I think I’m a really atypical American. I’ve never owned a car. I’ve never used a credit card in my life. I’ve used a debit card with a Mastercard seal on it, and I’ve owned a credit card, but the credit card was eventually cancelled because I never once used it. Well, despite my personal history, I recently applied for a credit card at a major Shanghai bank.

Traditionally, Asia has been slow to catch on to the credit card trend, preferring cash. I remember that the first “credit cards” sporting Visa and Mastercard logos in Japan were not actually true credit cards at all, but rather debit cards which could automatically exchange currencies to make overseas payments more convenient. Early Chinese “credit cards” strayed even further from the model, since not only were they only debit cards, but RMB were not even freely exchangeable on the international market, so they could only be used within China.

Well, all that seems to be changing. This new credit card I applied for is not only a real credit card in that you can buy first and pay later, but it also allows for international purchases through automatic RMB-US Dollar exchanges. Cool!

So I applied. I had to provide a letter stating my monthly pay, stamped with my danwei‘s (my company’s) offical seal. That was sure not to be a problem, as I was making easily twice as much as some other Shanghainese people that have this kind of credit card.

The thing is, I got rejected! I was really shocked. I can’t know for sure why I was rejected, but it’s probably because I seem like a risk. I could easily run up a debt and then leave China.

It’s interesting to be discriminated against in a way that actually matters. This isn’t people maniacally yelling “hello” at me on the street, this is a financial issue. I can’t really be angry, because I understand the bank’s viewpoint. I’m sure that there really are quite a few unscrupulous laowai in Shanghai that would, indeed, rack up a huge debt and then flee.

But now I can’t get my credit card. Bummer.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Don’t worry about it, John. Credit cards are evil, stay away from them. Not only that, but they’re a highly overrated evil.

  2. Chris,

    I didn’t want the credit card so that I could go into debt. For some reason, I seem to have a deep aversion to debt, and I’ve never been in debt for any significant amount of time.

    What I wanted was to be able to order stuff from overseas online. Like books. Now that would be nice.

  3. Fret not you gentle giant. I had to apply three times before I was approved for my Philadelphia Flyers platinum Mastercard. It’s only a matter of time. Besides you don’t really need it. All the best to you, and hope all is well in that crazy city called Shanghai.

    Hugs and smooches,

  4. In Korea you cannot get a Credit card as a foreigner unless you put down a deposit equal to the credit limit.

    And credit cards here are not true credit cards they are more like charge cards, i.e. Amex

  5. debt is fun John – I spend my weekends juggling all my different debt accounts. I find it quite relaxing watching how each account never really changes. You should try it!

  6. It’s a very big risk for Chinese banks to give expats credit cards for a simple reason — so many expats pick up and go back to the US without paying the bill! It’s amazingly easy to do, and I don’t know if there’s any way for a Chinese bank to collect. They don’t use your Social Security number so it won’t get on your credit rating if you don’t pay. (Don’t get me wrong, I’m not encouraging not paying your credit card bill if you have a card from an Asian bank; it’s just a huge pain for the bank to collect, and if it’s not an exorbitant amount they may not bother.)

  7. Is it possible to get a check card attached to your bank account, so that you can build up credit in China (if there is such a thing here) first? Then apply for a real credit card?

  8. Apply for one through HSBC. It is a western bank, Hong Kong/London. They will check your credit and hook you up. Besides, you really should be doing all of your banking through HSBC anyway as they can provide you with a ton more services (and are the only stable, reliable, fiscally responsible bank in china) then other banks.

  9. Try again. Or go to the bank in person and ask how you can get a credit card or what needs to be done. Gaining credit in China is a start to setting your foundation. My advice: don’t listen to anyone’s advice. Good luck, John.

  10. Bummer man, you should probably just go back home this summer and apply for a card. I still have my visa from Canada on me and have used it in China. Not a big deal…

  11. I agree with Richard that it’s all about them not being able to collect if you pick up and leave. Foreigners need a guarantor for everything in Taiwan (cell phone contract, any sort of credit, etc.) You might have better luck if you’re married to a local.

    Too bad you don’t have one from college. They throw them at anyone in college. I still use mine that I got freshman year and I have yet to pay a cent of interest on it.

  12. Dezza and Wayne,

    I don’t want to use an American credit card because I don’t want to drain my dollar resources back home. I want to pay with the RMB I earn here in China.

  13. I had the same issue the first time I tried to get wireless Internet service from China Unicom.

    The wireless card would have cost over 3k back then, while the wireless service clocks in at about 200 yuan per month for about 5 Gigs of data. The problem was that Unicom wasn’t legally allowed to sell to foreigners. Either China Telecom was pulling some strings, or someone high up in the company decided that bill collection would be too much of a hassle if people weren’t permanent residents, etc.

    Fortunately, they seemed to have chilled out by the second time I went down. A 500 RMB deposit I’m not expecting to get back and no more questions were asked.

    Incidentally, the Unicom wireless service is great if you have a laptop, and the prices on the wireless cards are down to about 1.7k. Pretty liberal filtering too — I have no issues connecting to a number of discussion boards blocked elsewhere.

  14. If you do get into debt you can always ask people online to give you money, like Karyn Bosnak at

  15. nishishei Says: May 18, 2004 at 11:04 am

    Non-permanent residents in the US have a lot of problems getting credit cards too, they usually end up with debit cards instead.

  16. In Australia, banks are starting to refuse credit cards to foreign students as they often run away leaving massive debts.

  17. I got a taste of discrimination recently. The city government organised a walk (²½ÐÐ) and I signed up with a whole bunch of other people from the school. Apart from a 20Ôª fee, we were also supposed to write down the number from our ID card (Éí·ÝÖ¤), but since I don’t have that I submitted my passport number instead.

    But I’ve just heard that I’m not allowed to go. Or rather, if I want to go then I have to make a 45 minute trip into Dalian, go to the relevant government department, and register there. And pay a US$20 fee. It’s not fair!

  18. Try CITIC, HSBC or Bank of China. Shanghai Pudong or other major local banks won’t be as likely to deal with foreigners.

  19. Try China Merchants Bank.

    800-820-5555 (info number)

    Bring in an income declaration with your works stamp, passport, and residence book.
    It takes about 3 weeks to recieve your card.

  20. Ryan,

    China Merchants Bank was the bank that rejected me!

  21. Had a personal gauranty (written) from my company’s owner (BIG client of bank), along with past contracts, current contract (in country for two and staying for a third), have been a client of this bank since I arrived two years ago, same address for two years, make more than most Korean “households”, and still it took 3 months and a threatening phone call from my company’s owner to itimidate the bank into issuing me a Korean credit card (visa). I DON’T THINK THEY LIKE FOREIGNERS!

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