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Is Online Banking Easy for Expats in Korea?

Banking in Korea: : Is online banking in Korea easy?

Even though I’m no longer a helpless expat in Korea, there are times I still feel like one.

Online banking in Korea initially makes many foreigners feel helpless. It takes some getting used to. In a short while, I’ll tell you some pros and cons… But first, let me share my story.

Seeing as I still haven’t decided if I’ll return to Korea, I still have my KEB bank account there. While I’ve used my KEB ATM card for traveling, I haven’t actually done any online banking in over a year. So when I finally checked my online account last week, I was relieved my money was still in tact. That’s the good news.

Giddy I had money socked away, I decided to transfer money into my U.S. account. But when I went to make my transfer, the system informed me that due to my inactivity, I’d been shut off from that service. If I wanted to transfer money, I’d have to re-register.

Re-register? What does that mean?

I’m in Hawaii, my bank is in Korea!

…This is where the hyperventilating begins…

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Overseas banking & the myth of global banks

It’s only rational to think that just because belong to worldwide banks like KEB, Citibank and HSBC with locations in the U.S. and Korea, that you can sort out your banking problems in either country. Well, it doesn’t work like that. Two different country locations means two separate accounts; and if your problem is with your account in Korea, then that’s where you need to solve it. .. In or with your bank in Korea.
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One thing for foreigners to consider when choosing a bank in Korea

If there’s one feeling an expat dreads, is that their money might be trapped in Korea, while they’re thousands of miles away in their home country. Your ability to transfer money online from your Korean bank to your home country, with ease, is a valuable feature to consider when choosing a bank.

Why? Depending on your school– your last month’s salary and security pension can be deposited into your Korean account as late as a month ‘after’ you’ve ended your contract and left the country. Many expats get a Korean friend to close their account and wire them the money. But that’s not necessary.

Throughout my year in Korea, I had accounts with three different banks. I ultimately chose KEB because a) I’d have easy Mac online access to transfer my money to my home in the U.S., b) the wire transfer rates were low and c) KEB’s services began catering to foreign and expat communities (which means, it’ll make improvements with foreigners in mind).

Anyways, to continue my story, I went to the KEB website to learn how to re-register, when I hit the first wall.

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A. Have Korean websites learned English yet?

Good News:
Due to the rise of foreigners and Korea’s desire to globalize themselves through English, more websites are starting to offer an online version in English. Yay! But wait

Bad News:
Often, only the introductory pages are in English and when you click on any information links, to learn about things in-depth, you’re immediately taken to Korean pages. It’s frustrating to say the least. No important information is available in English.

Banking in Korea: : korean banking for foreigners

I had no choice but put a Skype call out to KEB customer service in Korea.

And now for my second wall…

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B. Are you PC or Mac? (careful, which you choose…)

Bad News:
When I was last in Korea, everything was PC based and Microsoft Internet Explorer ruled as ‘king of the internet browsers’.

If you were a Mac owner (which does not work with IE), you were screwed with a nail and a jackhammer! Life for Mac owners is a painful ordeal in Korea.

pc vario

PCs take first priority in Korea (sometimes, only priority)

Good News:
Fortunately, ever since Korea let Apple into the country, foreign-friendly banks like KEB seem to be awakening to the Mac-discrimination problem. KEB now offers a downloadable online Mac banking application (click here), which Mac users can install on their computer to make online banking easier and it speak flawless English. The application works like a charm and I can bank from all corners of the globe!

Bad News:
For doing core stuff, like re-registering my service, I still needed to go back to the PC… or re-register in-person. Luckily, a family member had a PC I could borrow. But because my PC was crunky or uh,… American(???), my computer configuration did not work with KEB Korea’s online site!

I’m screwed, right?…

With a nail and a jackhammer.

keb mac online app

Banking in Korea: KEB Mac online downloadable application

C. What is Live Remote Assistance and why do I love it?

Good News:
Live Remote Assistance is a cool service, which acts like invisible hands stretching from Korea, doing all the troubleshooting work on my computer. I press a little button  on the KEB site and it instantly allows the IT/customer service support department in Korea to take over my computer’s mouse controls, so they can troubleshoot my computer and walk me through my online banking registration.

I didn’t need to expose passwords or private codes. IT would turn the computer over to me, let me enter my passcodes and then swing the system back around, to continue walking me through. My computer was in Hawaii and KEB was controlling it in Korea. Pretty amazing technology.

Bad News:
More Korean banks should have this. But don’t. To my knowledge, KEB is the only one who offers this service, although if there are others, feel free to chime in.

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This red blinking signal lets you know someone is supporting your computer via Live Assistance

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But it didn’t end there…because my ‘digital certificate‘ had expired.

Which brings me to my third wall:

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D. Korea’s high security banking & having more passwords than one.

Good news:
You’ll be relieved to know that banking technology in Korea is superior to most. Personal online banking is treated with such an effort of high security, that it leads me to believe that Korea is a country with world class hackers! Why?

Bad news:
Depends on how you look at it, but it takes several tools and detailed steps to break into your own account.

Good news:
Your pins and passwords for the most part, aren’t heavily reliant on memory.

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Things you may need for korean online banking: Bank book, Time OTP, digital certificate on a keychain harddrive, security card

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Aside from your account number and alien registration number (in your bankbook), which are good to have should you need extra verification,…

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E. Here are other things you may need for online banking:

To the best of my knowledge, here are descriptions of what each does and how they work.

Password
Name that logs you into the online system.
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Pin
Passcode, usually the same as your card ATM pin number.
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Digital Certificate
It’s a digital key, which most Koreans store on their keychain USB drives. It works like a workplace ID card that you flash at the security desk, to gain access into your company. The banking internet system will search your harddrive for the certificate and once found, allow you to use your online account.

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Security card
A plastic card with numbered sequence codes with numbers over each character. This offers another password to verify your identity and it’s generated by the site’s system. The system spits out Bingo-like numbers, which correspond to correlating numbers on your card. If you’ve ever enjoyed code breaker puzzles when you were a young child, this is very similar.

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Time OTP (*not a common device but KEB offers it and I’ve found it easier than the security card)
It’s a time-based digital security code generator that spits out new numbers for a password to verify your ID. It allows you 10 seconds before it refreshes to a new number. I’m not quite sure how it syncs with the online system, but it seems to do that.

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My End Result:

Two hours later,… KEB customer service’s ‘Live Remote Assistance’ has cracked me back into my bank account and re-registered me to use my money transfer service

And that’s exactly how an expat navigates normal everyday life in Korea! One step is equal to ten!

But in many ways, the banking technology in Korea is superior to most and despite the twinges of pain, I appreciate it (sometimes) more than the U.S. Now if they could just warm up to Macs more!

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29 Comments

  1. Jiyoung Choi says:

    Hi Christine,

    I’d love to know how the expired digital certificate issue was resolved since my bf now living in the US is exactly in the same situation. He’s also shut off from any online banking services because of his inactivity. He called the customer service a couple times and he was told to visit their branches in LA and NYC, or else he would need to fly to Korea. (Funny joke?) I am a Korean living in Seoul, I could be his proxy if that’s the way to go. Not sure if that is even possible, but if it is, they would ask him to go through a crazy documentation process like getting stuff notarized and apostilled. What was their resolution with your digital certificate? Will they be able to help him with the issue once they connect on their live assistance service?

  2. Gil says:

    Well, I am a korean who is sometimes frustrated with how many identifications I have to provide and security softwares I have to install just to check my balance. HIgh IT country. ….

  3. Gierlang Bhakti Putra says:

    I’m gladful with their high class security system. But as an expat like you too, I found it really difficult to get my own money! I’m back in my hometown now and realize that if despite you are using bank with global network, you still need to register your card back in Korea. It’s frustating that years passing by, this system is still so complicated.

    Worse? I’m a Linux user. Guess what, my desktop is just not friendly with Korean!

  4. Klayman says:

    “Time OTP (*not a common device but KEB offers it and I’ve found it easier than the security card)
    It’s a time-based digital security code generator that spits out new numbers for a password to verify your ID. It allows you 10 seconds before it refreshes to a new number. I’m not quite sure how it syncs with the online system, but it seems to do that.”

    It just has precise electronic clock inside, so that deviation of its clock from internal bank system clock is less than 10 seconds even after some years of life away from bank.

    To generate the one-time code, this device adds device’s fixed internal secret string to timestamp string (rounded to nearest 10 seconds of minute), and then applies cryptographic hash function to the resulting string. Hash functions are designed by mathematicians in such a way that their output is a function of input (i.e. equal inputs always lead to equal outputs) but the output looks like a completely random string so you are unable to guess input by looking at output (so called “non-reversibility” of hash function).

    System in the bank also knows internal secret string of the device, it knows current time to 10 seconds precision, and does the same operation — and gets the same output of hash function as the device. This way bank server knows that if strings match, then you have that little device and thus your identity is verified.

    Non-reversibility of hash function means that it’s impossible to make a copy of the device. For copying the device, you’ll need to figure out the fixed internal secret string inside the device — and it’s impossible to do just by looking at the outputs, because of this neat feature of cryptographic hash functions.

  5. ECG says:

    Hi all. Don’t know if s’one still follows up on this, I am now in Korea with KEB foreigners accounts (local and USD) and consider going to Citibank for better service. Anyone has an opinion on Citibank Korea – are they as good as KEB is supposed to be?
    And one more – so understand many of you still have the accounts active for longer than 1 year after leaving the country right? Does the e-banking still work OK?
    Citibank told me that the account will be deactivated only if stay for more than 1 year without a transaction – well, transaction could mean using your K-debit card at home from time to time and charge your KEB account. Not the USD account, however, this will work only with kW account.
    Any inpot pls?

  6. Anika says:

    Fantastic article Christine! Humorous, detailed and helpful. Thanks always!

  7. Anika says:

    Fantastic article Christine! Humorous, detailed and helpful. Thanks always!

  8. Ryan says:

    One more thing about Korean banking…I left about 30 million in my account when I left there. Before I left, I asked a guy at the bank, “what If I lose my ATM card?” He said that I’d have to come back to the bank and get a new on AND I must present my ARC card (Korean ID card for foreigners). I told him that Korean immigration takes the card when you leave the country. He said, “then don’t lose your ATM card because you won’t be able to get a new one!” Then he said, “Korea is not a good place for foreigners to leave their money.”

    Cheers,

    Ryan

    • @Ryan: Thanks for leaving that tip, Ryan! You’ve raised such an important point about ARC IDs being conditions we all opened our bank accounts under. Perhaps that might be helpful backup for expats– take photocopies of important documents. I actually have my old number and a copy of my card. Before I left the country, KEB told me that a valid ARC wouldn’t be necessary because I already opened an account and it’s under my old number. Thus, your old ARC number is the key.I’m sure it can get you into your bank account but a new ATM card?… that might not be as possible.

      Thanks for the share!

  9. k says:

    Woori Bank also offers live assistance, as well as an English Translator during working hours. 🙂

  10. Ari says:

    A typical example of how everything in Korea is generally super easy, speedy and efficient … except if you’re foreign!!!

    I never bothered with online banking there, but it always took a lot of effort speaking Korean to do transfers in person. Oh and another thing that’s difficult for foreigners in Korea is getting the kind of Visa/Mastercard card you want!

    • @Ari: Totally. Expat life is 10 steps per every one. 😉 Spent my time there living off of the ATM debit card vs. the credit card. Before I heard no foreigners were allowed credit cards in Korea, but then later I heard rumor foreigners can get them. But I don’t know what hoops you have to jump thru for them. Maybe you just need to be locked in for 2 years (as they used to ‘say’ about cellphone contracts)

  11. Naomi says:

    I had to laugh when I read your comment on Korean bank security – I’ve also NEVER encountered bank security as high as over here, that I also assumed it must be because Korea has the best hackers!! To be honest, Korean banking drives me insane. I also have KEB, and I cannot even count the number of times I’ve tried to call them to fix or change something, and they’d told me I have to come into a branch to do it. What happens when I’m abroad and have a problem with money transferring? Will I have to fly back to Korea just to visit my local KEB?? UGGG!

    • @Naomi: Yeah, with all the steps and passwords, it initially turned me off to any kind of online banking. Only really went online when I had to travel or go abroad from Korea. Well, if you ever have a problem w/ KEB, you can do what I did. 😉 It worked fine for me.

  12. debbie ann says:

    banking is SO hard. we still have money stuck in India, and now we are in South Africa and our bank acct is in Australia and the ATM fees are very high, esp for 3 months. I will say though that online Australian banking is very easy, not only is it english, but it works very well for paying bills and transferring money, better than american bank accts.

    • @Debbie Ann: Oooh, your money is stuck in an Indian bank? Hope you find a way to resolve that one without having to physically go there. Are you just traveling through or living in these countries? If you’re staying in one place for a while, it’s sometimes easier just to get a bank in that country. Good luck though!

  13. Jen says:

    Very interesting. I would be very nervous with opening an account with a bank that’s not in English. If I was living and working in Korea, I would do exactly what you are doing. I like your pros and cons. I’m actually shocked that you can connect your Korean bank to your US bank. Learn something new everyday! I’m going to keep it in mind. I’m sure I’m going to come across this one day.

    I recently went on a month long backpacking trip to Europe. The first day I arrive to Europe (Amsterdam to be exact), an ATM ate my UHFCU card. Since it was 10PM (Hawaii time), all I could do was cancel my card. Luckily, I had a second card as my back up.

    • @Jen: How frustrating that your card got eaten in Europe! Glad you took a second ATM or charge card as a backup. I learned to always take a second when my card got flagged in Spain and Morocco! 😉

  14. Peter Raeves says:

    Mac users should try this: http://osxdaily.com/2010/04/20/run-internet-explorer-on-your-mac/
    I haven’t tried it personally, but this way you can run IE on your mac without having to (dual)-boot Windows (running Windows on your mac).

    The time otp device. They have the same algorithm on the server as you have on your device. A value will be calculated for a given time period, right? So if the number you entered is the same as the one they calculated based on your personal information and the time you press enter you can access the website. Basically the time the key is valid and the time you press enter are the times that are synced.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One-time_password#Time-synchronized
    Not sure if it’s that uncommon of a device. Belgian banks also uses such a system for online banking and so does Blizzard.

    On a side note: If my computer service would ever suggest taking over my computer, I would never ever allow it, begin paranoid as hell and assuming they would steal some kind of personal information without me noticing it. Which I don’t have in Korea. Not sure of this blind trust is legitimate and not too naive, but nothing happened thus far. Also not having English on websites in Korea is something I really appreciate and admire a lot. Coming from a country (Belgium) where nothing requires much effort, it’s nice to have something I like that finally requires some effort to become really enjoyable. It would probably not be this enjoyable if it had been too easy.

    • @Peter: Oh my, apologies for the late response! Thanks for that Mac link. I’ve tried running IE on my Mac but it’s always been buggy and especially on Korean sites! It’s as if they can sniff out the Mac! Hopefully your link will find success!

      The U.S. doesn’t have OTP’s and I guess I was referring to the Korean banks in that statement. It makes sense that Belgium might have them ; Belgium is a wealthy country banking must be airtight.

      As for the live assistance and security issue: I see your POV; in the U.S., I might feel the same. But as an expat in Korea, there’s a distinct system of trust that Korean culture operates under. I’ve had to hand over more sensitive information over to my co-teachers to have them go into my accounts and set them up or deal with them for me, simply because the websites are all in Korean. Most expats teaching English in Korea are in my shoes and have to have their co-teachers do the same. A bank site that’s not in English is hell for an English expat (here’s more of a reason why expats won’t feel a refreshing stance like yours. ha ha..).

      When leaving, my security pension was going to be sent to my old bank account only after I left Korea. The bank official told me I’d have to “ask a favor” from a Korean friend– have them close my account and send the money for me. I’d need to give them my password, user name, bank book, etc… I authorized the bank official to do that instead– and it got done. No money missing. To a degree, I trust the Korean system. But anywhere else? No.

  15. Jessica Wray says:

    Wow, do I understand. Banking in Korea has been one of the more frustrating things for me. Great post on spelling out what banking in Korea is like for expats. I wish I would have known this prior to coming!

  16. Anna Frances Ellis says:

    haha – I just joined KEB last week. It was the first time I ever felt truly awkward in Korea because I had to sit through ten minutes of my co-teacher’s supervisor yelling at the teller over the phone (the teller stated that I needed my official ARC – not just the certificate). The supervisor was so loud (over the phone, mind you!) EVERYONE at the bank was stealing glances at us. It all worked out somehow. I am actually going to KEB today to sign up for the internet banking service and the “easy-one foreign currency remittance service”.

    I should note here, that when I first when to KEB’s English web-site last week to see if I could look at my account – I first attempted to use Google Chrome with no success. (Internet Explorer was fine. Now that I’ve read your post, I see that IE is the preferred browser here.)

    (Then again, perhaps there is something I could have done had I been able to read the Korean on the bank’s page. Sigh.)

    • @Anna: Dunno how I missed replying to your comment, Anna. Yay, you’re in Korea!!! But yes, now comes the challenges of the adventure. Don’t beat yourself about not being able to read the Korean on the bank page. Even if you could, you’d be hard-pressed to translate it. Good luck and enjoy the frustration. You’ll actually miss it when you leave. 😉

  17. Wow… I’m in awe that you even attempted to do online banking in Korea, much less that you were able to rock it while a continent away! Mad respect.

    Sounds like KEB is a really smart choice for expats. I was with KB and they really didn’t want to communicate with me at all, much less help me get set up with anything extra. Bah!

    Really must say that I loved one of your concluding lines… one step equal to ten? Truer words were never spoken!

    Congrats on a banking job well done 🙂

    • @Our Dear Lady Expatriate: Hey lady, apologies for the late response! But thanks for the comment. KEB is actually really good. Unfortunately, I only found out about them towards the end when I needed to find a solution of transferring my money abroad. But I wish I was smart enough to get to them sooner. So I’d love to hear more about Cambodia and see if you set up a bank there! =) That should be some journey!

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