Moving Money out of China; the Legal, the Convenient, and the Shady

Whether you’ve taken a job in China as an opportunity to travel the world, to experience a new culture and learn Mandarin, or even just to break out of the normalcy of back home, nobody is denying that the money had also been a major factor. There are countless opportunities for a foreigner in China, and anybody who has been living here for more than a month probably has several side jobs on top of the job they’d originally came for. Tutoring, part-time training centers, transcribing and proofreading, even English basketball training… you’re a valued commodity here, and even if you don’t play your cards right, you’ll still have offers thrust at you left and right just for being a native English speaker. Couple this with the low cost of living and your ability to save huge amounts of money without being forced to live like a pauper in order to do so, and you could easily accumulate a grand or more every month to stash away and send home.


Mao money Mao problems

Making the money is the easy part though, because sending money out of China is where it can get complicated, as well as expensive. The wealthy are getting wealthier in China faster than anywhere else in history, and China’s rising emigration rate is directly related to this. One of the many side effects of the wealthy leaving has been the tightening of currency controls, and while it is a lot easier for a foreigner to send money outside of China, it can still be a hassle if you aren’t aware of all of your options. “What’s the best way to send money home” is a question I’m constantly getting asked, and so I’ve decided to create this guide to lay out the different options available. Establishing a shell corporation in your home country to sue yourself with will unfortunately not be covered though.

Bank Transfers Most legal. Most expensive. Most hassle.

What you’ll need: Tax documents, a Z VISA, and your home bank’s SWIFT code.

If you asked an official, they’d tell you this is how it’s done. Lining up in a bank and potentially waiting for hours, you’ll eventually get your turn to meet with a teller and start the process. You’ll need to pay a fee on both ends, as well as a percentage of the amount that you’re looking to send back, and your tax documents will dictate how much you’re able to transfer at one time. Fees and percentages differ with each bank, and the Bank of China will probably be your best yet most crowded option. Make sure you have the afternoon free and try to keep patient.

International Bank Accounts Most legal. Most expensive. Convenient.

What you’ll need: A Z VISA, your home bank’s SWIFT code, and the money to keep your account open

To my knowledge, only CITI bank and HSBC offer international bank accounts, and from everything I’ve heard, you’ll pay more in upkeep for maintaining your international account than you will doing a bank transfer at a Chinese bank, while still being subject to transfer fees on both ends. The upside, and why some expats consider this the best option, is that bank transfers are painless and easy, they can be done online, and won’t ever eat up a sizeable portion of your day off. This is best option for anybody who wants to move money out of China legitimately and conveniently.

Chinese-assisted Bank Transfers Debatably still legal. Moderately expensive. Some hassle.

What you’ll need: A Chinese friend and your home bank’s SWIFT code

This is the same as the above-mentioned bank transfer, except a Chinese national is doing it for you using their ID. Perfect for anybody working less than legally, you can move large amounts of money without restriction assuming you know somebody well enough to ask them for this favor. A Chinese girlfriend is the obvious option, but my coworkers had also been happy to help when I’d asked them. Just expect to return the favor with something English related around the office when the time comes, or help them buy cheap designer handbags if you ever visit back home.


For anybody still getting paid with envelopes

Western Union Legal. Somewhat expensive. Convenient.

What you’ll need: Your home bank’s SWIFT code or a family member/friend

Western Unions are available in any Chinese city, and fees will vary according to how much you’re sending and the country you’re sending the money to. In my opinion there’s very little reason to send money back this way unless you absolutely need to or only want to send back a small amount. The fees are high and I’m pretty sure the restrictions are tightening every year on how much you can send back at one time and the documents you’re expected to provide. Find a Chinese friend if you need to send money back without providing a valid working VISA.

Mailing a Bank Card Home Not so legal. Cheapest. Most convenient.

What you’ll need: A second Chinese bank account and somebody back home to withdraw the money on your behalf

Union Pay is the interbank network that China uses exclusively, and almost every ATM in America will have their logo next to Visa and Mastercard. After you’ve opened a second bank account, you’ll need to take a photo of the number on the front of the ATM card and then send it home by mail to somebody you trust. Save that account number, you’ll need it later. Myself and people I knew who’ve done this never had any issues mailing an ATM card home, but there is the potential for it to get confiscated on its way out of China. If you’re especially worried about this or don’t want the potential hassle of having to redo the process, you can always carry the card back with you on your next visit home, along with a fat stack of cash of course. The best bank to use as far as international withdrawal fees go is Ping An bank, although if you use Bank of America they should reimburse any and all ATM fees when you use a China Construction Bank card at one of their ATMs. Take your money and go to your local Ping An ATM to deposit the cash without your card by imputing the account number of the card you’d sent home, and wait for whoever’s back home to withdraw the money and drop it into your home bank account.

When you’re sending back large amounts, you should coordinate how much you’re sending back with the maximum that can be withdrawn at any one time (usually 300-500USD) to get the most out of each withdrawal and minimize the fees that will come with it. Even though I’d been working legitimately the majority of my time in China, I’d still chosen to use this method for sending money home simply for its flexibility and lack of fees. In time though, as restrictions continue to tighten, this method may become less viable.

Flying it Home Yourself Totally legal. Situational.

As far as fees go, none of the aforementioned methods are going to be anywhere near as expensive as a plane ticket home. That being said, eventually you’re going to be heading back home whether it be for your summer break, a wedding, or even just to recharge. This is the perfect opportunity to kill two birds with one stone and stuff your pockets with money. Of course, you’ll need to keep in mind that you can only carry up to $5,000 worth of currency out of China, but a little bit more than that had never caused me any trouble. Money does contain RFID chips though, and there will be scanners at every immigration checkpoint checking for egregious amounts of cash, or electronics, that somebody may be covertly trying to exit with. Put the saranwrap down and plan for a second trip back if you’re loaded.


An A+ for effort Photo credit: Reuters/China Daily


Black money men are a common fixture in any Chinese airport, hanging around banks to exchange large amounts of cash for anybody looking to circumvent currency controls


“Taking photos of money laundering is against the bank’s policies”

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