Expat Banking FAQ – Money and Banking for Expats in China

In this FAQ I try to answer the most common questions about expat banking in China, 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 What is correct today may be outdated tomorrow. (Check my Site Policies for more info.)

This post originally published in 2013, last update May 2017.

Cash or Plastic?

Expat Banking in ChinaIn China cash used to rule for everyday life. However, in recent years WeChat Wallet 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.

Bank cards, similar to American debit cards, can still often be used, e.g. in supermarkets and many restaurants.

International credit cards are often accepted but not as widely as local Chinese credit cards. Your chances are higher with Visa/MasterCard than with AmEx. Chinese credit cards are more difficult to get as a foreigner but it is not impossible.

For cash, the biggest bill is 100 RMB, about 15 USD or 13 EUR (as of May 2017). RMB is short for Renminbi, the name of the Chinese currency. One unit is called yuán 元 or, in more colloquial terms, kuài. Other notes are 50, 20, 10, 5 and 1 RMB. Units smaller than 1 kuai are called máo 毛 and fēn 分 and can be small notes or coins.

Can you access money from a foreign account?

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.

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.

Do you really need a Chinese bank account?

Most likely, yes.

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

Another big reason is the increase of apps and in-app features for mobile payment, like WeChat Wallet or Didi Dache for taxis. To use those apps you need a local bank account.

Can foreigners 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. Currently it still seems possible to shop around different banks and find one to open an account with a shorter visa but this may change.

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. You will find ATM’s and branches for these all over the city.

You can also find international banks in China, for example Citibank and HSBC.

Which Chinese bank should I chose?

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

  • Bigger banks have a better network across the country, important if you plan to travel
  • ATM and branch locations convenient to your work or home
  • Online banking capabilities (not all banks offer this in English)
  • Other convenience factors, e.g. ability to pay utilities, English speaking staff
  • Potential relationship with your domestic bank to reduce fees

How do I open a Chinese bank account?

You have to bring your passport with a valid visa of at least 1 full year and an initial deposit.

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 only 4 digits as in the US or Europe. You will only get one bank card for a regular account. Joint accounts for couples uncommon and often impossible.

The bank card is also a debit/ATM card and should have a Union Pay 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. But 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 you withdraw?

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.

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 you 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.

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?

A popular method to make a payment 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.

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. You can do a wire transfer of foreign currency from your home bank into your new Chinese account without restrictions or limits.

The foreign currency 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.

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.

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.

Image Credit: Keattikorn / freedigitalphotos.net


Comments

Expat Banking FAQ – Money and Banking for Expats in China — 34 Comments

  1. Hi,

    I’m Italian, I live in China and my salary is credit on my Italian bank account. I use to transfer money from Italian bank to my chinese Bank account, then convert from EUR in RMB.
    What is the yearly limit per person to convert EUR in RMB? (Bank of China don’t want convert my EUR on my chinese account because they say I reached the max limit of 50.000 USD).

    • Honestly, I don’t know the limit. Usually people are concerned about converting from RMB into other currencies. You might want to ask in a different bank. It might help to have some official documentation from your employer for the contract in China and the pay in Italy. Or maybe have a different account for a family member?

  2. Hi I have been living in China up until a month a ago when I travelled to China on my last day before returning to the UK an ATM swallowed my Chinese card that had my wages in. Can anyone please advise how I can gain access to this money from the UK? I have the long number on my card if that would be of any help? Many thanks!!

  3. What if I just live in China, I just opened an ICBC debit card account, I’m about to start working online and the money that is going to be sent is going to be in USD, will there be an issue if I just say to the employer this is the card number, can I receive money freely? Will the employer be charged, or is it fine just like that?

    • You could bypass the Chinese banks entirely and get a US ATM card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees and ATM fees, like the Schwab Bank card. You can withdraw directly from your US bank account at ATMs in China.
      Good luck with working online in China. You’ll need a good VPN and a lot of patience.

  4. So if I receive US dollars from overseas, I can withdraw it out of China without any problems? or it has to be converted to Chinese yuan?

    • I’m not sure I understand your question Adam. If you receive US Dollars from overseas and have a dual currency account, you can transfer those again out of China with the documentation that shows it came from overseas. You will always need some kind of official documentation for transfers out of China, so keep the incoming wire docs. Also check with the bank what they require. If you want to withdraw the money in China, I think you need to convert it to CNY first.

      • I mean I am living in China, and I am expecting money coming to my bank account soon. meanwhile i am heading to southeast Asia for holidays, I was just wondering if I can withdraw that money abroad. And what if I got money sent in USD and I don’t have dual currency account?

        • You can certainly use a Chinese bank card to withdraw money at an ATM outside of China. Look for the UnionPay symbol (most Chinese cards have UP) listed at the ATM. But I don’t know if you can withdraw from USD in your account, that are not converted to RMB. Sorry

  5. Have just come across this site and find it very helpful.
    I have retired here and have recently been required to inform UK banking institutions on my local income tax arrangements under new global information Interchange agreements. One requirement is to provide a income tax reference number in your country of residence.
    Can anyone tell me how income tax laws apply to retired foreigners, if at all.

    • Thank you Peter!
      I’m somewhat familiar with US tax but not with UK requirements. I’m also not aware of a general income tax reference number in China, that everyone has. I hope someone else here can help you out. Best of luck!

    • I don’t know for sure but my guess is that you need to prove that all taxes in China have been paid on the money before you can wire it out of the country. I would suggest to speak to a manager at your bank to see what paperwork they would require.

  6. Hi. I’ve just recently moved to Beijing as a Foreign Language Teacher and have two credit cards, Bank of America VISA with no pin currently and a Discover Card. I don’t want to convert all my money yet to rmb since the company I will be working for will be helping me set up a bank account in a week for my salary. I’ve read on other sites that many chip cards are being declined now. Is that true? if not what should I tell the cashier that the card is on their partnership? Thank you for any help at all>

    • Bank of America is in the same Global ATM Alliance as China Construction Bank CCB, so you should be able to use your card at their ATM, but you would need a PIN.
      Another good option is to have a Charles Schwab Investor Checking Account. With their debit card you can withdraw money from all foreign ATMs and Schwab reimburses the ATM fee. In addition, they have no foreign transaction fees.

  7. I have a savings account in Agriculture Bank of China as a foreigner. Can anyone suggest how much RMB can be deposited in my account? Is there any limitation for deposit in my account. As per my business nature, I get sales commission from Chinese companies and I want it to be deposited in my ABC account. So, is there any limitation for deposit and withdrawal in my account?

    Waiting for suggestions.

    • I don’t think there is a limit on how much you can deposit into your Chinese account. There are limits on withdrawals and on transferring money out of China though.

  8. Can my military pension / social security be sent Direct Deposit to the Los Angeles California branch of Bank of China for posting to my account in U.S. Dollars? Will I then be able to go into my local branch each month to withdraw funds in person. I will be setting up an account with Bank of China’s Phnom Penh Branch in Cambodia. Sorry I know you are in China and not Cambodia but everything should be the same except where I will be picking the funds up from….Thanks.

    • I’m sorry James but I have no idea if the direct deposit is possible. In China, going to a local branch often involves long wait times. Better to withdraw cash with a bank card of the Chinese account. I don’t know how the situation is in Cambodia.

  9. Wire Transfers are a royal pain in the butt. So is Western Union –only a few of the larger bank branches will do it. The most convenient way I’ve found to quickly transfer money is to open a Chinese Paypal account with a Chinese bank. There are four main banks PayPal deals with. Make sure their atm has English options before you open the account. Then you can transfer up to $500 per day from you Chinese PayPal to your Paypal account back in North America or Europe, and into your bank accounts. Convenient because you can do it all online. The only catch is that it costs about 4% to do it, which is not great.

    • Hello Craig.

      I’ve read your comment with great interest as I am looking into how to easily transfer part of my Chinese income to Europe every month. You mentioned a Chinese paypal account and another one in Europe, however can you have 2 separate Paypal accounts ; aren’t they linked to an e-mail address or would you use two separate e-mail addresses instead?

      Thanks!

      • You can totally have 2 email addresses linked to PayPal. I’ve got three. Craig is right, you can do that, but there’s no maximum in terms of transferring. Just select “send/receive payment” on your chinese PayPal account, and you’re good to go. They jack up the exchange rate to account for their exchange fees AND charge 4%, so it is really expensive. But if you’re doing 500 at a time, it’s identically expensive to going to the bank and it saves the hassle!

  10. Hi, I would like to sell some used furnitures, do you know of any good website that buy & sell 2nd hand furnitures in Beijing?

    Regards,
    Maybelyn

    • To withdraw dollars in China from a Chinese account, you first have to convert RMB into dollar. I think for that you need a passport.

  11. I will need to transfer a significant amount of my earned Chinese income to my credit union in the states each month.. I need to pay bills for my family that is not coming to Asia.. is this easily done? How? Help! Getting nervous .. leaving in one month!

    • My understanding is that you can convert up to 50,000 USD per year from RMB to foreign currency and then wire the money. For that you need a dual currency account at bank in China. To transfer larger sums out of China you have to prove that you paid your taxes on the income, which you can do with the yearly tax document. But that is annually, after the end of the text year. You may be able to negotiate with your company to pay a portion of your monthly salary directly into a non-Chinese account, where it is easier to move internationally. You can also use a Chinese bank card to withdraw money from a Chinese bank account at international ATMs. Just make sure that the card has the Union Pay logo. As I said, this is my understanding but I’m not a financial or legal professional.

  12. so this means even with proper proof and paperwork, a foreigner can only convert and remit no more than USD 50,000 per annum?

    • You can convert more than 50k USD as long as you have the proper paperwork, e.g. showing that as your income and proof that you paid China taxes on it.

  13. Hello, is there anyone that knows how much is possible to withdraw in eur or usd currency per year per person. I’m going to open an account in china and I think this is the faster way to bring out money when I will transfer back to Europe.

    Thanks

    Matteo

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