How to Transfer Money at the Bank in China (and not cry about it)

Travel | by Amber Mizerak
Posted: May 31st, 2012 | Updated: September 15th, 2014 | Comments

China Merchants Bank inside

If you live in China for a while, chances are you will have to transfer money at some point. The process isn't exactly easy or fun (last time I almost cried), so I hope this post helps to make your experience as painless as possible. The fact of the matter is that some things in China move quickly (like the gal next to you on the metro who spots an empty seat), but other things, not so much. The bank is on the slower side, right up there with the post office, and don't get me started on ATMs, they just seem to take people f-o-r-e-v-e-r to use.

I try to avoid these stressful slow moving situations, but I, like a lot of Americans, have student loans to pay every month and therefore have to face the long lines at the bank regularly. This doesn't make me an expert on all things banking, but I'll share the information with you as I get it, and maybe, just maybe, I'll crack the mysteries by the time I'm ready to leave China. 

Transferring Money in China

For the boring but necessary administrative task of transferring money, I must get in the right frame of mind, find my happy place, do some downward dogs, take a few deep breaths (maybe drink a bottle of wine) and zen out. Only then am I relaxed enough to go for it. I happen to be a China Merchant's Bank customer and they were fairly helpful when it came to transferring money the last time around. I went to the branch in Shanghai near the Loushanguan Metro stop (exit 4, turn right, walk two minutes and it's on the right), took a number and waited patiently for my turn (ok, I lied. They called a number 20 people ahead of me and no one jumped on it, so I did). Lunch isn't the most ideal time to go—let's face it, there are a lot of people in this country and the wait could easily take up your entire afternoon. I advise going early, before 11 am or just after lunch.

I've also transferred money using ICBC and Bank of China and the process is similar. They usually have an English-speaking teller, which is very helpful. He or she will give you all the papers to fill out and if you're lucky you'll be in and out of there in an hour. Don't worry if you forgot your glasses because, like those pens attached to the counter in the West, there are usually glasses attached to a string here. Hopefully you'll have an easier time than this guy whose article made me laugh a lot!

In order to transfer money in China, you're going to need to bring the following:

1. Your passport

2. The complete address of the bank you're transferring money to

Look this up to be sure it's correct. Some smaller banks use the address of their headquarters in a different city.

3. Your bank account number

4. Your bank's SWIFT code 

Number 4 is the information I forgot to bring that almost led me to tears. After completing most of the paperwork, I realized that without this code the money would take too long to reach my account. I didn't want to repeat my hour-long lunch break spent watching the teller shuffle papers and stamp so I desperately asked for favors from friends who were in front of their computers.

"Ugh, hey, Miller, can you log into my bank account? Yeah, I know there's 6¢ in my savings, don't judge me. Do you see a swift code anywhere?"

It turned out my bank's SWIFT code was nowhere to be found in my actual bank account information. A few more determined phone calls uncovered that the codes weren't so secret after all, they can be found by googling the bank, the location and the words 'swift code', or you can check this list of SWIFT codes online.

5. Your money 

You'll first need to purchase the currency of your choice. I bought USD at an exchange rate of 633 to 51. So USD 500 cost me RMB 3,167.55.  Once you actually buy the dollars, you can then transfer them into another account.

There is a fee, of course, and there are limits to how much you can transfer in one day. You are allowed to transfer USD 500 a day at a fee of RMB 200 (the commission rate is RMB 50 and the cable charges are RMB 150).

You can choose to pay this out of the money you deposit which is the SHA option (and apparently waiting at the bankthe cheaper route) or it can be paid by the beneficiary if you choose the BEN option.

Three days later the cash should be in your US account. There are some exceptions to these rules. This is China after all. Apparently, one way to avoid the limit of cash you buy per day is to obtain a tax paper from your place of employment. Once you do this you can transfer up to RMB 10,000. I will try this and follow up with you, but first I need RMB 10,000.

During all of this, there was A LOT of stamping. I mean a lot! There were big red stamps, small red stamps, stamps locked in little boxes that a higher up needed to unlock in order to stamp some more. Where do all those papers go?! I don't know because the bank certainly doesn't keep records of previous transactions on their system, so forget that idea. I picture a warehouse the size of a city somewhere in China that houses all of the millions of useless rice paper stamped copies.

When I finished my transaction the friendly and patient English-speaking teller informed me that my life would be a lot easier if I signed up for online banking. More on that next time. 

Photos courtesy of Felibrilu and Georgie R.

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