Opening up a bank account in South Korea

Let me tell you why I’m drinking beer out of a measuring cup at 5:30 PM so you don’t judge me if you see misspelled status updates later.Firstly, I’m out of clean glasses.

Secondly, I have had the worst luck with opening a bank account in South Korea.

I assume that not everyone has had this type of experience because the entire peninsula would have been burned to the ground if even fifty percent of the population is as frustrated as I feel right now. For the first time in a long time, I have money to pay off credit card and student debt. Getting those moneys into my USA bank account is proving difficult.

Did you see Star Trek, when Kirk and Spock were seperated by a pane of glass? So close, so raw and open, but ultimately unable to bridge that final distance, reach out and touch?

Those are my bank accounts. I’m not sure which one is Kirk and which one is Spock. I’ll let you, the reader, decide.

Let’s break down the basics.


(I’m with Citibank at the moment, so your mileage may vary. Also? I do not recommend it.)

1. If at all possible, get a Korean to go with you. If that’s not possible, get their phone number so the confused bank attendant can call and harass them for sending you by yourself. If you lack the phone number, for god’s sake, have them pin a hand-written note to your mittens saying that you want to open an account and any other possible thing you could need.

2. Banks are only open on weekdays 9am-4pm as a general rule. What if you work 8-6? Your boss will have to let you have an hour or two off. ‘But,’ you say, ‘that’s kind of crazy!’ Yeah? Well you’re preaching to the choir. And this is coming from an American who was used to bitching about banks closing at 6PM on the weekdays and only being open for four hours on Saturday. You know what I’m going to do as soon as I get back to America? Go to every damned bank I can on a Saturday and roll around on the floor like a cat on a new sweater.

3. Items you need to take with you to open a bank account; your address (use your school’s), your foreigner card, your passport, cash money as an initial deposit (I paid 10k won/$10, take 50k to be safe), a good luck charm, and a phone number. ‘But, Kris,’ you say to me with your big doe-eyes. ‘I don’t have a cell phone yet because I don’t have a bank account to use to sign up for a phone contract!’ Yeah? That right? Tough. Use your school’s phone number or a Korean friend’s. And don’t forget it, because you’re going to need to change it later once you get your own phone.*

4. So you go to the bank, fill out a stupid amount of paperwork, write down your passport and ARC numbers several times, enter your new pin number into a key pad and get your debit card. Sweet! All set! Unless if you want internet banking, you better sit your butt back down in that chair. If you want internet banking, you have to ask for it at the bank branch. ‘But,’ you wimper, a single tear rolling down your cheek, ‘in America I just sign up for it on the internet whenever I want and don’t have to–‘ ablahblahblah, can it. We’re in Korea now.

Back in the olden days (1990s) someone somewhere in Korea saw online commerce taking off and, with the best of intentions, decreed that shoppers should feel as safe buying fabrige eggs online as they do in the Fabrige Egg and Sad Sweaters Emporium down the street. That means that, these days, doing banking and commerce online in Korea–while totally safe–is, for us Americans who are used to throwing around credit card numbers willy nilly, an utter pain in the ass. Don’t get me wrong, my Korean checking account is locked down better than Fort Knox. Unfortunately it’s just locked down from me, too. And while I’m not the most savory of characters, I do deserve to get my grubby little hands on my own cash.

5. Once you ask for your internet banking, you are given a set number of days to actually create the account. After this window closes, you’ll have to go into the branch again. Easy, right? Are you out of your fucking mind? You need to have a computer running IE or install a special security program to use Chrome and maybe some other browsers that I’ve forgotten after my third measuring cup of beer. You’re also given, at the branch, a little card that looks like a decoder ring with sets of numbers. Don’t you ever. EVER. EV. ER. Lose this thing. You’ll need it as an extra security measure and will be asked to enter random numbers from it when making transactions, setting up your account, and probably using the bathroom at certain locations. Someone? Is going to break into your apartment at night, shake you awake, tie you to a chair, slap you, and ask for those numbers. Additionally, you have to install a security certificate onto your computer to use it as the one and only computer that can access your account after you go through the aforementioned blood ritual. Or, put it on a USB and tote it around with you to use on whatever computer you please. I think.

6. ‘How about mobile banking,’ you ask me, chin trembling like a newborn rabbit. Seriously? SERIOUSLY? After all that crap you just went through, you want to try and do it AGAIN on a smaller object that is deliciously aerodynamic and manages to find any diamond-hard surface within 100 yards? Fine man, fucking do it, I don’t even care. It’s not just downloading the app and putting in your web login ID. I don’t think. And they can’t do it at the branch. I was told. Honestly? I have no clue.

7. Once you get your shit together, you can use ATMs to transfer money directly to bank accounts. (And as soon as you get your debit card, you can transfer money to Korean accounts to pay bills. People don’t really write checks here.) It’s nice. They have an ‘English’ button. If you got through the mobile and internet banking steps, the ATM is going to be childsplay.

8. Just a note… Americans, the SWIFT number is NOT the same as the routing numbers we know and love and use. You’ll have to contact your US bank to find that shit if you want to transfer money internationally.

9. Lastly, Citibank has global transfers. You, in theory, can transfer your money for free between two international Citibank accounts. Unless your Korean branch insists that your American account doesn’t exist. Even after you log into your American account, and call the service rep in Dallas. This? This is why I’m… six cups of beer deep before 7PM. If you have an American Citibank account, the only thing I can suggest is to transfer a dollar to your Korean account and hope they can look up the info and help you out via reverse money osmosis because I am frankly out of ideas beyond drinking.

In any case, once you get it all set up, the Korean banking system is efficient and nice. English-speaking hotlines are available and will be given to you and enthusiastically highlighted by the banker who does not want to deal with your waygook ass again. And if you are someone who doesn’t have student and credit card loans to pay back home and can just keep your money in the Korean account… you’ll probably have a lot less stress in your life when you arrive here.

*The bank will send SMS confirmation numbers to you to send money overseas. This is why you need to change that phone number. And they hide parts of the old number from you, so you better recall all the digits. Also, your name on your bank account better match the one on your phone contract. ‘But, Kris,’ you sigh, rolling your eyes, ‘why would my name change? I’m not a scam artist or Cher.’ First off? Shut your mouth. Second? In America, some of us have middle names. In America, middle names are like second cousins. You know you have them, but you only remember them once in a while. My middle name is on my passport but not my credit card. My middle initial is on my diploma. Guess what–this is really fucking confusing to people in some other countries, namely South Korea. (And franky it should be because it’s my name like why would I possibly be so durrrrrrrrr about it unless I was from a country where middle initials and names were slapped onto presidential candidates to make them sound classy is where I’m guessing we got these from, etc.) So you decide the moment you get off the plane that you are going to ALWAYS follow whatever it says on your passport and I don’t even care if your middle name is ‘Sunbeam’ just go with it and save yourself the trouble.

Frankly, when it’s all said and done, Korea’s way of banking is probably safer and, in the long term, better. You know what else is? Exercise. And that sucks at first too. Also, watching curling. Then you get really into it.

I’m done.


UPDATE June 2014: After this trial by fire, I’m happy to say that I’ve been having a fine time with Citibank. If you can grit your teeth and get through the above, you’ll not only have a bank account that transfers your money home (to your other Citibank account) for free, you’ll also have passed a rigorous test that many ancient tribes believed initiated you into the warrior caste.


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