Adventures in China: the bank account

Bookmark and Share

Part of moving to a new country is setting up all the “personal infrastructure” you need in order to live. And when you’re starting a new job at the same time, getting paid is pretty close to the top of that list. Which explains how, a couple days ago, I found myself walking into the Bank of China on the CCNU campus to set up a bank account.

No, wait, let me back up.


I found myself walking into the Bank of China on the CCNU campus to set up a bank account. Since it is the Bank of China, after all, everything is written in Chinese. Everyone there speaks Chinese. I would have been totally lost without my host (actually my boss, but he’s been so much help getting me settled that I think of him as my host) having come along to translate.

Apparently the idea of being busy with a customer doesn’t really exist in China. A bank employee at one of the reception desks, where a Chinese woman was filling out a form, immediately beckoned us over. She and my host talked for a while, and she led us over to the counter where stacks of all the bank’s key forms were. Then my host started filling out the form (again: everything written in Chinese), when another guy working at the bank came over to talk to us. Again, he and talked, I stood there and tried not to look bored, they talked… you get the gist.

I’ll skip to the point. It turns out that there are about three things for which you need a social security card. Not the number, the actual card. Getting a driver’s license, setting up payroll at a new job, and opening a bank account in a foreign country. Due to international banking regulations the US government throwing its weight around, any US citizen opening a foreign bank acount needs to provide a copy of their social security card. Which I didn’t have, because, again, there are about three things you ever need a social security card for. Needless to say, I did not expect any of them to be in China.

(TV-style) PRESENT DAY (actually Friday, but who’s counting)

It took a couple days, but I was able to get a scan of my social security card emailed from home. So my boss and I headed back to the bank to take another run at opening the account. Again, an employee at the reception desk directed us to the forms and my boss filled out the account opening form, or the little bit of it we needed, anyway. Name, birthday, passport number, phone number, and a couple other things; that still leaves 90% of the form blank.

Then we wait.

Here’s one handy fact I learned about Chinese banks: they operate really slowly. There were maybe two or three people ahead of us in the queue, and it still took around 40 minutes until we got our turn at the service counters. Now, my part was easy: I just had to hand over my documents, sign a couple papers, and pose for a picture or two (to make sure I was physically present in the bank). I feel kind of bad for the poor bank employee who had to enter all this information into the computer, and who apparently had never created a bank account for a foreign citizen before. The first time through, (my host told me) she accidentally entered my passport number into the SSN field. Who had the bright idea of making passport numbers and social security numbers both nine digits? And that’s not easy to fix either. We had to wait while she called up a central office or something to void the first account request (I was excited to understand when she read some of the digits of my SSN in Chinese), then go through basically the whole process again, from scratch.

So I guess whoever has the social security number that’s the same as my passport number probably will not get a fun surprise when they check their credit report....

To top it all off, we spent so long sitting at the counter waiting for the account to be created that the bank actually closed — literally shut and locked the security gates — with us inside. Then we had to step out of the building for about two minutes while they transferred money to an armored truck. Another handy fact: they take armored truck security really seriously here. Two policemen in full body armor with assault rifles stood guard next to the truck while a third carried briefcases of cash out from the bank. And this in a country where gun ownership is forbidden to private citizens, and even the police don’t normally carry them.

Eventually I did wind up getting my bank account. Hooray, I’m not on any money laundering watchlists! (Fun story: my roommate shares a name with someone on a watchlist, which caused him no end of trouble when he tried to go through this same process a month ago.) However, I have to do all this again at another bank this week, because thanks to some shady corporate deals with CCNU, part of my salary has to be paid through Bank of China while another part has to be paid through Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). I hope it gets easier with practice!