I can haz international funds?

After seven years and change in China it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that the purpose of the Chinese banking system is to keep you from doing anything useful with your money. It is widely said that the Railway Ministry in China is best surviving example of a reactionary Communist bureaucracy, and after recent events it’s hard to argue with that. But in my experience the big, state-owned banks are giving the Railway bureaucrats a run for their money.

Many people speak in (relatively) glowing terms of the service provided by some of the newer commercial banks, such as China Merchants Bank or Bank of Communications. I have no experience with that, because both of the companies I have worked for in China have limited my options for paycheck deposit to two of the “big four” state banks (the ones Gordon Chang is always telling people are about to implode). Yes, I suppose I could open an account at one of the smaller banks and then move my paycheck every month, but the thought of having any more Chinese bank accounts than I absolutely need makes my liver spasm. Due to a bank switch by my old company, my year in Shanghai, the fact that Chinese banks don’t actually function in any recognized sense of the word “nationally,” and their conviction that joint accounts are some kind of rightist plot,  I’ve already left a daisy-chain of zombie accounts scattered across the country. Each has about RMB2 in it and no doubt at least one will be used to hijack my identity at some point in the future.

I would bulldoze a field of spaniel puppies and nursery schoolgirls in fairy costumes to avoid a trip to the bank. Every trip to a big, state-owned bank is like the scene from the end of Beetlejuice where Michael Keaton is in the waiting room for hell with a ten-digit ticket while they serve number 14. It’s not so much the magnitude of the numbers as the glacial pace of the transactions. Teller window service numbers increment like Neptunian orbits – about one a century. If there are even two windows serving general business it’s your lucky day, and every transaction seems to involve a mortgage application in octuplicate and the structuring of some kind of derivative for a grandmother who speaks only a Guangxi provincial dialect, or the hand-counting of RMB100,000 in cash pulled from a man-bag. Surely no simple, retail banking transaction could take a freaking hour.

But of course it could. I myself have been the jerk at the window on many an occasion, while some pensioner laotou at the head of the line pisses and moans loudly about drag-ass foreigners tying up the teller windows with their sketchy international transactions. It’s not that I want the transaction to take forever. I have much better things to be doing than sitting at a teller window, like pulling out my own toenails with needlenose pliers or eating a sandwich made of Wonder Bread and used crankcase grease. But the system moves at the pace it moves at, which is roughly the same pace as continental drift. You know how in 150 million years the San Francisco Bay Area will be in Alaska? That’s the exact same time your transaction will be complete.

Given that using the ATM aside there is no such thing as a simple transaction at a Chinese bank, by far the most confounding thing I’ve had to do is to change large amounts of renminbi into foreign currency. Almost six years ago the CFO of my previous employer sat me down and explained that it would be in my best interest to switch my then US dollar salary into renminbi. Damn if he wasn’t right about that, because in the intervening years the renminbi has kicked the S&P500′s ass as an investment. In US dollar terms I’ve made out nicely since the renminbi started to appreciate back in ’05. Unfortunately my long-term savings currency is the Singapore dollar, which is basically flat in RMB terms, but I’m still killing it on the US dollar. Someday when I’m deported from the continent of Asia for writing uppity blogs that will come in useful.

The catch, of course, is that the renminbi isn’t freely convertible. Oh, sure, it’s nominally convertible, but only in the same sense that nominally I could become a Navy SEAL. The process is designed to be painful enough to discourage me from actually trying in order to save everyone the trouble and embarrassment of watching me fail miserably, or die. That’s why over the past five years I have subjected myself to this process a grand total of twice. The last time was in 2009. The two years since then had both enabled me to accumulate a fair wad of renminbi savings and had dulled my memory of events just enough for trying a conversion to seem reasonable again.

A sensible man suggested that I leave everything in renminbi. After all, the renminbi is still appreciating in US dollar terms, and it seems unlikely that the government will allow any of the big four banks to submarine. But the problem is that as useful as the renminbi is for settling bills in China (where a zero is added to my rent approximately every six months), it is completely illiquid as far as the rest of the world goes. Should I have a sudden need for money overseas, my accumulated renminbi savings in China would be worth about as much as a cargo container full of used cat litter. Interesting perhaps, but hard to pass off as legal tender. And the only thing more horrifying than trying a large-scale personal currency conversion in China is trying a large-scale personal currency conversion in China in a hurry.

I set about gathering the necessary documentation. This included a chopped copy of my work contract, a chopped income statement from my company indicating how much I had been paid in the period covering the income I wished to exchange, and a receipt from the personal income tax office serving my employer that certified the payment of taxes assessed on the income for that period. Plus my passport with current visa and my employment permit (a small, passport-like booklet), which, although I am officially required to carry it at all times, has never been used for any other purpose in all my years in China.

My first attempt was made at my bank branch in Wangjing. It ended in crushing failure when, after waiting an hour to be served, the bank informed me that my documentation would permit me to remit only 15% of the amount I actually wanted to send. Some squinting at the forms revealed that my HR department had procured the tax receipts for only a part of my tenure with the company, something I had somehow missed.

There was, of course, a complexity. Since joining Motorola the company had split, and I had been employed by two different corporate entities in my time there. This required another round of documentation wrangling as I gathered the various contractual addenda reflecting my transfer and a new and more comprehensive set of tax receipts. Then, just to be safe and because the income I wanted to remit extended far enough back, I decided it would be sensible to also assemble the documentation from my previous job. I had most of this from my previous remittance in 2009, but I needed updated tax receipts. So I went to down to Oriental Plaza with my identification and contracts to get the receipts from the appropriate office.

There was, of course, another complexity. I discovered that somehow the Oriental Plaza personal income tax bureau had a typo in my name, listing me as Dillon W. Moss instead of the correct Diccon W. Moss. Part of me wanted to laugh, as the Chinese tax bureau had suddenly transported me back to junior high-school, where the following was a typical first-roll-call-of-the-year experience:

Teacher: Janet Martinez?
Janet: Here!
Teacher: Shawn Meacham?
Shawn: Here!
Teacher (hesitantly): Um. Uh. Dillon? Dillon Moss?
Me: It’s Diccon.
Teacher (incredulous): Deacon?
Me: Diccon. Short “i”.
Teacher: “Diccon?”
Me: Yeah.
Teacher: Diccon William Moss?
Me (to the sound of tittering from other students): Yeah.
Teacher: Oh. (Pause.) Are you sure?

Repeat in next class, and so on. That’s why I started using my middle name.

I get why a junior high teacher in Westwood would assume that “Diccon” is a typo for “Dillon”, but how would a Chinese person know that “Diccon” is unusual any more than a typical American would know that 张艺谋 is a real Chinese name and 草泥马 is a rude pun? It would have been funny except I knew from experience that the bank would deny me for so much as a molecule out of place on my paperwork –This molecule is void! No cash for you! NEXT!–, let alone a suspicious misspelling of my name that might indicate fraud or attempted financing of international terrorism.

Fixing my name in the tax records required nothing so simple as me showing up with my ID or some other appropriate documentation. Instead, my prior employer had to re-file all the paperwork from the period covered with my correct name. This took a month, during which I entertained dark visions of catastrophe detonating my Chinese savings. It wasn’t any more likely then than it was the prior two years, but that’s how the neurotic mind works. Now I can’t move my money at all? Weimar Republic, here we come!

 Eventually I got the corrected forms. In the end this is what I took to the bank:

  • Three chopped employment contracts
  • Two chopped income statements
  • Five tax bureau receipts covering different time periods and corporate entities
  • My savings passbook (they still use those here)
  • My passport (required for basically every transaction at a Chinese bank)
  • My employment permit
  • Two bank cards (just to be sure…)

I had everything in a big manila envelope that I carried around clutched to my chest like a teenage schoolgirl. I felt like I was applying for citizenship.

This system is needlessly complex. Many foreigners I know have no idea how to exchange large amounts of currency and no two expats I polled gave me the same verdict on the current state of requirements for buying large amounts foreign currency with legitimate income. Indeed, some foreigners I know have given up altogether and are simply waiting for China to open its capital account or have taken to flying cash out of the country (risky) and using money changers on the far end. Did you know that a money changer in Singapore will exchange 200,000 RMB for you if you give him a day’s notice? Now you do.

The system is so complex that even the bank seems to wrestle with it. At the Oriental Plaza branch of my bank, where I finally completed the transaction, there were several alarming huddles behind the counter where tellers and managers conferred about the paperwork. I am usually pretty good at handling bank transactions in Chinese, but this time I’d brought a Chinese friend along just in case. If there is one thing that I know can break my Chinese it’s an unexpected clot of bank bureaucracy. I kept looking at her and asking, “Should I worry now?” She comforted me by saying, “Maybe. It’s hard to tell.”

In the end they chopped all my applications for purchasing foreign currency and wiring it to Singapore and did that worrying thing where they bulldog-clip your completed paperwork together and toss it on a huge stack of similar paperwork. This the signal for you to depart and, if you’re me, compulsively check your online banking to see if the money appears at the far end, or if rats ate the paperwork before the data-entry trolls put it into the Babbage engine in the bank’s basement. 48 hours later, the correct amount of Singapore dollars appeared in my bank in Singapore. The whole process had taken three months to complete. I felt like running through the streets naked except for a party hat and an open bottle of Veuve Cliquot, but foreigners have been deported for much less so I settled for deep sigh of relief.

But not too deep. In 2013 I’ll have to do it again.

Note: The week I completed that transaction was a good one for the resolution of long-standing financial problems. I also received a refund check from the IRS for several thousand dollars following the incorrect assessment of extra taxes from 2009. It took me 13 months to get that check. But at least, unlike a Chinese bank account, the IRS paid a reasonable interest rate on the money.

I can haz international funds?

Really?

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43 Responses to I can haz international funds?

  1. jen says:

    Great Post. We had similar experiences, but with the additional steps of:
    1) Going to our home branch, only to be told that international transfers were only handled by the main branch in Wangfujing
    2) Going to the main branch in Wangfujing (1 1/2-2 hours by car) to be told that our home branch was wrong and these international bank-to-bank wire transfers can only be handled by your home branch
    3) Going to the Lido branch of our Hong Kong Bank, which technically only serves high rollers but they were willing to help us in our desperation. After a good laugh over our go around with a “countryside” bank (I was still under the assumption we lived in a city until that point), they told us exactly what forms our home bank needed to use to complete the transaction. Yes, the HK bank knew better the systems of the “Big Four” Chinese bank than the tellers.
    4) Return to “Countryside” branch, armed with Knowledge! Is Power! and after another two hours (seated, though), successfully moved the maximum amount to HK bank. The next day, within minutes, made secure transfers ONLINE from HK to our US banks.

  2. ge says:

    haha jesus, no wonder you were ecstatic when you tweeted, it is freakin’ TEDIOUS!! good to hear it went through though.

  3. Shannon says:

    Or you can take the easy route — as I and many, many other expats do — and simply spend every single fen you earn.

    RMB “savings”?!? Just you being able to say that phrase drops my sympathy with your banking odyssey to roughly zero.

    Just kidding. Kinda. ;-)

    At least you’re not dealing with incoming WOFE funds denominated in foreign currencies prior to 2010. Back in them there olden days the — well let’s just say a big state-owned bank — would (totally illegally) simply expropriate the money for an indeterminable period to play the short term money-market with it.

    Not kidding. Not at all.

  4. Will says:

    @shannon – Actually, on the subject of spending every fen I earn, no joke. I used to buy all my big ticket items, like new computers, overseas. One product of this experience is that I’ve resolved to buy such things here so that I don’t use my foreign currency any more than I have to. Air tickets, too. Used to book through airline websites using overseas credit cards. Probably through local agents now. Yes, I realize this is surrendering to the government’s agenda, but what the hell. Whatever minimizes my paperwork.

  5. Terence says:

    Now I realize that you’re probably dealing in much larger amounts than I – but even for tens of thousands of RMB, I have used the Uyghurs outside of the Bank of China and gotten better than state rate. Of course then I end up with more USD cash in my pocket than I’ve ever had in my life (enough to buy a used economy car) and I’m nervous like an MIT student on his way to Las Vegas to count blackjack cards.

  6. Will says:

    @Terence: I’ve thought about it, but that still leaves me with the problem of either having to get a brick of dollars out of the country (carry on, or check through? Discuss…), or re-depositing the dollars into the bank and trying to wire it out. Not sure how the big banks will react if I walk up with a shoebox full of black market dollars and a grin. But if I saw me do that, I’d probably call the cops on myself.

  7. David says:

    Sounds like your employer won’t let you have two employment contracts – a China one and overseas. That sucks.

    Another option – as far as I know Chinese passport holders are allowed to change $50,000 a year into foreign currency so get a local to help. Don’t think they care too much about foreign currency been carried out, but they don’t like people carrying lot’s of RMB out. A friend of mine got caught carrying about RMB150,000 to HK and was fined 10% of the total amount.

  8. Shannon says:

    David wrote: ” A friend of mine got caught carrying about RMB150,000 to HK and was fined 10% of the total amount.”

    Jeez! Is that all!? I was imagining confiscation or worse. For 10%, I think the risk becomes *far* less.

  9. Marian Rosenberg says:

    @Shannon

    I am dealing with incoming WOFE funds in foreign currency.

    After 6 weeks the bank eventually sent the money back to the US and started the transaction over from scratch but only after I found the US bank’s Guangzhou phone number so they could confirm that the form the Chinese bank wanted really really honestly didn’t exist and never had existed and that the lack of the existence of such a form made it quite impossible to fill it out.

    The US bank’s Guangzhou office also had to explain to the Chinese bank how to send my money back.

    And once my money was back in the States, I needed to show them the US bank’s bank statement to prove that:
    a) they still charged me a transaction fee
    b) the number was larger than they thought

    In the end they did refund me for the transaction fee but I’m more than slightly disturbed that my refund happened in the branch manager’s office, off camera, with no forms or paperwork of any kind, and came out of her wallet. Not that I’m going to claim that I was never refunded or anything sleazy like that but I’ve got to wonder whose salary (or what slush pile) my fee is coming out of. It also means that there is no official recognition that this branch messed up super big.

  10. SIDNEY says:

    if you are really desperate you can always take the Macau route .. I have not tried it before but you can get a “gambling account” with the Wynn casino and deposit money there.. then you can freely transfer it between the Wynn Macau and the Wynn Vegas .. doesnt matter how big the amounts are aslong as you can proof the source of the money

    you can even do all of this without breaking any Chinese laws ..

    - you have lots of RMBs in Chinese bank account
    - none of the money is “illegal” / you paid tax on all of it
    - clear out your account
    - you have multiple entry visa
    - go to Zhuhai
    - cross the border holding the maximum RMB cash amount allowed
    - deposit money in Wynn casino “gambling acount”
    - cross the border every day for a week or aslong as it takes

    people are used to LARGE cash amounts in Macau .. its all ok over there

    it might sound like impossible to do if you have truely large amounts .. but both Zhuhai and Macau are very nice cities , just take a two week holiday here and cross the border each day

  11. Frank Fomby says:

    Edutainment at it’s finest Will. While still living in China I took a 14 month contract in Malaysia. When they transferred me money, I would go stand in line at UMB to receive my money, and generally got 100% in ringgit (RM). Not thinking about it, I booked a week stay in Bangkok (never again, Phuket is my Thailand destination) and flew over. I was shocked, SHOCKED that the hotel would not take RM or RMB… So 8pm on a Sunday, and no local currency or non RMB bank cards. Luckily, a friend of a friend ran a bar on 20th Soy nearby. He poured me a beer and disappeared with 5000 of my RM. He returned about 20 minutes later with a printed page from a currency exchange website, and the exact amount in Thai baht. He took nothing off the top for the transaction. Land of a thousand smiles indeed.

  12. Matt O says:

    Hey Will,

    I can’t speak for Singapore, but if you’re trying to move money to the States, as long as you keep are carrying less than $10,000, then you don’t have to claim it. You’ll get a few looks at your Stateside bank, but it’s doable (and as far as I can tell, completely legal). Space this out over a couple family visits and voila… You do have to accept the fact that you will be carrying a wad of cash in a traveler’s money belt, but I’m fairly certain that pickpockets do not abound on trans-pacific flights.

    Also, I never once changed money through the Bank of China. I accompanied a friend who was doing that early on and the experience, despite being entirely vicarious, was painful enough that I couldn’t fathom going through it myself. I suggest you find a…*ahem*…private money changer who’s reliable and stick with him/her. I changed somewhere between $20k and $25k USD through the guy I used before I left (spaced out over a couple years). All bills were legit and accepted on the US side.

  13. Homer says:

    So, in your opinion what is the least hassle bank in China? Perhaps a HK bank is better? I recently started working for a medium size factory and need to open a bank account. I also should be getting salary soon. I need to be able to transfer money back to the States if need be. I guess I am going to have to double check and make sure that this place can provide all the above documents. Nothing is easy here is it..

  14. Shannon says:

    @Marian Rosenberg

    My thoughts are with you. Those transactions can be absolute hell. My hair went salt’n'pepper over 2006-2009, and I blame the WOFE incomings that I was doing once a quarter.

    I once, for shits and giggles, demanded to see the local bank’s internal receipt paperwork (foreign banks will give you this if you ask) and was told that such paperwork was a “commercial secret in China”.

    So the computer system confirming that you’ve received *my* money that *I* have sent you — and I have here in my hand the internal sending paperwork from the foreign bank — is a “secret” eh? Riiiiiiiight. Actually, we both know that it’s illegal under the international banking rules you’ve signed up to to deny me access to that paperwork, and we both know that the bank received the money days ago, but we also both know that there’s no chance in hell that you’re going to admit either of these things.

    Good luck!

  15. Mike Cormack says:

    Great post. I’ve been pondering this issue because my wife insists we save and I’m wondering how to get the funds out of China towards buying a house in Scotland. Now I find it’s even more complicated than I anticipated…!

  16. Marian Rosenberg says:

    @Shannon

    When the money came back into China this time, it still took another 3 hours of bank time for it to hit my account. Of course, I had to be there throughout the whole process in case something needed to be signed or filled out or double checked or translated.

    My personal favorite was when I was handed a form that already had my essentials printed out (company name, account number, originating account holder’s name, etc…) and was asked to write ALL THE SAME INFORMATION by hand underneath the printing and sign it.

    -M

  17. FOARP says:

    The first time I had to send money home it literally took me a whole day being ping-ponged between branches of the same bank (BoC), standing in queue (always, ALWAYS with someone jumping the line), doing and re-doing forms (“here’s a mistake, you’ll have to re-do the whole three-page form”), but I got it done.

    Having gone through all that, I thought that things would be much easier the second time. WRONG! I had all the same paper-work that I had used before, I was at the same branch, talking to the same people, transfering a similar amount of money to the same account, but suddenly they were insisting that I could only transfer as much money out of the country as I had paid in taxes, no more. Since this was in Shenzhen back when people were still paying 8% tax, obviously no amount of tax receipts would have mollified the staff there – so what could I do?

    I argued with them. I then called up a friend of mine who worked for another bank, and she argued with them. I came back the next day with a friend of mine who argued with them. I then argued with them some more. In all I spent three days arguing with the staff there, but the story (which everyone I knew insisted was false) remained the same – I couldn’t transfer more money out of the country than I had paid in tax.

    I then made one call to someone I knew who worked in the accounting department at the company I worked for – a major customer of this particular bank -asking him to confirm what the people at the bank were saying. Funnily enough, the next day I received a phone-call from the bank-manager saying that he was very sorry for the inconvenience, and that a car would come from the bank to pick me up so they could sort things out for me. I was taken directly to the Bank’s VIP room, where the transaction took about ten minutes – no more.

    Now , I hate this kind of queue-jumping through using connections, and, even more, I hate troubling colleagues with my private affairs, but the lesson I learned from this is that things could be sorted out quickly if people simply knew their jobs and didn’t have such a bad attitude about confirming whether what they though was correct actually was.

  18. ChinaMatt says:

    This brings back memories that will require therapy.

    Fortunately, I never had to exchange large sums of money. When I did exchange money for my vacation to the US and my move back, my wife went to the bank. All she needed was her ID card, Chinese passport, and single form filled out–no questions asked.

    And for some reason, banks in the US are getting to be almost as maddening. Or maybe it’s just my neighborhood.

  19. Marian Rosenberg says:

    @FOARP

    I have a shade less than USD 6000 already deposited in a personal banking account at a Chinese bank that also needs to be transferred into my WOFE’s minimum registered capital account.

    Bank says not possible to do this transfer, you should withdraw it in cash and go make the deposit that way.

    Sorry – but the reason the money is in my personal account is because minimum registered capital accounts can’t accept cash deposits.

    Bank says but we’ll have to exchange your dollars for renminbi before we can put them in the account.

    Sorry – but the account on the other end is ALSO a dollar account.

    Bank says not possible, you should withdraw it in cash etc… etc…

    Sorry – but the leader at the Hainan Office of the Foreign Exchange Bureau of the Treasure Department whose mobile phone number I can give you if you want TOLD ME that this was how to do it…

    Bank says “let me talk to my manager”

    (five minute huddle later)

    Okay, no problem … you just need to fill out this form…

  20. richard says:

    Memories of a post I wrote in 2003, when it was even harder to transfer money out of China:

    I had an awful day today. A classically bad day. At one point I was sure I was going to simply resign and go home. Home, as in America. And why was my day so bad? Because I had to go to the bank, because I need to get money wired to America to pay my mortgage there. Only the banks in Beijing don’t like people trading RMB, the currency of the PRC, for US dollars. It means less money will be spent here in China. They like to keep the money here, as RMB, and they are masterful at erecting every conceivable obstacle to letting you change RMB and spend it in another country. It’s very easy to take US money and put it into a bank in China. But oh, is it hard getting it out, at least as dollars.

    The bottom line is that I simply could not do it. I failed. I thank God I recognized several weeks ago that this could become a huge headache for me, and my company has agreed to pay my salary directly into my not-in-China bank account starting February 1. I won’t go into how I finally got the money to wire to the US; let’s just say it wasn’t easy and I hope I never have to go through such an ordeal again.

    It is at moments like this, when I was in the bank nearly in tears, that I really wonder what the fuck I am doing here.

    Things had become a lot better when I returned in 2007. I only had to wait two hours and not all day, and I was actually able to transfer to my US bank after filling out tons of paperwork and supplying proof of employment, etc. Progress, of sorts.

  21. laomei says:

    Been there, done that… yes it’s absolute hell.
    The last (and only time) I attempted it I too was given the runaround of being told “no, not here, you have to go to some other bank”. I eventually said fuck it and got a connection to a money changer who gave better rates than the banks did.

    Even simpler solution now is to just dump it into the wife’s account, go online, click button and hello any currency I want. I strongly advise getting a Chinese wife, not only is it easier than exchanging money at the bank on your own, it’s also much faster and more straightforward.

  22. Homer says:

    That’s China.

    My friend had pretty much the same thing happen but with the birth of his child. No single rooms available, doctors are all busy, nothing is happening, wife is in labor.

    One phone call to our boss. A private doctor comes in just for the birth, he is from another hospital, 2 nurses, a private room, etc.

    I had a beer with him the other day just after the birth of his son. He first words were… If I hadn’t made that call, nothing would of happened and it would of been impossible to give birth here in this hospital. Even with my wife and her mother being Chinese..

    It’s all the same. It all moves at the same pace. It all has the same solution.. Guanxi.

  23. Will says:

    @laomei Good advice, although my current (Singaporean) wife might not be so thrilled with that approach. Still, if it helps cover the bills…

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  25. Beijing Daze says:

    This would be a lot funnier and much less tragic had I not been in that similar situation many times over the past 7 years….. still, this sentence is a classic:

    “I would bulldoze a field of spaniel puppies and nursery schoolgirls in fairy costumes to avoid a trip to the bank. ”
    you made my day

  26. bab says:

    I recently wired 125,000usd out of china back to the usa to buy a house….surely there has to be other avenues then these processes…or being married to a Chinese citizen carries ridiculous benefits. The only catch we had, was each member of her family–my wife, her mother, and her father, each had to do a single transaction of 25-50,000usd (which was RMB only moments earlier)…

    Badabing badaboom…three days, three trips to the bank, money in USA bank account, house purchased in full…not a bad week.

  27. Max says:

    A few months ago I had a similarly fun experience getting my pathetically small 7 years of “life savings” out of China when leaving for Singapore. It was just substantial enough that carrying it out by hand would’ve meant declaring it, taking it out over several trips, or risking getting caught not declaring. I tried all legal means but apparently foreigners are limited to USD 500 per day in foreign bank transfers. The fees on each $500 transfer, not to mention the amount of time I would’ve had to spend hanging out in Chinese banks, made that one a non-starter. The Bank of China staff themselves, who were sincerely helpful despite being functionally useless, said my best option was to convert the money on the black market and get a Chinese friend to do the foreign transfer for me using their USD 50,000 annual limit on transfers abroad. I got a recommendation from a friend about a reliable black-market moneychanger- that’s a fun story for another day but mostly because it was amazingly smooth. Then I got a Chinese friend to use a portion of her USD 50,000 annual limit on transferring funds abroad to help me out. I had to sweat for a few days waiting to see if the transfer went through. If it didn’t go through, the money would’ve been returned to my friend’s account. I trust her, but having what would equal several years of her annual income sitting in her savings account would surely be a little tempting for anyone. Luckily no problems and my money is out of there. Just in time to miss out on the recent CNY appreciation…

    On the flip side, it is amazing how easy it is to open a bank account in China. Just show them a passport and voila. Chinese laws are designed to suck in money, making China the Hotel California (or Roach Motel) of banking. I contrast this with Singapore, where I can’t open a bank account, sign up for cable TV, or internet plans, borrow a book from a library, use public sports facilities, or perform a multitude of other mundane activities, without an Employment Pass. Fingers crossed, should be getting one of those by early September.

  28. Nick says:

    I used the CCCB when I was teaching, and although the sum we wanted to take home wasn’t considerable, it was a huge amount of money for us. Because we had always banked at the CCCB, we went to the main branch and when they said ‘oh, we can’t do that’, we just went to another department. Materials required: every piece of paper we had ever been given that had red ink or the yuan symbol on it, sense of outraged entitlement to our own money. Total expenditure: 3.5 hours. The final solution included:
    1) a guy with a man-bag full of USD who had been sitting (alone? in the dark?) in a small closet off the vestibule of the bank and who was summoned by a gesture to the security guard. He didn’t work for the bank, but everybody there knew him. He did the money changing, discounted a tiny amount off the bank rate, and the bank counted and verified the money he changed. This was done to avoid paperwork and was an ironclad requirement of the final solution.
    2) two trainees on the second floor of the bank who taught themselves to do an international transfer, step by step, occasionally asking questions like “is your Bank of America headquartered in New York, or in Flushing?” When they finished, they said “well, we think that worked. We’re not sure how we’re supposed to tell whether or not it went through.”
    3) repeated, sincere promises not to ever tell any of the other foreign teachers that this had been done or that it was even possible.
    4) 6 cigarettes (although I have to say, none of the most helpful employees smoked, and most of them went to people who stood by ‘giving advice’ that was basically useless) for everyone else, and about 10 for me.

    Now I see that we got off easy! Three months is less time than it would take to go to the US and EARN a similar amount of money.

  29. Jasmine says:

    Having just spent a semester abroad in China and doing everything possible to avoid walking into a Chinese bank if possible, I laughed out loud throughout this piece. I don’t think the Chinese banking experience could have been explained better (or as humorously).

  30. Will says:

    @Max: When my business partner and I opened our UOB accounts in Singapore in 1995 we had all the necessary materials required to open the accounts. However, to receive checkbooks (necessary in Singapore then) we needed letters of recommendation from a current account holder. We didn’t know anyone who was a current account holder. When four more of our US colleagues arrived, they could open their accounts, and we, as current account holders, could give them letters of recommendations for checkbooks even though we ourselves couldn’t have them. Our friends suggested we cancel our accounts, re-open them, and they could then recommend us. I wanted to shoot myself.

    I still use that account, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I wrote a check drawn on it. Maybe 2001 or so.

    @nick: Great story. The black market seems to be consensus approach (even from the banks!). Unfortunately, as a spokesman for a global corporation there are certain risks inherent in extra-legal solutions, even if the bank itself is recommending them. Alas, it seems paperwork is my future.

    @Jasmine: Thanks. Turning frustration into black humor is my coping mechanism. The alternative is Xanax and it’s hard to get a prescription here.

  31. Sascha says:

    I use a moneychanger in China who has stacks of Euros, Dollars, Aussie Dollars, Pounds and other currencies in a briefcase in his home. I have seen it. After he exchanges my shopping bag full of RMB into a small stack of green bills, I put those bills in my backpack and go to HK.

    Obviously this only works if the shopping bag is not ALL red bills and the green stack is less than 6 inches thick.

    Western Union is another option, with toothgrinding fees.

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  33. FOARP says:

    Anyone else noticed how many of the folk on this thread have seemingly been told different things about what they need to do a bank transfer?

    @Will, this post is an example of an almost-dead breed – the Bad China Day post. It’s hey-day was in 05-06, before the GFW came into full effect,it’s apogee was on the pages of Sinocidal. It once ruled hundreds of blogs, with more appearing every week. It is now almost no more, even if the source of its inspiration is still alive and kicking.

  34. CN says:

    A friend who taught in China found a relatively painless way to transfer money out of China.

    As you may or may not know Bank of America and China Construction Bank are heavily invested in each other and so its a little easier to do certain transfers between them (such as being able to withdraw fee-less RMB from a CCB ATM using a BoA card).

    My friend was advised by the CCB main headquarters in the city he worked in to transfer his RMB to a CCB account in his Chinese girlfriend’s name then transfer it to his BoA account for a relatively small fee. It apparently avoided a lot of paper work required when a foreigner wants to transfer money out of China. The only thing you need is a Chinese friend you can trust. At least the bank was a smart by helping him try to simplify things. Prevents a lot of headaches.

  35. Jamar says:

    As someone who’s gone down the Western Union path before, as long as you have a little-used branch of Everbright (somewhat likely), the Agricultural Bank (less likely), or the Post Office (wishful thinking) near you, it’s relatively painless. Sure, if you’re handing them RMB it’s a max of $500 a day, including the sending fee that has to be paid in US$ as well, but better than the others in a pinch. Otherwise, there’s a reason my primary accounts are with Standard Chartered and BEA. The BOC account is only because school demands it for certain payments, and ICBC because no one else will issue me an unsecured RMB-denominated credit card.

  36. Will says:

    @FOARP: I consider myself a past-master of the bad China day post (and I remember Sinocidal well). Some of these still live under the “rants” tag. When I go through the more extensive offline archives it’s shocking how many involved banking in some way. Actually, to judge by the comment thread, this may be the single most painful thing for every expat in China. Or perhaps #2 after the GFW.

    As to this particular story being a bad China day, I like to think of it as the classic Hollywood arc, where an everyman hero encounters almost hopeless odds, but emerges battered but victorious at the end. It’s only missing Mila Kunis.

  37. Will says:

    Question to any and all: Does hawala exist in China, or is that just too freaky for the authorities here?

  38. Shannon says:

    Hawala: yes. But barring a mid-life religious experience that you haven’t told me about, you don’t qualify.

  39. Bob says:

    Oh life is SO tough when wondering what to do with our hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    So it takes time. Live in China? Just accept RMB is like this and get over it, thanking whoever that you have (1) money and (2) time.

  40. Will says:

    “Hundred of thousands”? Wow. I’d have accountants to handle this crap. Although then, to be fair, I’d probably write pay a ghost to write posts complaining about the accountants.

  41. mike says:

    “Good advice, although my current (Singaporean) wife might not be so thrilled with that approach. ”

    Current wife Will? Only current? Hope she is not reading this or could be a rolling pin on your return home

  42. Will says:

    @mike: What makes me think she hasn’t already clobbered me?

  43. trevelyan says:

    I will swear by China Merchant’s Bank. Not because they make it any easier to do this stuff, but because I’ve never had to wait more than about 45 minutes to see a teller at the Dongzhimen branch.

    In contrast, it once took three hours of waiting to withdraw the equivalent of about $2000 USD from my credit card from the main Yabaolu branch of the Bank of China. A number of people apparently complained about this, so they installed a large television that – to this day – plays endless re-runs of Tom and Jerry.