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Foreign Credit

In this monthly column, Bamboo Money’s financial gurus ‘make money easier for everyone’, even the economically illiterate who walk among us, with their straight talking answers to your monetary dilemmas. Get fiscal.

Dear James,

I love shopping online, but I can only do cash-on-delivery when I'm shopping on Taobao. I've heard that foreigners can't open a credit card account. Is it possible for laowai to get a Chinese credit card or am I stuck with plastic from my home country (and the corresponding outrageous fees)?



Dear Declined,

One of the interesting things about living in capitalist-communist China is getting to observe state-owned companies behaving like they have to compete for your business. From China Telecom boasting Customer First, Service Foremost to tax slips thanking you “for contributing to China’s flourishing prosperity” – like the tax bureau has to compete for your taxes. China’s public sector just loves to smile – sometimes literally, in the case of the public hygiene inspectors’ smiley faces plastered on restaurants, and the “How’s my work?” buttons at passport control.

So what about the banks? Do they just love to say yes, with a credit card suitable for every wallet? Apart from showing some love to Taobao-loving laowai, there’s an economic rationale for getting innovative in the financial sector. The historian Niall Ferguson says that economic prosperity goes hand in hand with financial innovation. The US, of course, excelled in consumer credit. It got so innovative, in fact, that it became common place for credit cards to be pre-approved: they turned up in the post awaiting a mere signature and activation.

So are China’s banks following suit? Well, going into a branch, it’s still possible to get commissar rather than customer service. And the mentality of savings-good, debt-bad has kept consumer credit products out of the shop window. But a lot has changed over the past few years, and the simple answer to this question is: yes, it is possible for an expat in China to get a credit card. Bank of China, ICBC, China Merchants Bank and China Construction Bank all issue dual currency cards. They use RMB when you’re in China (including for Taobao) and USD or Euros when you’re overseas.

So, take yourself along to your local branch and fill in an application form. For Bank of China and China Merchants Bank, you’ll need your passport, proof of where you live (tenancy agreement or property deeds) and your official wage slips. At CCB you’ll also need a guarantor who lives in Shanghai or a deposit of RMB 5,000.

But don’t hold your breath. Once you’ve submitted your application you’re in for a wait of anything up to five weeks. Instant response it ain’t.

And then you might wait five weeks to get turned down. That’s where it’s frustrating because laowai in China can’t check their credit score beforehand. And there are no products “for customers who are trying to build up their credit rating”. In any case, if you do get accepted then the credit limit you are offered will be much lower than you might expect back home. For example, a teacher in Shanghai earning RMB 30,000 per month was granted a limit of RMB 4,000. And a president of an American chemical company grumbled that he was offered a limit of RMB 6,000. So if you’re a freelancer who can’t prove your income, or you just don’t earn very much, then you’re likely to be turned down. In fact, the banks all say that ideally you will own property in China. Or that you work for – in the words of one customer service agent – “a famous company”. This makes me want to retort that Lehman Brothers are pretty famous, but I couldn’t find a box for “Sarcastic Comments” on the application form.

So what are your options if you get turned down? You could buy a house. Or marry a Chinese person who’s credit-worthy and ask your new spouse to get you a card on their account. Or you could ask your boss to get you a company credit card. But if none of these work for you then for Taobao in particular there’s always prepay cards: that’s Chinese financial innovation. Have a look at for a handy step-by-step on how to get one. You’ll have to go to the post office to reload but at least you’ll avoid the charges that come from using your home country card. You also might not look as cool as if you were carrying platinum plastic, but then no-one ever got a credit card for that reason, did they?

James is the editor of 'eg', the online money magazine for expats in Shanghai. Visit to read more about making the most of your money.


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