In which HSBC sorely tests us

Much wailing and gnashing of teeth recently over HSBC’s new ATM cards, which have a super-micro-digital-blah-blah chip in addition to the old-style, less-secure magnetic strip. When I received mine a few months back, I noted that the accompanying letter mentioned that I had to activate (or authenticate, or authorize or whatever) the card via an ATM in some way before using it overseas. The impression I got in my short-attention-span way was that the simple act of using it in a local ATM would accomplish this.

While using a different bank’s new-style card recently, I noticed the ATM screen offered an ‘activate’ (or whatever) function. So I did it, and then came away with the impression that I had in fact de-activated the thing – so I repeated that process to undo it. I think. The normally chatty ATM (“Please take your card! Please take your cash!”) was silent, presumably out of shame.

So: have I activated the card(s) or not? I rarely have the patience to queue at HSBC’s overcrowded ATMs, and when I do pull cash out from one, I’m not pondering the mysteries of ‘activation’. Have the legions of angry HSBC customers complaining that their cards don’t work overseas brought the problem on themselves by not having the telepathic powers necessary to follow HSBC’s directions?

There is a second element to this fiasco/non-fiasco (as it may be). When I got my new card, I also noticed the little UnionPay logo on the back. I don’t recall ever really noticing this anywhere before (although the design is in every shop, it is so weak that it merges into the surroundings). Now it jumped out at me as simply not belonging on my very own, new, shiny bit of plastic. I immediately felt repulsed by the brand; it triggered something subliminal in my mind saying ‘this is cheap, this is shoddy, this is low-class, it’s a piece of crap, it’s something to do with some backward, corrupt, nepotistic, state-owned monolithic Mainland disaster of a company’. Who would ever imagine that a never-consciously-seen logo could provoke such strong feelings in such vivid detail?

Many of the people complaining that they cannot withdraw cash overseas, like the recent South China Morning Post letter-writer who was in Brazil, blame the Mainland-owned UnionPay network, with which HSBC has replaced the previous Plus settlement system. (Conspiracy theorists, and no doubt a lot of level-headed folk who have seen far too many non-Mainland companies shoot themselves in the foot in attempts to please Beijing, see HSBC as playing politics at customers’ expense.)

All this is of interest to me, as next month I will be spending a few days in an unremarkable suburb in the capital city of an exotic – as in ‘not terribly advanced’ – corner of Asia.

To prepare for this trip, I went to the airline’s website and started punching in flights, dates, my phone number, and a hotel address (false, but it insisted on one), and then filled in my credit card details. I knew what was going to happen next, because it has happened before on the rare occasions I’ve tried to book a flight or hotel online. This time I had the presence of mind to get a picture of the screen before it timed out…


I don’t get this when I buy books from Amazon or pay by credit card in person; just with travel arrangements. So of course I took immediate remedial action*: I emailed a friendly and helpful human travel agent, who – unlike the website – patiently let me prevaricate between taking a morning or afternoon flight, and kindly reminded me about visa requirements. The one thing she has in common with the website is that she won’t take my credit card, so I transferred the funds into the travel agency’s account – something too difficult for hotels/airlines to do online, apparently. (I could wonder whether this has something to do with the magic, code-generating black box number-pad used for on-line banking, but life is too short.)

Anyway, the really cool bit: the ticket from the travel agency is a bit cheaper.

So we have moved back from using credit cards online to directly manually transferring funds into accounts online. And when I go off to this Indochinese Hicksville, I will be taking a bundle of Ben Bernanke’s finest paper fiat-currency US Dollars. An HSBC card might have worked there once, but now – who knows? (My other bank, a blatant shoe-shiner of its Mainland counterparts, is also on UnionPay.)

Of course, if  consumers could switch banks as easily as buying beer from 7-Eleven instead of Circle K, none of this would be happening. Instead, we have progress, HSBC-style. My travel agent, being ahead of the curve where such trends are concerned, also takes cheques and is preparing to migrate to Babylonian clay accounting tablets.

*Phone the numbers in the ‘Conditional Authentication Blah Blah’ box? Me? I don’t even phone people I like – I’m certainly not going to call people who irritate me.

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30 Responses to In which HSBC sorely tests us

  1. Revolution says:

    A colleague of mine has the exact same “verified by visa” problem. Her HSBC card works fine online for most things, but not for flights (or ParknShop!). The problem even carried over to a new card after the old one expired.

    The official HSBC position on this, once you actually get to speak to someone, is that “There is Nothing We Can Do”. Fantastic customer service.

  2. Do I detect a tinge of IGS (Irritable Gwailo Syndrome)?

    We stinking rich people living don’t use credit cards. So demeaning.

    They’re the sign of the impecunious and the losers these days.

    You turn up at the hotel desk, throw them a wad of notes on account and they are all over you from then on. Works every time.

    Pip, pip!

  3. Headache says:

    I sorted out the Visa verification issue after a similarly irritating incident and activated overseas withdrawals before the advertised cut-off date. So far, so mediocre…

    The removal of HSBC ATM cards from the Plus network is a much bigger gripe. This renders them far less useful outside HK which means I’m relying on an aging Visa card for everything now. Also, the production of HSBC ATM cards seems to have been outsourced to a particularly cheap provider. They are now hit-and-miss even in HK, and I’ve had to replace mine three times in the last six months after it stopped working entirely.

    Doing great, HSBC. I’d change banks if I could be bothered and the time will come when I can.

  4. Saikungbob says:

    This is progress that we can do without. Some months ago, I thought I managed to get this “verified by Visa” thing sorted out, but lo and behold, when I tried to buy airline tickets a few days, it has reverted to the old broken status. Luckily I do have one Visa card that doesn’t do this verified bit.

    Also, this switch to Union Pay and all the reported problems associated with it, creates just one more reason to be anxious!

  5. Local Tax Payer, PhD (previously ret'd, but now hanging on for a few more months) says:

    Same old, same old — I can cap all these stories, and with bells on.

    Like you, Hemlock, I refuse to use phone banking, since with my UK bank I failed the security test, no resit allowed, and have been blackballed ever since. It might, I must admit, have something to do with me saying I knew why they were so reluctant to give me my money, due to their temporary liquidity problem.

    Most ATMs in the nether parts are infested with teams of people leaning over both shoulders, poking you in the small of the back to make you go faster, finger-drumming and eardrum-shouting.

    That goes with the territory, though. HSBC’s infamous letter told me that the new card they sent me was to “replace” the old one (my only card). I of course soon realised that the new one was useless in ATMs outside of Greater and Greater China — but was slightly put out to note that it didn’t even have a Visa symbol.

    A 90-minute visit to the biggest branch north of Shatin, a request to see a supervisor (refused) and a letter produced little visible comprehension. A second letter simply produced the reply that they were thinking about it.

    It’s all political: some uber-patriot was chastising Gulliver for “not understanding China” the other day.

    I sold my HSBC shares a month or two ago (note to RTP: I did try to offer people some constructive advice when I bought them, but you just threw a fit — try to remain more calm and collected this time).

    God, I’m glad I don’t work at HSBC!

  6. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Did the overseas activation per HSBC instructions late last year.

    HSBC card rejected by ATMs in Australia in April this year.

    Singapore ATMs seem more friendly, but that’s probably because they are on Union Pay as part of Singapore’s doomed “if we pleasure China, perhaps they will be nice to us” policy.

  7. rubber duque says:

    Why are you all using HSBC? There are other banks. They all suck, of course, but not this badly. And their cards seem to work in other countries.

  8. Real Scot Player says:

    I agree HSBC are shit.

    Have moved all our families major finances elsewhere

    All stems from Purves decision to buy (piggy back) Midland Bank so as to move the Holdings board to London. Ever since, a previously great Bank rooted in the colonies with great staff has been saddled with gits from Essex and Derby etc

  9. Headache says:

    I sold all my HSBC shares last week at the magical price of $88.80.

    Can anyone recommend a good international consumer bank with a decent HK presence that is not currently engaging in such shenanigans?

    Welcome to the Big Lychee banking & bitching bulletin board.

  10. Boo says:

    I love this FAQ from HSBC:
    The new ATM chip cards can be used at all HSBC* and Hang Seng ATMs, plus the extensive UnionPay ATM and POS networks in Hong Kong, Mainland China and other countries…some of the overseas UnionPay ATMs do not currently support UnionPay chip cards..
    * Except HSBC ATMs in Argentina, Brazil, France, Greece, Malta, Mexico, New Zealand, Panama and Turkey.

    In other words, several countries where HSBC cards don’t work on HSBC machines, and many UnionPay ATMs that don’t support UnionPay cards. All clearly stated, so you have nothing to complain about.

  11. Chris Maden says:

    Hold on! Don’t jump so quickly. UnionPay will soon be available in such West African tourist Meccas as Togo, Cote d’ivoire and Burkina Faso.

    (I am not making this up – I do this stuff for a living).

    I doubt HSBC are going the suck-up-to-China route, by the way. It will be about cost-cutting (UnionPay have lower transaction fees). Sadly, HSBC don’t seem to have cottoned on to the fact that cost-cutting results in crap service, results in customers deserting them…

  12. nulle says:

    anyone tried Citibank HK? They should gave u an atm card that has the PLUS or Cirrus Symbols on the cards.

    If so, switch over to Citibank.

    I would avoid the UnionPay and anything chinese (institutions) like the plague, especially given the rice is laced with cadnium in Guangdong causing hoarding of rice in HK by locusts…

  13. CCPsux says:

    I would fire HSBC and move my accounts elsewhere as soon as I have a holiday during the week..

  14. AHW says:

    I would switch to Citibank if only they had a branch/ATM in Sai Kung!

  15. Mjrelje says:

    Can’t wait for my lot to switch from Bank of Mum&Dad even if it is that bunch of money grabbing bastards at HSBC. I took th to court in UK over penalty charges and won 8 years of fees back. I wonder if that can be done in HK…

  16. Busy Bee says:

    HSBC in HK assures me that you can use your HSBC Premier MasterCard – which uses the Cirrus network – overseas to withdraw local currency from your HK$ savings account provided you link the credit card to the savings account ahead of time, and press that option at the overseas ATM. Not a credit card cash advance so the charge is the same as if withdrawing money using the old standard ATM card, ie, much lower. Hope this helps.

  17. nulle says:


    you couldn’t come out to TKO from Sai Kung? or stop by a citibank on your way home (ie Kwun Tong/Kowloon Bay/NorthPoint)?

    I would bank with Citibank anyday versus dealing with UnionPay (or any chinese banking institution.)

  18. Regislea says:

    They’re a waste of space. In order to use my card in Indonesia, I have to drive 35km – because of this change – as opposed to just up the road. And did they tell me before they made the change – you must be joking!

    While I still lived in Hong Kong, i tried to ship some HK$ to Indonesia. HSBC’s exchange rate was 10% less than Western Union. When I queried this, I was told by the fourteen year old serving me (I use the term loosely) that exchange rates go up and down all the time. “Are you seriously telling me that the Rupiah exchange rate has gone down 10% in the time it’s taken me to walk from Worldwide House (Western Union) to 1 Queens Road?” “Yes.”

    The World’s local bank – my a**e!

    And, by the way, Fedex give crap service in Indonesia – no phones answered, the “write to us” on their website does’t work – and their staff tell you barefaced lies. Still waiting for my package after it’s been a week in their depot, according to their tracking, despite two visits to their office – a mere 60km drive each way. And they want to charge me HK$100 for “handling”!

  19. your call is important to us says:

    Virtually every other non-mainland-owned bank in HK uses either the Plus (for Visa card issuers) or Cirrus (for Mastercard issuers) international ATM networks, even SubStandard Chartered. So it’s not hard to find an improvement on HSBC’s mainland Union Pay shite.

    If HSBC ever gave the slightest shit about customer service, it must have been before I first tried doing business with them, decades ago. Their contempt for their customers is legend.

  20. Chopped Onions says:

    The long term goal for HSBC is to get rid of its normal customers and become a purely investment bank visa Goldman Sachs, at least that’s what well connected people are saying Gulliver wants. As for not understanding China, he does, very well I think. Once asked why HSBC wasnt moving back into China (this was about ten years ago) he replied that there was only one thing that was actually preventing them. Oddly it wasnt the rule of law but “the lack of freedom of information” What this space and change banks….

  21. Tom says:

    There are some convoluted workarounds…

  22. AHW says:

    Nulla – I work from home in Sai Kung, and only venture south of Clearwater Bay Road once or twice a fortnight!

  23. nulle says:

    @AHW, then switch over to Std Chartered…they have a branch closer to you…

  24. nulle says:

    actually substandard chartered ATM cards use the UnionPay/EPS networks….not in the Visa/Mastercard networks…

    I stand corrected about the comments of Standard Chartered…only go with citibank..

  25. W. Poon says:

    This is W. Poon, Costumer Service Officer. Thank for your enquiry on the telephone yesterday (5/22/13).
    We don’t forget this bit regret the inconvenience you experienced when your credit card was unable to be processed in>> United States. We have interrogated our responsible staff and your credit card penalty has been reserved. Please visit our nearest branch to pick up a new credit card on/after 7/1/13.
    We appreciate your support.

  26. Aiko says:

    je vote Morsay en 2017

  27. fake democracy says:

    @nulle… my generic Substandard Chartered Visa card has a Plus logo on it and I’ve used it overseas in Plus ATMs.

  28. RSG says:

    Citibank is superior to HSBC in HK. The updated chip card, coming out this summer, is a Visa Platinum with 1% cash rebate and no charges for overseas ATM withdrawals. I’m guessing they will be picking up quite a few former HSBC customers.

  29. nulle says:

    @fake democracy, is your card a credit card or an atm card? The subject is the ATM card having only the UnionPay logos.

    the atm one from Citibank is a true atm and debit card with visa and plus on it..I personally prefer substandard chartered if they have atm cards with the plus, cirrus and visa logos…but Citibank is a still good enough…

    according to Substd Chartered, their atm cards only sports the UnionPay and EPS logos as I stated above already.

  30. Wolflikeme says:

    Arrghhhh! I am in Munich now and my ATM card doesn’t work anywhere because UnionPay is not standard. Unbelievable that HSBC treats its customers this way. I will now have to go into a bank and do a cash advance on my credit card and pay the associated fees. It never in a million years crossed my mind that an HSBC card would not work in Germany. My HSBC Visa credit card still has the Plus logo but that did not work either for some reason. I imagine they removed themselves from Plus completely.

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