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Banking on Something Better

A Brit in China realizes he actually gets a small thrill out of a visit to a bank there, but maybe for the wrong reasons

By Frank Hersey Updated Sept.30

Unlike pretty much everyone else in the world, I enjoy a trip to the bank. And even less like everyone else, I prefer it – the challenge – when abroad. Who knows what’s going to happen? Maybe this time I’ll get a free rice cooker! I’ve realized I actually get a small thrill out of a visit to a bank in China, though possibly because I have such a low expectation for fulfilling errands in general here, yet somehow always manage a small financial success at the bank.  

This perverse pleasure came to the fore recently when I had to do a tour of my three banks to conduct ten transactions. Why three accounts? When you start a new job in China you have to open an account with the bank the company uses. My last job even needed another account for expenses. I’d kept them all, but had changed passports and needed to let my banks know otherwise when the expiry date of my previous passport arrived, heaven only knows what would happen. This could be as hazardous as having to change phone number in China. 

Add requesting a replacement bank card, Internet banking activation, a currency conversion, a withdrawal and few other jobs it was looking like a day’s work. But less than three hours later, without even finishing the tea in my flask, with everything done I celebrated the thrill with a lunch of cold spinach noodles.  

Things haven’t always been so easy. On my very first trip to China in 2001, I spent time with a family in Guilin. Back then there weren’t such luxuries as ATMs that accepted foreign cards. I had to hand my card over the counter at the city’s main branch of Bank of China and a member of staff brought over a special machine which was plugged and plumbed in and a lengthy withdrawal procedure began. 

The next time I went, I was told it wasn’t possible to use a foreign card there and that I couldn’t possibly have used one there previously. I protested and pointed out the machine on the windowsill, then tried to talk them through its use, establishing my banking persistence.  

I would later find that opening an account is inexplicably easy in China; at least it seems so to someone from the UK, where proving one’s identity for opening a bank account is about as easy as proving Santa Claus’s. But after getting an account in China, anything can happen.  

“You need to sign that again,” the bank teller told me when I applied for a replacement card this time. 
“It doesn’t look like your name.” 
“But it’s my signature.” 
“Your signature has to look the same as your name. Try a new one.”  

So at that particular bank my signature is now my full name in block capitals. In fact, knowing what your bank thinks your name is the key to banking success in China and is often the downfall of exotically-named Smith/JohnDAVids.  

What I’ve come to appreciate is that while China has leaped far ahead of anywhere else I’ve been in terms of mobile payments and e-commerce, a trip to the bank is still evocatively human- and paper-based. Your first port of call might be a machine where you press a button for your needs, to determine which counter to wait at. But of course you don’t press the button yourself. There is someone there to press it for you and pass you the paper queue ticket. Never be fobbed off by being told you can simply use another machine to complete your task. It’s a great idea, but the machines don’t work. You’re already at the bank, so do it properly.  

When your number comes up and the cashier raises his or her hand as a signal to approach and you squeeze past a metal cage to keep dogs in, customers withdrawing carrier bags of cash, sales people offering flasks for account openings and you arrive at the counter, get ready to sign five, ten, fifty forms, have your passport photographed multiple times (with and without the forms) and, everyone’s favorite, key in various PIN numbers at least five times more than could possibly be necessary– and maybe create a new one!  

Need to do something that involves your ID? Then expect the teller to summon at least one other person to come and look at your face and ID photo and also stamp the paperwork with their own unique red stamp.  

Every now and again there’s a pause as the teller simply has to tidy the mounting paperwork. Don’t worry – there’s often some sort of screen at the counter showing you an entire portfolio of financial products you might be interested in. Consider it a financial review. Or simply watch staff in the background pushing trolleys of cash around.  

Never leave that counter for the completion of any other tasks. Stay put and everything will be fine, then at the end you even get to rate the teller’s performance on a special device on the counter. Finish with entering your PIN a few more times. I really don’t see why no one else likes playing the game.