fēn 分.

You’ll find that most cash that you end up using will be bill, although there are coins in circulation. In some cities (such as Shanghai), the 1 RMB coin is used quite often. For the rest of China, coins are often used as the fēn referenced above.

How to Get a UnionPay Bank Card for Foreigners

As mentioned above, UnionPay is the preferred network in China over other global brands like Visa or Mastercard. It is accepted in 100% of the ATMs in China as well as anywhere that cards are accepted.

So how can you get a UnionPay card as you’re setting up your expat banking in China? There are two primary methods:

  1. Open a Chinese Bank Account: When you open an account in China, you will automatically be given a UnionPay card to use. This card can be swiped or used at ATMs, but the most valuable use for this card is activating your WeChat Wallet or Alipay account. Make sure you tell your bank to activate online banking when you open the account.
  2. Get a UnionPay eCard (US Citizens Only): For U.S. citizens, there is a new solution (2019) that allows expats to apply for and use a prepaid UnionPay card from eCard. You add balance from your bank account in the U.S. and can use the card to pull cash at a lower rate than your Visa card. Personally, I use this to save money on wire fees. I pull the cash and deposit it into my Chinese bank account. I’ve saved hundreds of dollars this way. You can apply for a free eCard to try it yourself.

If you come from another country that issues UnionPay cards (i.e. Singapore, Thailand, or any other Asian country), you’ll be much better off than if you use the western networks like Visa or MasterCard.

Can I Access Money from a Foreign Account?

Yes, you can use your US/foreign debit card at a Chinese ATM to withdraw RMB. Sometimes you have to try ATMs from different banks to find one that lets you withdraw since they don’t all accept Visa/MC. In some cases, I’ve even had trouble with banks that say they accept Visa/MC.

Fees vary, depending on the ATM and the bank your card originates from.

For example, China Construction Bank (CCB) is member of the Global ATM Alliance, just like Bank of America, Deutsche Bank and a handful of other banks from different countries. Using a BofA card to withdraw cash at a CCB ATM would save you the International ATM access fee but not other fees, like foreign currency fees.

One thing is for sure: make sure you know your card PIN number before you come out to China. It’s impossible to pull cash from an ATM without it.

Do I Really Need a Chinese Bank Account?

If you really want to do expat banking in China, then, yes. I recommend it, at least.

If you receive your salary from a Chinese company, then you likely need a Chinese account. Paying rent and utilities at a China apartment is also easier with a local account.

Another big reason to open a Chinese bank account is the increase of apps and in-app features for mobile payment, like WeChat Wallet or Didi Chuxing for taxis in China. To use those apps you must have a verified local bank account.

Note: Getting money into a Chinese bank account is easy. You can deposit the money, wire money, transfer money, etc. However, it is much, much harder to get money out of a Chinese bank account. Keep this in mind as you do your banking.

I’ve known more than a few foreigners who have left China and tried to retrieve their money later. It’s extremely difficult.

Can Expats Easily Open a Bank Account in China?

The formalities to open a bank account in China used to be very easy. You only had to bring your passport and make a minimal required deposit. However, earlier this year the rules changed.

Banks now require that you have a one year visa in order to open an account. If your visa is for a shorter time period than one full year, the bank will likely deny your application.

Because of these restrictions and the tendency of Chinese to default to “no” instead of trying to help, I recommend that you shop around at different banks. If one bank tells you you can’t open an account, try another bank, or even another branch. Persistence often pays off in China.

What Banks are in China?

Chinese Banks are mostly owned by the central or a local government. Big and common central banks include:

  • China Construction Bank (CCB)
  • China CITIC Bank
  • Bank of China (BOC)
  • Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).

Bank of Beijing is a big local bank that you’ll find everywhere in Beijing. You will find ATM’s and branches for these all over the city.

You can also find international banks in China, such as Citibank and HSBC. Just because they are international doesn’t mean they’ll be easier to use or easier to transfer money, though.

Which Chinese Bank Should an Expat Choose?

There are so many different banks in China – so which one to choose?  Here are some points to consider:

  • Is it a bigger bank? Bigger banks have a better network across the country, important if you plan to travel.
  • Is the bank convenient for you? Find out which bank ATM and branch locations are convenient to your work or home. This is key since you’ll probably need to visit occasionally.
  • Does the bank offer online banking? Online banking capabilities are helpful but not absolutely necessary. Smaller local banks may not offer this.
  • Is it accommodating to your needs? Other convenience factors, e.g. ability to pay utilities, English speaking staff
  • Does the China bank have a relationship with your home bank? A potential relationship (through networks or partnerships) with your domestic bank may translate to reduced fees for you.

Ultimately there is no “best Chinese bank” – it all depends on your specific situation and location. Do your research, ask around, make a choice…and then stick with it!

How Do I Open a Chinese Bank Account?

In order to open a Chinese bank account, you must bring your passport with a valid visa of at least 1 full year and an initial deposit (usually something as small as 100 RMB).

The bank employee will help you fill out the needed forms, but keep in mind that not all branches have employees that speak English. You may want to bring a Chinese friend to help if you don’t speak Mandarin.

You will receive your bank card right away and can set your PIN. In China a PIN is a 6 digit number, not the 4 digits you usually find in in the US or Europe. You will only get one bank card for a regular account.

Joint accounts for couples are uncommon and often impossible. This is a common question I get about expat banking in China and it’s an unfortunate answer.

The bank card is also a debit/ATM card and should have a UnionPay logo. You can use this card in many countries outside of China to withdraw money from your Chinese account at ATMs with the China Union Pay (CUP) logo. For example Citibank in the US, Sparkasse in Germany, even some stores accept payment with this card.

In most cases, you can keep both RMB and foreign currency in your account. This is called a dual currency account and available for USD, EUR and other foreign currencies. Make note that you cannot access the foreign currency in your account via ATM. You must go to the teller and probably pay a small fee.

How Much Can I Withdraw from a China ATM?

The maximum you can withdraw at an ATM it 20,000 RMB per day. The typical ATM withdrawal fee in China with a Chinese bank card is 2 RMB, no matter if you fetch 500 RMB or 10,000 RMB.

Each ATM limits how much you can withdraw per transaction. Some ATMs cap you at only a couple thousand RMB, so in order to reach the limit of 20,000 RMB you’ll have to withdraw multiple times.

Other fees, e.g. for text message service, vary by bank and account type. If you have enough money, you may qualify for a VIP account, where some fees are waived.

There seems to be no minimum amount for using a Chinese bank card at places that accept those. There is also no general maximum spending limit per day/week/month in China. The maximum spending depends on your account status with your bank.

Can Expats in China do Online Banking?

Do you hate waiting in line at a bank? (And trust me, there always is a line in China.)

Some banks have internet banking available but the English interface is usually somewhat limited, although this has been improving. You may need a certain type of account – not every account type is eligible for online banking. Be sure to mention internet banking when opening your new bank account.

Also worth noting is that some internet banking requires a physical key to use – a key that you insert into your computer. Aside from the security concerns here, it’s a solution that only works for Windows computer users, not Apple computers. As always, this may change in the near future.

Supposedly many retail banks offer telephone banking with an English service option. I have never tried that but still wanted to mention it. Often times, fees for services done through e-banking or mobile banking are lower than at the bank counter.

How Do I Make Payments in China?

A popular method to make a payment for those doing expat banking in China is an account-to-account transfer. Many people use it to pay rent to the landlord. You need the name, branch name, bank account number and name of the recipient.

Even if you don’t have a bank account in China, you can still enter a bank branch for your recipient’s account and deposit cash using their account number.

There is usually no charge for account-to-account transfers if both parties use the same bank in the same city, and a small charge otherwise. You can even make recurring payments via text message once you set it up.

How to Transfer Money into and out of China?

When you just start life in China, you may want to get some money wired into the country or, if you’re a US citizen, use the eCard option referenced earlier to pull cash and then deposit it into your new account.

You can do a wire transfer of foreign currency from your home bank into your new Chinese account without restrictions or limits. (China loves it when you bring foreign currency into China!)

Quick Tip: Using a service like Transferwise, you can avoid bank wire fees and have your money converted and delivered to your Chinese bank account as Renminbi instead of foreign currency. I recommend you give this a try.

If you transfer foreign currency, it will remain as foreign currency in your Chinese account until you go to the bank and convert it to RMB. There is a limit on how much you can convert into RMB per person each year but it is rather high.

The main fees for this will likely be at your home bank as Chinese banks typically don’t charge for incoming wires.

To transfer money out of China is a bit more tricky. You can transfer out as much money as you want, as long as you can prove that it is earned income and you paid all taxes on it, or it is part of funds that your originally transferred into China from overseas.

If this sounds complicated…it is. I know many people whose money is stuck in China because the bank won’t accept their proof of earned income and taxes. Be careful here.

You can’t transfer out RMB directly, you first need to convert into US dollars or whatever foreign currency you need. In order to do that you need some paperwork, and you will probably get at least three red stamps on every paper by the time you finish the process. Again, unnecessarily complicated.

Here is what you probably need (I say probably because these requirements may change. Best to confirm with your bank ahead of time):

  • Bank card
  • Passport
  • Official income documentation from your employer
  • Certificate of your tax payment for that income (learn more about income taxes)
  • Original employment contract

Can you convert RMB to foreign currency without all this paperwork? Just with your passport, you may be able to convert up to 500 USD from RMB per day, but this rule can be interpreted differently by different banks or tellers. So you may not be able to convert any money without documentation.

But, as I mentioned earlier, you can use your Chinese bank card to withdraw foreign currency from your Chinese account when traveling to other countries.

Final Thoughts | Expat Banking in China

Hopefully this FAQ answer a lot of your questions about expat banking in China. It really all boils down to a few important points to consider as you plan your banking strategy overseas:

First, do you open a Chinese bank account or not? You don’t have to, but there are distinct advantages to going through the trouble of opening up your own bank account.

Second, how much money do you bring into China? This can be done in a number of different ways, including wiring from your bank, using TransferWise or even pulling cash from the eCard (US citizens only). Whatever you decide, only bring what you need, keeping in mind that it’s much harder to get money out of China than to bring it in.

Are there any other banking questions that haven’t been answered here? Let me know in the comments below and maybe I’ll add to this guide!

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