Tip #2: Research your credit cards and banks for useful benefits, such as no (or reduced) foreign transaction or ATM fees. For example, ATM’s under the Global ATM Alliance will charge Bank America customers only 1% (instead of 1% + $5).
Before I’d left for China, I checked the international information on my credit and bank cards. I was already aware that my Capital One credit card (like all Capital One Credit Cards, the Chase Sapphire Card, the AMEX Platinum Card, the Chase Ink Bold, the Chase Marriott Rewards Card and certain others) did not have international usage fees. My Bank of America ATM card, meanwhile, would serve me well. As a member of the Global ATM Alliance, Bank of America users are allowed to use their bank card at participating ATMs in certain foreign countries to withdraw local currency without having to pay an extra $5. After researching further, I was relieved to discover that China Construction Bank (a member of the Global ATM Alliance) was the second-most common bank in China. This alleviated my fears of not being able to find a branch when necessary. My friend Emily in Beijing, who I was going to visit, confirmed that this was an easily accessible bank.
During my time in China, sure enough, China Construction Bank provided me with a cheap way to access funds. I’d made the decision, since the cost of a visa to China was $180, that I would not be returning. With that in mind, I did A LOT of shopping at small local stores. I’m positive I annoyed Emily given the frequency of my visits to the ATM, as well as the quantity of souvenirs I was purchasing. (Side note: Emily and I had a running joke. I happen to very much like dragons, tigers and horses, a common theme found in China. I had decided that I wanted to collect them while here. When I would see souvenirs with one of these animals present, I’d stop to investigate. I stopped so often that Emily would playfully mock me, saying in a high-pitched exaggerated tone, “LOOK! It’s a DRAGON! DRAAAAAAAAAA-GON!!”)
On my 3rd day in China, I visited the Forbidden City. After shop-hopping together in the area outside, Emily dropped me off at the entrance, with the intent to meet up with me a few hours later. She mentioned casually that she had been there a few times before on school trips. As a Beijing resident, visiting this site was about as exciting to her as Times Square is to someone from New York or New Jersey. I guess along those lines, I was probably the international equivalent of someone who actually WEARS an “I ♥ NY” t-shirt.
A few hours later, as I determined by looking at strangers’ watches since I had neither a phone, nor a watch, I realized I was already a half hour late in meeting with Emily. Guilt ridden, I raced out of the Forbidden City to our pre-determined meeting spot to find her…absent. What happened after this point serves as its own long story, which I will tell in another blog. The short story is that she did not show up for the next 4 hours. This did not bode well for me, it being New Year’s Eve and very cold. My jacket, while ever so stuffed with fluffy feathers, did not have a working zipper. I had also lost one of my two gloves and had no hat. After spending the little money I had in my wallet on a hat and gloves, I searched everywhere for a China Construction Bank ATM with no success. At the suggestion of a local couple (another story in and of itself for another time), I went to a nearby branch of a bank called Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. At first, I tried to convert some Korean currency I had with me for Chinese. No luck. For whatever reason, they didn’t accept Korean money. So, bracing myself for fees, I bit the bullet and used my bank card at their ATM. I took out 300 yuan (about $50).
It wasn’t until the next morning, when on a tour of the Ming Tombs and the Great Wall that I found out from a vendor that my 300 yuan was counterfeit! I tried to handle this while still in China, but I couldn’t recall the name of the bank at the time. I checked my banking information for the transaction in question as soon as I was back at my hostel. Unfortunately, the bank listed the account transaction and location as a series of numbers…grr. My tourguide had misunderstood that I did not remember the name of the branch and appealed to CBC about the counterfeit currency. They were fully willing to reimburse me, thinking they were at fault. I corrected the tourguide but was not able to tell him the name of the bank. Since my flight out of China back to Korea was the next day, I figured that maybe I could resolve this from out of the country. I was wrong.
I went online to the ICBC website to complain. I tried clicking their link for contacting them. This merely refreshed the home page. They had a wealth of different phone numbers, but none that could help me. Given that I only had a prepaid phone that only worked in Korea, I could not call outside of Korea. I waited until work on Monday to ask a co-worker to call the Korean ICBC in Seoul on my behalf. They said they needed me to come in person, since they could do nothing over the phone. Given that I worked during the week, I went up to Seoul on the weekend to a Korean bank branch of ICBC. Apparently, I didn’t realize that Korean banks were closed on Saturdays…-grumble-. I bumped into a worker of a company that shared a building with the bank, who was more than happy to help. He called a number he knew of and listened patiently before informing me that sorry but the Korean Bank branch is not responsible for reimbursing me when this happened in China. I begged that they at least pass the memo along to the China branch. More patient listening from the man, followed by him shaking his head.
While Bank of America did reimburse me for the fees incurred from the transaction, they could not reimburse me for the counterfeit currency.
Emily later told me that this does happen occasionally with banks in China. I appealed to her over Skype for help, but what she basically said was that it wasn’t worth it, to stop complaining and just be glad it wasn’t more.
Moral of the story: If at all possible, go to a globally recognized bank (like China Construction Bank). To be fair, I don’t know whether or not Industrial and Commercial Bank of China would have reimbursed me had I been able to settle this while in China, but I know that China Construction Bank would have. Also, considering my feverishly frequent trips to the China Construction Bank ATM, I did not receive a single counterfeit bill.