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 What is correct today may be outdated tomorrow.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?
In 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
- 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.
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