No, I’m sorry, Bank of China [China] is NOT the same thing as Bank of China [Hong Kong]

So I usually have all sorts of fun and hilarious things to tell you about the expat life in China. Here’s one aspect that, no matter what you do to it, is the mother of all expat migraines. That, I can tell you, is NOT fun.

I have a bank account here in China. It’s with a lovely bank called Bank of China, which exists everywhere from Taiwan to Hong Kong to Malaysia to Singapore, not to mention 40 branches in Shenzhen ALONE. I’m thinking, this is great. Easy access, branches in international locations, what’s not to love?

I also have this thing called school bills. While I highly recommend getting a fantastic education and a fancy Latin diploma like I got at Mount Holyoke, the afterglow is more like aftershocks when the school bills start to come a-knockin’.

Problem: school bills (and credit card bills, ugh) come out of a US dollar bank account in the US. I currently make a salary in RMB in China.

Solution: International transfer– wire money to the US. Easy, right?

Yeah. NOT AT ALL.

See, the problem is that, while it’s perfectly acceptable to wire US funds into China, for some reasons that I don’t know quite enough about to get into them, the US does not accept international wire transfers in RMB out of China and therefore will not let me send my money from my Chinese bank account to my American bank account without some serious finagling. Sub-accounts, exchange rates, not to mention minimum balance requirements and all sorts of fooferah.

Seriously I make no money. This is all very much not worth it.

So Option Two: Go to Hong Kong. Hong Kong not only deals in Hong Kong Dollars, which the US will accept as a transfer, but they also (bless them) speak English as a general rule.

So it’s a Thursday, roughly 12:15 pm. I say to myself, “I have nothing to do this afternoon. Let’s go to Hong Kong and do some money stuff.” I’m thinking, quick trip across the border, there are some bank branches at an MTR stop that’s not too far into the New Territories, shouldn’t take me more than a couple hours all told.

It’s 10:30 pm and I’ve JUST gotten home. Here’s why:

Apparently everyone and their mother was going to Hong Kong at 1pm on a Thursday. I have never seen so many people at the Shenzhen Bay Landbridge crossing, and I’ve done the trek a few times now. (Incidentally, I’m going to need new passport pages soon because going into and back out of Hong Kong requires almost a half a page of stamps, it’s ridiculous.)

I went to Bank of China in Tsuen Wan, which is that close-in MTR stop I mentioned. Tseun Wan is one of those places that I’ll talk about when I eventually sort myself out enough to actually write about Hong Kong. I know. Procrastination is a necessary life skill. Anyway, I went into Bank of China, got my numbered ticket, and went to wait to be called over to a banker’s window.

A full 45 minutes later, because of course I was in the queue for Accounts Opening And Others, I finally get called to a window and I put down my passbook (we don’t have an equivalent in the US as far as I know, but sort of like a combination transaction register and account card) with my passport and tell the woman what it is I need to do. She looks at my passport, looks at my passbook, says, “You open the account in China?” and at my affirmative answer, says, “Just one moment, please.”

Hmmm. Never a good sign. A good 15-minute wait later, the gal comes back with another banker who politely explains that while I do, in fact, have a savings account with Bank of China, that Bank of China has actually nothing to do with Bank of China Hong Kong and therefore they a) don’t have access to my account and b) cannot possibly help me.

So I decide, instead of opening a BoCHK account and having TWO BoC cards in my wallet, which would cause no end of confusion for me, I will instead hop on over to HSBC which is just down the street and open up an account with them. A little bit more trouble (mafan, or inconvenient, as we say here) but at least that way I would have the problem solved for the next time the situation came up.

HSBC, of course, was packed to the gills. I eyed the horrendously long line for about 5 seconds and decided to sort out what I was actually going to need to do before waiting all that time to be told at the counter, no, sorry, we can’t do that. So I found a banker who seemed a little less harried than the others, and drew her aside to ask about what I could do.

She told me that I could open a savings account, but that there was a minimum balance requirement and a first-time deposit requirement, neither of which I was thrilled about. She then told me that I could open a cheque account but that I wouldn’t be able to wire out of it immediately. She was very nice, and answered all of my questions, and almost convinced me to stand in line and get the thing done, but then my shoulder angels took over and steered me in the direction of a Western Union to just get the thing done and think about it later.

Of course, finding a reliable Western Union that wasn’t in the back of some divey little Filipino shop (no offense to Filipino shopowners, but come on– having me write my information on a scrap of paper to put into the most ancient computer ever just did not strike the right note of confidence with me) took a little adventuring, and I wound up (of course) having to go all the way in to Hong Kong island and thus cost me another hour of travel time each direction plus the finding of a Western Union and getting that all sorted.

Luckily my presence in the neighborhood was discovered by a friend and I was summoned for coffee, which made the day quite a bit better.

Seriously, though. All of this would be so much easier if the RMB could just behave like normal currency, and the US could treat it like normal currency. Bah.

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Posted on November 2, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Oh, ugh. Double ugh. What a tremendous headache! While living in Cyprus we were required to have an account at a local bank in which about a third of our salary was deposited; by law, part of our salary had to remain on the island. The rest was wired to my account in Portland. But since making these arrangements took about two months, the school where I worked deducted the amount of my bills from my first month’s salary and wired them to their destination, which included the company which serviced my student loans. Simple, right? No. Through a really bad stroke of luck, every single wire transfer for me – only me, not my colleagues – was lost. Many unkind phone calls and letters later, the entire mess was fixed. But it took about 3 months to fix the problems. Thankfully, the school covered all the late fees and made a point of contacting my creditors with explanations. Plus, they were fervent in their apologies to me. Your story really resonated with me!

  2. So sorry darling daughter, but as always it does make a good story!

  3. Someday I’m going to have to tell you the story of how, when I was in Japan visiting my friend Lexi, I went to her Japanese bank and impersonated her (though we look nothing alike) to help her get a special card that would enable her to transfer her Japanese earnings to her American bank account. The world is globalized, why does personal banking have to be stuck in the 20th century?

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