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 What is correct today may be outdated tomorrow.

China Expat Banking Guide FAQ

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).

Chinese currency known as Renminbi or RMBFor 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.

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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.

UnionPay card for foreigners

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 China logo

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!)

Use Transferwise to get money into ChinaQuick 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.

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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!


Comments

Money and Banking for Expats in China | FAQ — 52 Comments

  1. Hi, I don’t know if this is a silly question but is there a limit to how much cash I can deposit on my account? If I’ve earned money by giving private lessons or selling some furniture to friends or even playing games with friends and I suddenly find myself with say 50k rmb in cash, can I just put that in the bank? Is there a certain amount that will trigger an alarm and someone’s going to ask ‘where did you get this money your depositing and have you paid taxes on it?’
    I know my salary is taxed and payed into my bank account so of course no problem there but what if I just deposit a larger ammount?
    Thanks!

  2. Is it possible to transfer foreign currency (e.g. EUR, USD) from a foreign bank account outside of China onto a Chinese bank account which is FOREIGNER HELD and get the transfer amount automatically converted to RMB without the hassle of going to the bank office and personally taking care of the conversion administration at a teller?
    In other words, is it possible for a foreigner to maintain a Chinese RMB bank account and supply it with RMB after he leaves the country and expat life?

    • Good question. I’m under the impression that you have to go do the conversion every time. But maybe you can talk to the bank manager and set something up. Good luck! Please share if you found a solution.

  3. I do not have a comment at the moment. I have a question.

    I am a U.S. citizen. My wife is Chinese with a Permanent Residenct Card in the U.S.

    In two years (jan-mar 2020), we plan to move to China and live there in our retirement, without returning to the U.S. My wife has given me nearly 20 years of her life in the U.S. and I intend to return her devottion so she can experience the growth of her grandchildren.

    So, my questions are:

    We will retire with only U.S. Social Security benefits.

    Are there restrictions in transferring from the Social Security Administration directly to a bank in China?

    Which U.S. banks conduct business in Nanning City, PRC?

    Obviously, I’ll be checking transfers out with the Social Security Administration, but I am curious quicker than I suppose I should be.

  4. This has been helpful. I’m here studying in China and I was wondering if you can give me some information on opening a savings account. Is that a possibility as a foreign student? If so, how do I go about it? If not, what ways do you suggest on saving money and gaining some form of interest. I’ve noticed here that money goes quickly. Break 100yuan To buy 10yuan 炒饭 and you’ve literally spent it all. Any tips on saving money here in china would be greatly appreciated too.

    • Jennipher, with a longer term visa you should be able to open a bank account in China, including a savings account. Interest rates are high compared to other some other countries, but of course inflation and currency exchange rate changes have to be taken into account. The best way to save, in China and anywhere, is to put money into savings right after you get paid, instead of waiting if there is anything left at the end of the month. Especially for China, local products are usually cheaper than international brands and much cheaper than imported products.

  5. In regards to opening a bank account in China… I was born in HK but a U.S. citizen with a 5 yrs visa. Is that all I need? I heard I need to get HK ID card and other credentials as well. True?

  6. Hi. Got so many useful info, thanks. Now if you are kind enough, I need another info. I am an expat and working in China for a company which is from abroad . My company sends my salary to my BOC account (from out side China), and it is deposited as ‘spot purchase’ dollars. When I withdraw RMB from bank, they take some charge. This is understandable. But, recently I wanted to send some US dollars back to my country. They agreed on that, charged transfer fee, which was natural. But what seemed wired, that they charged conversion fee . That means, I have to sell US dollars to buy RMB and then conver RMB again to US Dollar. Is it the rule? Or, they are just making extra money from me?

  7. Hello, my son has just moved form Sydney to China to attend university. Last week he opened a Bank Of China DEBIT CARD. The card has 19 numbers on it. Can you tell me if this is his account number? He was not given any other numbers. I need to transfer money into his account from an Australian account and I need to know if this is the account number that I should use? Also, if I do transfer money into this account will it be in Australian dollars & then need to be converted into Chinese currency?

    • I’m not sure the the card number is the account number. Your son should ask the bank for international wire instructions to transfer the money. He will receive the money is Australian dollars and need to convert those.

    • My son has done the same thing – the account number is definitely 19 digits long so that probably is his acccount number that you can see on his card. My son got one piece of paper written in Chinese but that also had a 19 digit number on it so that’s what we are assumming is his account number. At least that’s the one we have used to do a bank transfer into! Just waiting to hear if it’s hit the account as it takes about 5 days apparently.

  8. I have a question I am hoping that someone can answer.

    Up until July 2017 I was living and working in China. I banked my salary with the Agricultural Bank of China (ABC).

    I have since left China to live and work in Thailand where I was able withdraw money using the ABC ATM card up until yesterday.
    I still have funds in the account that I can’t withdraw because it is stating that I have exceeded my limit.
    After totalling my withdrawals for the last month it totals at 40k RMB.

    My question is…

    Is there a fixed cash overseas withdrawal limit with banks in China?

    I have read that there is a $5000 per month limit but it doesn’t state when the month ends or indeed begins?

    Any advice would be most welcome.

  9. 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?

  10. Please help! Im in the Philippines and tried to withdraw from my China Construction Bank atm to any bank that has Unionpay symbol. I tried almost 10 banks but I cannot withdraw.
    I called the customer service of CCB and ask if there is a problem in my card. They said that there is none and probably atm machines cannot just read the atm chips.

    Can you suggest an atm where I could use my card? 🙁 Please help..

  11. 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!!

  12. 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.

  13. 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

  14. 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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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!

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

  21. 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.

  22. 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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