More Scuffles with the Bank (continued)

Posted in Chinese Bank Rants at 10:09 am by Benjamin Ross

Remember my little issue I had at the Beijing airport where the ATMs were saying I had exceeded my incorrect password limit? Well, today my worst fears were confirmed. I went in to Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), and after waiting in a 30 minute queue, explained to one of their employees my situation—in a nutshell that I had been jetlagged, half asleep, and barely functioning after 22 hours of travel, and had entered my password incorrectly twice at the ATMs at the airport, thus somehow exceeding the limit of 4 incorrect logins. (Apparently trying to get money out of a broken ATM counts as an incorrect login). Well, for the past two weeks, every single Chinese ATM has been rejecting my card on account of those two incorrect password attempts. I had brought my ATM card and passport to the bank, and asked if they could reset my incorrect login attempts so that I could access my money. Seems like a reasonable request, right? I have my passport; I do actually know my password, and am 100% sure I could get it right\ now that I haven’t been awake for 30 hours straight. It would seem fairly obvious that I am, in fact, Benjamin D. Ross, and not some random impersonator trying to steal his 1400 RMB. But nooooooo! Here’s what the clerk told me.

“This is not a Beijing ICBC card. It was opened in another province. So all you have to do is just go back to the ICBC branch where you opened the card, and you can reset your password there. Matters such as these always need to be handled at the branch where you opened your account.”

“I opened this account in Fujian.”

“Well, then just go back to Fujian and straighten it out there.”

“Why can’t I get it done here in Beijing? I have an ICBC account and this is an ICBC branch.”

“It is for the protection of our customer’s deposits.”

“I think that’s pretty stupid, and all it is doing is protecting the cardholder from withdrawing his own money.”

“Actually, It is a very stupid system, but what can we do? You are going to have to go back to Fujian to get your money.”

Now, fortunately I do plan to go back to Fujian during this trip, and can (presumably) get this all straightened out when I go back. However, imagine if I wasn’t going back to Fujian on this trip, which seems like an entirely plausible situation. Or worse yet, imagine if I was Chinese, and had no foreign bank account to fall back on. What if I had been traveling in Beijing and the same situation had happened? What if my wallet had been stolen? How would I get back to Fujian to get a new card if I had no access to my bank account? How could I buy my train ticket without any money? With 1.3 billion people (officially) in China, and many of them traveling around the country, I would imagine this problem occurs every day.

This is a common problem with many of China’s state-run enterprises—lack of centralization, at least in terms of customer service. Namely, that systems are set in place assuming that people would never actually get up and move about the country. If I want to buy a round trip train ticket from Beijing to Fuzhou, I have to wait until I get to Fuzhou to buy the ticket back to Beijing. In any city, you can only purchase train tickets which originate from that particular city. Same holds true with cell phones. Previously when I had a Fujian SIM card, it was nearly impossible to buy more minutes outside of Fujian when I would travel. Typically, when my phone ran out of money, I would have to contact a friend in Fujian, have them buy a card, charge my phone up, and then pay them back when I returned. On this trip, I haven’t really ventured far from Beijing yet, so I’d be curious if this policy has been modified at all.

The moral of the story is, however, DO NOT under any circumstances forget (or enter incorrectly twice) your ATM password or lose your ATM card. The Chinese banking systems are not equipped to handle people who are mobile. You will likely be setting yourself up for much more trouble than you ever bargained for. Personally I am curious if I will actually be able to straighten this whole mess out once I do get to Fujian, or if I have just made an unwilling charitable contribution to ICBC.

cont’d in More Scuffles with the Bank, Part 3:  Assets still Frozen, Hope on the Horizon

By the way, I’ve decided that my qualms and skirmishes with Chinese banks have accumulated to the point where I am now honoring them with their own category.


  1. maxiewawa Germany said,

    June 26, 2008 at 4:31 pm

    I got a return ticket from Shanghai to Hong Kong. During the stay I decided to stay a little longer, and thus had to change the date of my departure. Hong Kong politely told me that I would have to return to mainland China to do that. I went over the border to Shenzen. The lady at the ticket office kindly told me that I would have to change the ticket either in Shanghai or in Hong Kong. I told her that Hong Kong wouldn’t do it. That only left Shanghai.

    So to change my ticket to Shanghai to a later date, I would have to return to Shanghai to do it.

    Don’t buy return tickets in China!

  2. Mats France said,

    June 26, 2008 at 11:14 pm

    I had a similar bank experience in France. To change the password for my Internet bank, I had to go to the exact branch where I’d opened my account. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world to them that I had to go to my own branch to be able to do basic operations. I couldn’t even get an account balance at another branch!

  3. Alan United States said,

    June 27, 2008 at 1:40 am

    Ben, I feel sorry for you. China still sucks! Five years ago, I lost 30,000 yuan in earnest money when I tried to buy a condo in Fuzhou. I learned a big lesson – never assume anything about China. I wanted to buy a condo in a high rise complex near Taijiang district in Fuzhou. The condo would cost USD$100,000. I told the real estate lady (who seemed to be very helpful and professional) that I would put USD$25,000 down and finance the rest from a local Chinese bank. They required 30,000 yuan in earnest money, which by definition in America is earnest money. That means I would get the money back in full if I cannot get a loan from the bank. I put down 30,000 yuan and signed the sales contract. I stated clearly I would only want a RMB loan from a Chinese bank in China and I was assured numerous times that that wouldn’t be a problem. Long story short, no banks in China wouldn’t even consider giving me a loan after I had provided them with all kinds of financial documents, passport, and business income, etc. I even got my governor’s office to write a letter stating that I was a productive citizen. Well, the loan fell through. My earnest money was “confiscated.” It’s their policy. I made numerous phone calls. The restate agent was friendly but couldn’t do anything to convince her boss. T.I.C. They simply refused to refund me. I was screwed big time. I know I could have taken out a loan in the U.S. or simply paid cash for it, but the risk was too high 5 years ago to sink USD$100,000 into a condo in Fuzhou. In 1996, we bought a condo in Fuzhou for USD$30,000 but its value dropped by about 50% when Mainland launched a few missiles across the Taiwan Strait that year. Our rationale was that if anything happened to Fuzhou, the Chinese bank would have to take over the condo and we could be free from the loan. But we didn’t expect the definition of earnest money to be so different in two countries. Thank goodness, it was only 30,000 yuan. Live and learn. Don’t assume anything about China ESPECIALLY WHEN MONEY IS INVOLVED.

  4. Alan United States said,

    June 27, 2008 at 1:46 am

    Sorry for some typos above. The sentence that reads
    “no banks in China wouldn’t even consider …” should be “no banks in China would even consider …”

    “The restate agent” should be “The real estate agent”.

    Sorry for the confusion.

  5. Jason Canada said,

    June 27, 2008 at 2:34 am

    Here in Toronto, I have to do certain banking stuffs at my home branch, though I don’t know if changing password is one of these things

  6. NanjingPaul China said,

    June 27, 2008 at 9:18 am

    Why does this not surprise me at all. I had a similar experience with ICBC in trying to get an UnionPay ATM card for my account. I went to the closest ATM branch to me in the same city as the account was created and was told I would have to go to the branch where the account was originally opened, which was no more than 200 meters down the road. I couldn’t believe it.

    Not sure the last time you bought a train ticket but it is possible now to buy train tickets in a different city than the originating city and if you look in the top right corner you will see your ticket’s point of sale. Also, for sim cards I originally encountered this problem in 2006 but have since found that I am able to charge my China Mobile account away from Nanjing (where I bought the card). China Mobile now sells credit where you are asked to enter the phone number of the sim card you want to chargel and then the password. They are not the plastic refill cards I am use to buying in Nanjing but little slips of paper that are torn open to reveal the password. Not all shops have them but most do.

    So it seems that slowly China is becoming more mobile. I think it really highlights how mobile American society is that we are so astounded by these situations. I was even thinking of buying the Apple Macbook Air, which is supposedly the ultimate mobile computer and its selling point to me was its mobility!!! haha

  7. WoAi China said,

    June 28, 2008 at 12:49 am

    China is developing quickly but banking still has a LONG way to go. Try wiring some money to someone overseas using Western Union. First you have to change your Euro into RMB and then use the RMB to buy US dollars. Then and only then can you begin the wire transfer procedure. You leave the bank 50 minutes later with about 15 sheets of paper which are all the forms which ask you the same questions about 15 times, including : what is the money to be used for at the destination. WTF!!! I said “shopping”.

  8. 张鹏程 Philippines said,

    June 29, 2008 at 1:43 am

    哇! 我现在在菲律宾过暑假(我在北大的留学)而我知道了你的经验我觉得非常紧张!我如果把我的储蓄卡的密码忘掉,或则把储蓄卡丢了,我就非常糟糕了!

  9. danjo China said,

    July 5, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    I have also had an absolute disaster with Chinese banking. I moved to Shanghai and was low on Chinese money due to the apartment deposit etc., found out too late my US debit card had expired and I had to wait for the new one to be sent from America and decided to have my parents send me money from the US to borrow for a while. Big mistake. To make a long story short, it was explained to me by the very professional-looking people at HSBC (also my bank in the US) that I just needed to open an account at Bank of China, have my parents wire it there, and I could easily withdraw it from the ATM in RMB. The money never appeared in the ATM, and my plans changed and I moved back to Gansu province. I finally called up the Bank of China in Shanghai (finding out that number was INCREDIBLY time-consuming) only to find out the money had been received, but there was absolutely no way at all of getting it other than going to that specific branch in person and picking it up in US dollars. Luckily I didn’t need the money after all, and luckily I have the chance to go Shanghai in person as I will fly from there. This could have easily ended with me owing my parents US$2,500, or at least having to make a trip to a Shanghai bank from across the country.

  10. Another Laowai United States said,

    July 16, 2008 at 11:51 pm

    I’m sure glad charging credit onto your mobile phone is easier now but the banks still bite ass. Whenever we travel we’d take 4-5 different ATM cards as backup. I’ve heard if you have one of the banks VIP ATM cards you can get service in different cities but you need to maintain a deposit of over 200,000RMB to qualify

  11. Jetso United States said,

    July 27, 2008 at 10:16 pm

    And to think the Chairman and/or CEO of ICBC over a month ago wants to make their bank the biggest & most competitive in the world within 5 years …. One Ego One Dream ….

  12. Okay, No More Excuses, I Don’t Even Have a Job - China, China Construction Bank, Chinese, Linyi, Phil, Plane, RMB, Shanghai, stolen, wallet, yuan, United States said,

    April 7, 2011 at 2:39 am

    […] but it might have well have been.  He just forgot his pass code.  You can read all about it here, here, here, and here.  It’s a lot of reading, but worth it.  The memory […]

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