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Got a New China Bankcard. Forgot my PIN. No Money for WEEKS until Bank could fix it.

Updated: Jul 14, 2023

Some things like banking in China are very different and less convenient from my experience of the same in the US. I was careless when I first arrived in China and put thousands of dollars converted to RMB into my new bank account in Chongqing. If I were in the US I could pull out my ID and talk to a teller and get everything fixed inside of an hour or less. Just easily enter a new PIN into a machine at the teller's window, and the machine writes the new PIN into the card's magnetic strip. But my experience of this in China was pretty distressing. This same simple thing took the bank several weeks, without explanation as to why it takes so long, it had to be reviewed by some committee, some long drawn out process and all new forms to fill out. Maybe it was because I was a foreigner? I am not sure to this day. All I knew is that I had NO MONEY for weeks and so I had to borrow from my company I worked for... a little embarassing.

When I first arrived in China, I had trouble even initially cashing my many American Express Travelers Cheques, because most banks in ChongQing, a city of 32,000,000 people, did not do this, to exchange them for Chinese RMB. The teller's at the banks we tried looked at me like I had some strange strange request and I even had a Chinese person from my office helping me to translate everything. Still, they had no idea on how to do it, to deal with these strange checks written in English!

We traveled to three banks who all said no they could not cash these checks so I could get some Chinese money (RMB) exchanged, and we finally ended up at a large bank that would do it, the bank the other banks referred us to, the main bank in Chongqing. The problem was there were lines to wait for, and it was now approaching 5:00 pm. When I finally got to a window at 4:00 pm, the teller took so long at the behind their window there to examine each check individually, hold each up to the light, turn it over and over again, sideways, all while the clock was ticking, and over an hour had passed. It was now closing time at 5:00 pm.

I had signed all of these checks in front of them one by one (you can only sign them once), and then when they were done counting/examining each check, taking no less than 20 or 30 seconds for EACH check to look at the front and back, carefully, they wrote down the tally and finally went to go get the money. Finally!

This was all done behind the glass where I could only watch what they were doing… The new problem was that now a manager came into the small room and told them that it was too late to get any money from the vault and they had to discontinue the process and tell me to come back tomorrow. Never mind that they had kept me there for over an hour carefully and unnecessarily pouring over each check and closely examining it, one by one.

When they were finally satisfied that these were not forgeries (because apparently they had never seen these travelers checks before), then they moved to the next task which was to actually get me the money… Never mind that I was already IN the bank, already at the window, and we were just finishing a transaction. Never mind all that and that they took 10 more minutes arguing about it, the answer was: "come back tomorrow" and I did my best to control my anxiety over what was happening. Even the Chinese translator from the Engineering company TYLIN (Michael) knew that this was not copacetic.

Here I was being handed back checks that were already signed, and yet the rule is that you must sign these in the presence of the teller. Well, what if that same teller was not there the next day? (she wasn't either, and so yes I was correctly worried about all these unknowns: would they honor these checks the next day under these conditions??). So with the help of Michael, I made them write a note stating what had happened, seal all of the signed checks in an envelope, stamp the envelope with their seal, and then I took the envelope with me out of the bank to return first thing in the morning the next day.

I made sure my translator told them to do all that. I wanted to make sure that my ONLY access to some real money before my payday which was a month away, was possible. Who would have known these kinds of challenges to the norm were possible, possibly mainstream in China?? Things like forgetting a pin number on a bankcard costing weeks of time waiting for a simple fix!

A week after this experience with getting my Chinese RMB red currency and depositing all $5000 into my bank account there in Chongqing, that's exactly what I did. I forgot my PIN number and then the bank locked my card so I could not use it in any capacity. Oops! What a pain. What do you do now?

Well, in America, It's pretty straight forward and simple. You just simply go into your bank, show your ID, and get things fixed pretty much immediately. In China I would have to go home and find my passport, come back with a Chinese person who has time to help you, fill out forms in Chinese that I have no idea what it says, nor what the tellers are telling me or asking me, so it is imperative that I bring a Chinese friend who can do this for me, interpret, and then in the end you don't get helped right away by the bank, no simple walk to the ATM machine to enter a new PIN code, no, you have to wait a week or two before things are straightened out by an internal review committee, and come back much later, a week later. So if you make a little mistake like forget your pin number (or worse! lose your card), you are out of luck as far as getting your money is concerned. You can't even share a bank account with your wife here. They don't do that. Bank accounts are for individuals. So my wife could not get access to this money either. And she had no money in her account.

My company had to loan me some money in the meantime by paying me back in RMB cash for my expenditures on moving expenses, and I couldn't put it in a bank, so I had to hide it at home in a big cash pile in a suitcase in a closet. That way I could get things, like a phone, buy groceries, pay bills, etc. etc. all in cash. And it was very awkward to get all of this fixed. There are no shortcuts and there is no other way. There is no convenient method that I could find or any Chinese person could offer me. That's because there was no convenient solution, for anyone no matter who you are. There are no credit cards I could go get. I've got ONE card and if I lose it or if it gets stolen I am in trouble for a while.

I got cut off from my cash this way in my first month being here because I did make that mistake, until the company paid me my reimbursement cash "early." I could not use my ID a week later at the bank when they told me to return with ID, because my passport ID was tied up at the ChongQing Police Department getting reviewed with all of the rest of the family's passports in order to get our residence permit, and they needed it for a whole week, and so I had NO ID and no way to fix this. I had to wait, a long time (3 weeks total wait). Because I forgot my pin number and used the wrong pin number five times trying to make a withdrawal, my bank ATM locked me out of my money. It now considered it a stolen card. I would have thought that I could've just talked to a teller and fixed it right that very minute. But no, I had to wait weeks, and I needed a passport, something that the ChongQing Police were hanging on to. It was horrible. Just one of those little (yet BIG) unexpected things that I could never have predicted nor known how careful I needed to be with a pin number. Just the first of many such experiences where it is nearly impossible for a foreigner to figure it out.

There will always be opposition in all things. Its just life.

GrantPa Johnson

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