How and Why to Open a Bank Account in Hong Kong

Hong Kong today remains one of the best offshore banking jurisdictions. It offers a great combination of bank secrecy, corporate secrecy, a financially and politically stable environment, and strong banks. But perhaps most importantly, it’s a secure offshore investment haven for those who want to diversify out of sinking western currencies into booming Asian markets, and China in particular.

So how can you go about opening an offshore bank account in Hong Kong? Do you have to travel there? This article will answer these questions and give you some practical hints and tips. But first some background.

A Successful Free Market Experiment For East and West Alike

Hong Kong, in my opinion, is the only practical example in the world of a major city that has been developed from scratch and run as something of an offshore, free market experiment – first by the British, then by the Chinese.

The main Island (and later Kowloon and the New Territories, parts of the mainland) was a British colony for most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. During this time it grew from a fishing village and opium trading hub, into a city-state of seven million people. It became known as a free-wheeling, free market paradise for capitalists, with an economy characterized by low taxation, free trade and no government interference in business.

In 1997 the British returned sovereignty over Hong Kong to China. The former colony became one of China’s two Special Administrative Regions (SARs), the other being Macau. Many people were initially doubtful about one of the world’s capitalist bastions being run by a communist power, and at the time a lot of investors pulled out, many taking their dynamic business acumen heading to places like Singapore and Vancouver.

However, the “one country, two systems” model adopted by Beijing to coincide with free market reforms and the growth of China into an economic superpower has proven very successful. The Basic Law of Hong Kong, the equivalent of the constitution, stipulates that the SAR maintains a “high degree of autonomy” in all matters except foreign relations and defence. The SAR today operates as a major offshore finance center, discreetly oiling the wheels of commerce between East and West.

These days, rather than being put off by the Chinese influence, most international investors who are attracted to Hong Kong are coming precisely because of this Chinese connection. Hong Kong is the point of access to Chinese trade, without the legal and cultural difficulties of doing business in mainland China.

Those who do not trust their own governments are reassured by the fact that under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s foreign relations are run from Beijing. While most offshore jurisdictions humbly submit to demands from the USA and other western countries, in the case of China, the relationship is definitely reversed. Hong Kong does have a number of Tax Information Exchange Agreements (see below) but these are sensibly policed and do not allow for fishing expeditions.

Offshore Banking in Hong Kong

The region’s population is 95 percent ethnic Chinese and 5 percent from other groups, but English is very widely spoken and is the main language in businesses like banking.

One thing I like about using Hong Kong for offshore bank accounts is the same argument I have used for Panama and Singapore: it’s a ‘real’ country with real trade going on. The Hong Kong dollar is the ninth most traded currency in the world. Compare this to doing business on a small island or other remote banking jurisdiction, where everybody knows your only reason for doing business there is offshore banking. It also means that there is no problem doing your banking in cash, if you so wish.

For now the HKD, the local dollar, still tracks very closely the US dollar, but this appears to be changing as the Chinese Yuan circulates freely in Hong Kong, both in cash and in bank deposits. We think this represents an excellent opportunity to diversify funds out of the US dollar now, gaining exposure to Chinese growth in the meantime. (Of course, you can also hold HKD in banks in other parts of the world too)

Bank accounts in Hong Kong are almost all multi-currency by default, allowing all major local and international currencies to be held under one account number and exchanged freely and instantly within the account at the click of a mouse.

There is no capital gains tax, no tax on bank interest or stock market investments, and no tax on offshore sourced income. This, combined with a welcoming attitude to non-resident clients in the banks (including US citizens by the way, who are generally unwelcome in traditional offshore banking havens like Switzerland), and strong cultural and legal respect for financial privacy, makes Hong Kong one of Asia’s best offshore banking jurisdictions.

For those who want to establish a small offshore account under reporting limits, or simply to have the bank account established in view of future business, Hong Kong is also attractive given the low minimum deposits demanded by the major banks there. The minimum bank account balance can be as low as HK$ 3,000. Of course, you can’t expect red carpet, VIP private banking at this level – but you get a perfectly good functioning bank account with all the technological trimmings.

Offshore Corporate Bank Accounts in Hong Kong – Do’s and Don’ts

Typically, offshore clients choose to open accounts using corporations, as opposed to personal accounts. This not only offers greater privacy, but also flexibility and can – depending of course on how things are structured – offer significant tax and asset protection advantages.

Accounts can easily be opened both for pure offshore companies like Panama, BVI, Nevis or Marshall Islands, or for local Hong Kong companies that are set up using nominee directors and shareholders.

When contacting local corporate service providers in Hong Kong, you’ll find that most of these corporate service providers will recommend you use a Hong Kong company to open the account. The reason they do this is that it’s simpler and more profitable for them. They can incorporate a local company at low cost, opening the bank account is smoother and faster with a local company, and they can carry on billing nominee director fees every year. But it may not be the right thing for you.

Whilst it is true that Hong Kong companies do not have to pay any tax provided they do not make any local source income, administering such a company is not so simple. For example, Hong Kong companies are required to file audited accounts every year. They must file pages and pages of documents to convince the Inland Revenue Department (HKIRD) that they don’t have any local business, and, from practical experience, the HKIRD is getting much stickier about this. Long-established companies are normally left unmolested but newly established companies can expect a lot of compliance work in their first few years. Again, this suits the Hong Kong corporate service providers who charge handsomely for such services.

Another factor to consider is Controlled Foreign Corporation (CFC) legislation in your home country. (For an explanation see Wikipedia ) Many clients choose to set up LLCs as they can be treated as passthrough entities, vastly simplifying reporting requirements in some countries like the USA. Hong Kong corporations are not LLCs and cannot be treated as passthroughs for tax purposes.

My advice – assuming you don’t intend to do any business in Hong Kong besides banking and perhaps the occasional trip to visit your money – would be to open the account in the name of a company from a foreign offshore tax haven. It’s a little more work and expense at the beginning, and the bank might ask you more questions, but it will save you a lot of money and headaches in the long term. If you want a local look and feel for your company, numerous virtual office services are available.

Hong Kong Tax Information Exchange Agreements

Contrary to what you will read on some out-of-date websites, Hong Kong has signed a number of Tax Information Exchange Agreements (TIEAs). However, the HKIRD is at pains to point out that fishing expeditions are not going to be tolerated.

The HKIRD has issued Practice Note 47, available on the internet, which usefully explains how the HKIRD seek to achieve a balance between the requirements of compliance with the OECD requirements, whilst providing checks and balances to protect the rights of businesspeople.

The HKIRD are professionals and should be well positioned to deal with TIEA requests properly and justly in accordance with the treaties and guidelines. I am confident not going to allow their ‘clients’ rights to be trampled on.

Regulation of Banks in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s Banking Ordinance was revamped in 1986. It has since undergone several amendments to improve prudential supervision. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) was formed in 1993 as a one-stop financial regulator, responsible for everything from banks to stored value anonymous debit cards.

The SAR maintains a three-tier system of deposit-taking institutions, comprising licensed banks, restricted license banks, and deposit-taking companies. Only licensed banks may operate current and savings accounts, and accept deposits of any size and maturity. RLBs are only allowed to accept deposits of HK$500,000 and above, while DTCs are only permitted to accept deposits of a minimum of HK$100,000 with original maturity of not less than three months.

Both these latter categories provide an opportunity for overseas banks to conduct wholesale, investment or private banking activities in Hong Kong without having to jump through the hoops of applying for a full banking license. In addition, some foreign banks have chosen to open representative offices in Hong Kong, which are not allowed to take deposits but can assist in opening accounts at other offices within their groups.

As Hong Kong is an international financial centre, it is an explicit policy of the HKMA that the regulatory framework in Hong Kong should conform as much as possible with international standards, in particular those recommended by the Basel Committee.

Hong Kong’s five largest banks, in terms of total assets, are as follows:

– Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC)

– Bank of China (Hong Kong)

– Hang Seng Bank Ltd

– Standard Chartered Bank

– Bank of East Asia Ltd.

A full list of updated Hong Kong banks can be found on Wikipedia.

Visiting Hong Kong to Open a Bank Account

If you are visiting Hong Kong to open your account, it can normally be opened the same day provided you have made some arrangements with a local service provider, or directly with the bank, in advance. This is assuming you use one of the major banks, that nearly everybody does. You can then simply visit the bank, sign documents and receive the bank account number immediately. This will be a full multi-currency account and you will typically receive a digital token for internet banking, a password and a debit card.

The documents required for opening offshore bank account are:

1) Formation documents (in the case of corporate accounts. Apostilles are required in the case of foreign corporate accounts – your offshore provider will know how to obtain these.)

2) Bank forms and business plan/expected activity (a corporate service provider will normally supply these as part of the service)

3) Passport copies of each director, signatory and shareholder (take special note of this requirement if you are using nominee directors – if the persons are not present, copies will have to be notarized.)

4) Proof of address (such as updated bill statement which shows up your name and address) and signed (of each director and shareholder)

A bank reference is generally required if you are dealing direct with the bank. If you go through a corporate service provider, they normally write a reference so you do not need to supply a bank reference. However, if you can obtain a bank reference it is better.

Opening an account without visiting Hong Kong

It is also perfectly possible to open accounts without visiting Hong Kong (known as ‘remote account opening’) though this process tends to take substantially longer as banks will ask a lot more questions. In this case, your bank or service provider will generally e-mail you the forms, that you will need to print out and sign.

Depending on the bank, there may well be certain special instructions about how and where to sign – for example, HSBC in Hong Kong will typically request that you have your signature witnessed in the HSBC Bank nearest to you. As with all foreign bank accounts, you should be sure to use the same signature that appears in your passport, otherwise the documents will be rejected.

In the case of remote account opening the bank will normally courier the password, debit card, and token direct to your address in your home country. Then you need to activate them via the bank’s website.

Conclusion

Hong Kong competes very favorably with Singapore, the other Asian banking jurisdiction we favor. If you have not yet diversified your offshore holdings into Asia, you should seriously consider doing so. I hope this article will be helpful in this regard.

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Offshore Banking – Fiction Vs Fact

FICTION: Offshore banking can’t be that good because they can’t really pay the high interest rates they offer. If they could really pay those rates then U.S. banks would try to be competitive and have the same interest rates.

FACT: Examine closely the financial statements of any U.S. Bank. You will see that their “gross” profits against customer deposits can range from 25% to 40% — but — they have laws written in stone to limit the interest amount they can pay customers on their deposits. The U.S. banks place their earnings into unnecessary frills and non-productive expenditures like fancy buildings etc., while offshore banking facilities don’t do this and share their profits with their customers.

FICTION: Offshore banking isn’t regulated, so you are at risk of losing all money deposited with them.

FACT: The truth is that every country in the free world has regulations, rules and laws governing financial institutions and banks. Those regulations, rules, and laws, however, are much less restrictive than the “protectionist” U.S. banking regulations, rules, and laws and allow the offshore banking industry better opportunity to earn much greater profits for their investors and depositors.

FICTION: Offshore banking facilities are not insured by the F.D.I.C.

FACT: Some of the banks are but not that many. If they are, they must comply with the same protectionist banking regulations and rules as all the other F.D.I.C. insured banks. But, the majority of offshore banking facilities are insured; one way or another.

Depositor insurance programs similar to the F.D.I.C. program have been established in some countries, so that the banks in those countries have their deposits insured. Independent insurance companies insure the deposits of offshore banking facilities in other countries AND unlike the F.D.I.C., insure 100% of the banks deposits; not just those under $100,000. (By the way, some of the banks in the U.S. insure their deposits with independent insurance companies and many banks in the U.S. are not F.D.I.C. insured)

Offshore banking is “self-insured” for the most part which means those banks have a liquidity factor equal to 100% (or more) of the deposits on the books. Those banks have $1 (or more) in liquid assets for every $1 held on deposit. Therefore, there is no bank run because they can cover any depositor demand.

Self-insured offshore banking is actually more secure than F.D.I.C. insured U.S. banking. Why? Because the F.D.I.C. insured U.S. banks are permitted to maintain a liquidity factor equivalent to approximately 10 percent of their public deposits. (Is it any wonder why more U.S. banks fail each year than in any other country?)

Which kind of bank would you feel more safe having your money in? An offshore banking institution which as one dollar in cash for every dollar on deposit, or a U.S. bank which as ten cents in cash for every dollar that shows up on the deposit statement they give their clients?

FICTION: Offshore banking isn’t as big or strong as U.S. banking.

FACT: Of the strongest and largest big banks in the world (in assets), one bank ONLY is located in the United States:

Here are the safest offshore banks in the world, according to a ranking done in 2007 after examining their total assets in US dollars. This ranking is compiled from balance sheet information included on AllBanks.org

1 UBS AG Switzerland 2 Barclays UK 3 The Royal Bank of Scotland Group UK 4 Deutsche Bank AG Germany 5 BNP Paribas SA France 6 The Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd Japan 7 ABN AMRO Holding NV Netherlands 8 Societe Generale France 9 Credit Agricole SA France 10 Bank of America NA USA

2008/2009 UPDATE AFTER THE FINANCIAL COLLAPSE OF 2008

Germany’s largest bank, Deutsche Bank AG, reported a fourth quarter loss of about $6.3 billion. A year earlier, the bank posted a profit of about $1.3 billion (1 billion euros), Bloomberg reported.

Royal Bank of Scotland is expected to post losses of as high as £1.7 billion.

Bucking the trend is a bank not even on the list above and that bank is Standard Chartered bank which is expecting to post profits of 1.3 billion pounds. I have a contact who can help you open an account at this bank for your company if you desire to do so. The account would be in Hong Kong.

Another bank I know about is rated AAA by an independent rating service and if you are not from the U.S. or if you are from the U.S. and have a foreign LLC or IBC to open the account with then you can deposit $15,000 and get involved in their borrow low and deposit high program which has earned depositors as much as 100% per year on their deposit. It is easy to open an account there.

FICTION: Offshore banking must not be very good, or more facilities would advertise their services in newspapers and magazines in the U.S.

FACT: Offshore banking in general is restricted by law from advertising in magazines, newspapers, radio and on T.V. unless they come under the same protectionist rules and regulations that are placed upon U.S. banks. Knowing that, you should be cautious about doing business with any offshore banking facility that publicly advertises in the U.S. media. Because you can be very sure that they have sold-out to the U.S. banking establishment and that establishment will end up selling you out to those who make the rules.

FICTION: Offshore banking is only for the wealthy.

FACT: About 25 years ago, that may have been true. But I know of about three offshore banking facilities that will allow you to open an account for as little as $500. One of these is in the Asia, another in Europe, and another in Latin America.

FICTION: Opening an account at an offshore banking facility is too difficult, and it is very difficult to get a withdrawal when you need it.

FACT: Opening an account at an offshore banking facility is easy because you just follow the instructions they give to you. Getting your money out only requires a request that you fax or email with an attachment included.

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Internet Banking: Relevance in a Changing World

Surprising, but true – Internet-based activity is not the preserve of the young “digital native” generation alone. A 2008 survey says that Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1976) uses Internet banking significantly more than any other demographic segment, with two thirds of Internet users in this age group banking online.

Gen X users have also professed their preference for applications such as Facebook, to share, connect and be part of a larger community.

This is some irony in this, since online banking, as we know it today, offers minimal interactivity. Unlike in a branch, where the comfort of two way interaction facilitates the consummation of a variety of transactions, the one way street of e-banking has only managed to enable the more routine tasks, such as balance enquiry or funds transfer.

It’s not hard to put two and two together. A clear opportunity exists for banks that can transform today’s passive Internet banking offering into one that provides a more widespread and interactive customer experience.

It is therefore imperative that banks transform their online offering, such that it matches the new expectations of customers. Moreover, Internet banking must journey to popular online customer hangouts, rather than wait for customers to come to it.

There are clear indications that the shift towards a “next generation” online banking environment has already been set in motion. It is only a matter of time before these trends become the norm.

Leveraging of Social Networks

Forward thinking banks are leveraging existing social networks on external sites to increase their visibility among interested groups. They are also deploying social software technology on their own sites to engage the same communities in two way discussions. Thus, their Internet banking has assumed a more pervasive persona – customers are engaging with the bank, along with its products and services even when they’re not actually transacting online.

Heightened visibility apart, banks can gain tremendous customer insight from such unstructured, informal interactions. For example, a discussion on the uncertain financial future among a group of 18 to 25 year olds could be a signal to banks to offer long term investment products to a segment that was previously not considered a target. Going one step further, a positive buzz around a newly launched service can create valuable word-of-mouth advertising for the business.

Collaborating through Web 2.0

The collaborative aspect of Web 2.0 applications has enabled banks to draw customers inside their fold more than ever before. Traditional methods such as focus group discussions or market research suffer from the disadvantages of high cost, limited scope and potential to introduce bias. Feedback forms merely serve as a post-mortem. In contrast, Web 2.0 has the ability to carry a vast audience along right from the start, and continue to do so perpetually. Thus, an interested community of prospects and customers participate in co-creating products and services which can fulfil their expectations.

The pervasiveness of Web 2.0 enables delivery of e-banking across multiple online locations and web-based gadgets such as Yahoo!Widgets, Windows Live or the iPhone. This means next generation online banking customers will enjoy heightened access and convenience

A New York based firm of analysts found that 15% of the 70 banks tracked by them had adopted Web 2.0, a number of them having done so within the last 12 months.

Standard Chartered Bank employees connect with their colleagues through Facebook and use the platform to share knowledge, clarify questions and participate in discussions on ongoing company activities.

Bank of America, Wachovia Bank and Commonwealth Credit Union have built a presence within interactive media to create awareness and keep up a dialogue with interested communities. They have employed a variety of methods, ranging from creating YouTube communities to launching campaigns on Current TV, a channel in which viewers determine content.

Personalisation of Online Banking

Vanilla e-banking divides customers into very large, heterogeneous groups – typically, corporate, retail or SME, with one type of Internet banking page for each. That’s in sharp contradiction to how banking organisations would like to view their clientele. Banks are moving towards customer-specificity, almost viewing each client as a “segment of one”, across other channels, and online banking is set to follow suit. For instance, a specific home page for home loan customers and another for private banking clients could well be a possibility in future.

Interestingly, National Bank of Kuwait had the foresight to do this several years ago – they enabled customers to determine which products they would view and access, and were rewarded with a dramatic increase in online transactions.

Money Monitor from Yes Bank allows customers to choose their landing page – for example, they can set “all transactions”, “net worth” or “portfolio” as their default view. Other features include the ability to categorise transactions as per customers’ convenience and the printing of custom reports.

Empowerment Online

Beyond doubt, Internet banking has created a more informed, empowered class of customers. This is set to climb to the next level once customers are allowed to proactively participate in many more transaction-related processes. The Internet has already made it possible for customers to compare product loan offerings, simulate financial scenarios and design custom retirement portfolios. Going forward, they would be able to consummate related transactions – which means, after comparing interest rates, they could originate a loan online, and once secured, they can begin to repay it online as well.

Portalisation

The emergence of Web 2.0 technology coupled with banks’ desire to personalise their e-banking to the highest degree is likely to result in “portalisation” of Internet banking. The idea of banking customers being able to create their own spaces online, filled with all that is relevant to them, is not that far-fetched. Customers can personalise their Internet banking page to reflect the positions of multiple accounts across different banks; they could include their credit card information, subscribe to their favourite financial news, consolidate their physical assets position, share their experiences with a group and do more – all from one “place”.

Money Monitor enables customers to add multiple “accounts” (from a choice of 9,000) to their page. Accounts could be savings or loan accounts with major Indian banks, or those with utilities providers, credit card companies, brokerage firms and even frequent flyer programs. Users can customise their pages as described earlier.

As banks seek to develop their Internet banking vision for the future, in parallel, they will also need to address the key issues of security and “due defence”. While it is every marketer’s dream to have customers work as ambassadors, adequate precaution must be taken to prevent the proliferation of malicious or spurious publicity. Therefore, before an individual is allowed to participate in a networking forum, he or she must have built up a favorable track record with the bank. The individual must be a recognized customer of the bank, having used a minimum number of products over a reasonable length of time. Qualitative information about the person’s interaction with the bank’s support staff (for example frequency and type of calls made to their call centre, outcome of such interaction and so on) may be invaluable in profiling the “right” type of customer who can be recruited as a possible advocate.

Collaborative Web 2.0 applications may necessitate opening up banks’ websites to outside technology and information exchange with third party sites, raising the spectre of data and infrastructure security. A robust mechanism of checks and balances must be built to ensure that the third party sites are secure, appropriately certified and pose no threat to the home banks’ sites. Likewise, before a third party widget is allowed to be brought on to a site, it must have passed through stringent security control.

Due diligence must be exercised before permitting users to place a link to another site to guard against the possibility of inadvertent download of malicious software, which could, in the worst case, even result in phishing originating from the banks’ sites.

It is equally important for a bank to guard its customers against invasion of privacy, data theft or misuse. The concept of portalisation envisages deploying technology to bring information from other banks’ or financial service providers’ websites into the home bank’s site. The home bank must ensure that its customers’ personal or transaction related information, which may be shared with the other providers, is not susceptible to leakage or outright misuse.

Banks will do well to partner with an Internet banking solution provider which has not only the expertise to translate their vision into a cutting edge e-banking experience for the user, but also the foresight to define boundaries for safety. With security concerns adequately addressed, next generation Internet banking is full of exciting possibilities. Banks that seize the opportunity may find that Internet banking can become a means of differentiating themselves from competitors, rather than a mere cost cutting tool. Clearly, providing a more powerful and interactive e-banking experience, is the way forward.

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