Banks, bank accounts and payments


For many years, China had been a cash-based economy. Even today, many people don’t have bank accounts, chequebooks or credit cards, and even transactions such as salary payments are often still handled in cash.

Due to the rapid economic growth, however, the financial system is changing quickly, and bank accounts, credit cards, loans and mortgages are quickly gaining popularity. Your own need of financial services will depend on your personal and living situation , so do your research and plan accordingly.

Opening a bank account in China

Local banks dominate in China, though a few western institutions like HSBC and Citibank have set up branches recently. Whether or not you should open a bank account in China depends on how you’re paid (many employers are paid in cash) and how you plan to manage your cash flow.

Opening a bank account in local currency is fairly straightforward. You simply bring your passport with a valid visa and some proof of address to the bank of your choice (either a Chinese bank or the branch of a foreign bank) and fill out the forms for opening your account.

The Bank of China and CITIC Industrial Bank provide personal and corporate banking facilities for expatriates in China, as do the two main foreign banks, HSBC and Standard and Chartered. The main branches of China's other banks may also provide such services, but their banking facilities are likely to be more limited.

Banking hours are usually from 9 am to 4 pm or 5 pm on Mondays to Fridays, but some close for an hour from 12 noon to 1 pm. If you need to visit the bank, allow plenty of time, as the queues can be long and slow moving. If you’re going at lunch time, it’s often best to grab a queue ticket and then have your meal. By the time you’ve finished, it should be your turn.

Debit cards and ATMs in China

Most banks will provide you with a debit card when you open a Chinese account. There is a wide network of ATMs throughout China's main cities, with ATM facilities including cash withdrawals, transfers, balance enquiries and chequebook or statement requests. If you have a foreign Visa ATM card or a card that is compatible with the Maestro system, this will probably work as well. Note that most ATMs have limits of US$ 100-500 per transaction and that fees can be quite high, especially if you use ATMs from banks other than your own.

Credit cards and checks in China

Credit cards and cheques are not yet very widespread in China. They’re useful for on-line shopping, booking tickets and paying at major hotels or international restaurants, but they won’t serve you much on the everyday street economy of China. Be prepared to walk around with a lot of cash instead.

Cheques are generally not accepted as form of payment in China. Foreign cheques are often not accepted by banks unless you leave some form of collateral. Also, Chinese banks will normally only deposit the funds in your account once they’ve received the payment from the bank that issued the cheque (which can take up to a month). If you receive financial transfers from your home country, cheques are a very inefficient way to do so and you should look into some other option for the money transfers.

Transferring money to China

You can wire money from just about every country to China, but due to the high transfer fees, it is usually cheaper to deposit the money in a foreign account and withdraw it from that account via the ATMs in China. If you want to transfer money directly to China in a quick and efficient way, you can do so by using a money transfer service like Western Union. Be aware, however, that the fees for these services are usually quite high, so you might want to use them only in emergencies or if you don’t have any other options.

Further reading

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