By Shaun Cunningham
Over the past 12 months, in our efforts to open a business bank account, our Hong Kong startup was rejected by no less than four banks. Our crime? We were told our business was “too young” for a bank account, which is curious since startups tend to be fairly young.
Some of the bankers we met apologised, mumbling that it was to do with U.S. regulatory pressure. Others told us that it wasn’t even worth making an application in the first place. It is worth noting that this is for an applicant that holds a valid Hong Kong visa, and for a business that had already been trading for six months and was generating high five figures in monthly revenue.
Three years ago when I opened a business bank account in the UK, it couldn’t have been more different. I simply walked into NatWest Bank without an appointment, with a couple of business and proof of identity documents at hand, and walked out an hour later with the business account application complete. The account was opened by the end of the same week.
Baffled by the rejection, I contacted InvestHK, the department responsible for helping startups get established in Hong Kong. They responded with an acknowledgement that it was indeed difficult for startups to open bank accounts in Hong Kong, and then directed me to this link, which simply had a list of every single bank registered in Hong Kong.
Using a corporate services firm
Frustrated, we paid a corporate services firm. After a couple of weeks. they made an introduction to a bank that I will refer to as CIT. CIT, like the other banks we had met, required no less than 22 separate documents for our application. After an interview with a rather patronising relationship manager at the bank, we were then charged for the privilege of submitting an account opening application (no guarantee whether the account would open). Two months later and after multiple interviews, our account is finally open.
But by “open”, they simply email you with an account number. That’s it. No instructions, no card, no internet banking, just an email with a number. It will now take another three months for CIT Bank to process our “internet banking application”, and in the interim any payments we would like to make will require a full page document being filled out, signed and stamped with a “company chop” (don’t ask), then emailed to a relationship manager, who will then call us to authorise the payment. We typically make up to 10 payments a day, which means that every day we will need to fill out, sign and chop 10 pages worth of forms, and have 10 phone calls with our relationship manager.
Well, at least we can use our company credit card to make payments, right? Think again! CIT Bank doesn’t offer card facilities to companies that have been trading for less than two years, despite some companies only accepting payment by credit card.
The state of Hong Kong’s retail banking and business banking sector is truly an embarrassment for a region that once prided itself for its ease of doing business. It is now taking its toll, with many startups being turned away from the region and heading to countries like Singapore, Israel, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. instead. Having once been an advocate of Hong Kong as a startup hub, this is hugely disappointing.
The Hong Kong Monetary Authority is beginning to take notice, but questions remain whether or not they are taking any real action. Rather than investing in startup competitions, the Hong Kong government would do well to first focus their efforts on figuring out how they can offer the very basics to startups, beginning with business bank accounts.