WeChat and Alipay are indispensable phone apps here in China. You use it for everything. To pay, to order food, to order taxis, to instant message, to tracking your health, social media, etc. It’s an integrated platform that is pervasive throughout the country. China is effectively a cashless society, and all its payments are done through WeChat and Alipay.
I realized this 6 years ago when I paid for lunch with cash. At first, they didn’t want to accept cash until I told them that was all I had. You have to keep in mind that China has a closed banking system and non-Chinese credit cards are not accepted. It took the waiter 20min to come back with change. He and his colleagues were clearly running around the mall looking for change and they finally found it. This made me realize that I had to get my own WeChat and/or Alipay account if I wanted to be independent in China.
During the preparation for my next trip to China, somewhere in 2016, I mentioned this incident to a Chinese colleague of mine who was going to accompany me. She laughed about my story and told me that during the upcoming trip she would help me get a Chinese bank account and that would get the ball rolling.
During the next trip we did just that. We had blocked a morning to accomplish this. She had figured out the process: first get a permanent Chinese phone number, then open a bank account. The phone shop and bank were right next to each other, so this was going to be easy … I thought.
Getting a Chinese phone number was straight forward. She got me a plan that was 18元 per month, that’s about $2.80. It gets me free receiving SMS messages, free receiving calls, 100Mb of data, etc. This was fine for me because I tend to use my T-mobile Global plus plan when I’m travelling. The Chinese phone number was mostly used to authenticate myself. Paying for the SIM was a bit of challenge, this is done through WeChat or Alipay, but they accepted cash and I put 100元 on the account just to be safe.
The next stop was the bank. This is a little bit trickier because China has regional banks that are only accepted in specific regions like Beijing, but she had selected the Bank of Communications for me which is an international bank that is accepted everywhere in China. The bank even had English text in their window advertisements, so that looked promising.
Well, it turns out that I was the first foreigner to open a bank account in the last 12 months at that branch. The poor teller immediately got attention from her manager, his manager and 2 other folks whom I didn’t quite understand what their job was but they too were busy looking at all the paperwork. I started with filling out the forms. I had to do this twice because I hadn’t filled out my name correctly. I typically don’t use my second name but when they checked my passport, they got all excited and I had to do it again.
I then had to fill out my US tax information because the US forces every bank in the world who has US citizens as clients to report their bank accounts to the IRS. I tend to keep only a small amount on this account, much less than $10,000, so I don’t have to file a yearly FBAR for it.
Then came the kicker, and keep in mind at this point I had been filling out forms for over an hour. They asked me where my permanent resident status was. I didn’t have that because I was on business travel. They told me that I couldn’t open an account unless I was a permanent resident, or it was for business. I told them that it was for business and that I was on business travel. That’s when they asked me to prove it.
When I asked my colleague what to bring for opening the bank account her response was just your passport. I figured that can’t be enough so I asked a local friend if I could use his physical address (yes, we needed that information) and I brought my APEC card. APEC is an Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation and one of the things they do is issue id cards to business travelers. The main benefit to me is that it provides me VIP access in most countries in Asia and the Pacific rim so that I can run through immigration in no time. It’s a government issued id, the same one that issues global entry in the US, and I figured you cannot have enough identification on you while opening a new bank account.
So, when they asked me for proof, I showed them my APEC card which clearly states: “Business Travel” and looks like an official Chinese ID card. That did the trick. All 5 folks, and if I remember correctly there were more at this point, looked at the card, studied it, and they all agreed that I was opening the account for business purposes.
With that out of the way, I immediately got a bank card, I was able to deposit money on the account, and I setup my WeChat and AliPay accounts. Afterwards, I took my colleague for coffee to make sure it all worked.
Nowadays WeChat and Alipay have made it easier for foreigners to add western credit cards. It’s not exactly the same as having a local bank account but its close.