How to use Chinese online banking with a Mac or Linux computer

Banking in China. Topped only by shopping the week before Spring Festival and pretty much any time spent at a post office; China’s convoluted and largely archaic banking system is, at best, a torturous experience.

Long lines of clientele that seem downright surprised (and thus appropriately unprepared) to be banking at all; service with a smile … and that’s about it; a number calling system, if present and working, which seems to have been designed by Henri Poincaré; and lest I forget ATMs that upon exposure to foreign banking cards spit out non-descript error messages, or worse, eat your card.

So, by comparison, online banking with Chinese banks is a gift from Cai Shen himself. Skip the lines, skip the “service”, skip the trip out into the smog and traffic. It’s great. Well, it’s great if you have a Microsoft-powered computer circa 2002.

Due to the ActiveX browser-based security that the vast majority of Chinese banks employ, you can only access your account online through Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (though a couple banks are slowly improving). Unfortunately, Apple’s various flavours of Mac OSX haven’t supported Internet Explorer for the better part of a decade — and I’m not sure if any Linux distribution ever has. And, as I learned lately, the new 64-bit versions of Windows 7/IE9 are out as well — at least with my bank, Bank of China.

As a Web developer, it blows my mind that banks would be so narrowly-focused in regards to the needs of their clients. Granted, the vast majority of Chinese are using pirated versions of Windows XP with Internet Explorer 6 still installed. And the Russian botnets thank them for contributing. But these are not the increasingly affluent and tech-savvy middle/upper-class clients I would think a bank would want to keep happy. And yet, it seems as if they just don’t care.

Fine. I’m not here to bitch about the system. I’m here with solutions.

Let’s get on with it…

In looking around, there are a lot of sites that explain how to get Internet Explorer running on a Mac (I’m just going to use “Mac”, but all this applies to you Linux guys too — though if you’re using Linux, you probably already not only know all this, but are scrolling to the comments to blast us “mainstream” OS users).

Much advice points to using the rather simple and straight-forward Wine app. And while this will get you browsing with Internet Explorer, it will not give you access to your Chinese online banking, as the Wine packages for IE do not allow the security applet required by the banks. So, for this to work, we’re going to need an actual copy of Windows running on our machine. No emulators.

This can be done by setting up your Mac to dual-boot using OSX’s Boot Camp, allowing you to have both Mac OSX and a flavour of Windows running on your machine at the same time — selecting which to use when you boot up the system. This is a perfectly suitable solution, but is too involved and committed in my opinion (you need to physically re-partition your hard-drive — seems overkill just to gain use of a browser). However, here’s how to do it.

My suggestion is to use a virtual machine. Using an application installed in OSX, you can create a “virtual” environment in which to install Windows. It’s similar to the Boot Camp method above, but no real partitioning, or permanent changes to your system are required.

There are a lot of virtual machine suppliers, but let’s stick with the well-developed and free ones — the hands-down winner in that category goes to Oracle VM VirtualBox.

How to do it…

  1. Download and install VirtualBox — there are optional VirtualBox extensions, but I didn’t bother with them.
  2. Grab a copy of your favourite flavour of Windows — Years of having PCs has netted me an array of install disks to choose from, but if you’ve until now managed to avoid M$’s pane-laded product, I’m sure this site (or dozens like it) will help you out. Unless you have the latest/greatest MacBook Pro, I’d seriously consider using Windows XP (SP3), as you need to remember that with a virtual machine you’ll be running your OSX operating system + the Windows operating system. Newer versions of Windows tend to be more resource-heavy.
  3. Create your first VM — this is surprisingly straight-forward. The only item I changed on the out-of-the-box install was the amount of RAM to allocate to the VM. Bare minimum for XP is 128MB, but you should probably shoot for 256MB or 512MB.
  4. Install Windows — Once you’ve created the VM, you’ll be walked through the installation of the Windows OS. However, if you went the torrent-route above, you’ll want to make sure you’ve put Windows onto a disc that you can install from (or use a program like MagicISO, which allows you to fool your computer into thinking an ISO file is actually a CD/DVD-ROM drive).
  5. Once the VM and Windows OS are installed, boot up the Windows VM and start up Internet Explorer (it should be the default browser of the newly installed OS) and head over to your bank’s login page. You’ll be asked to install a security applet to login. Once you’ve done that you should be good to go.
  6. That’s it… all done.

No matter what version of Windows you install, you’ll have some version of Internet Explorer. I believe it was only after Windows XP SP3 that Microsoft began including IE7 with the OS, so if you install anything below that (XP SP2/SP1, etc.), expect to be using IE6 (not, in my opinion, safe to use on a regular system, however, in a virtual machine, I doubt you’d have to worry too much). If you do have IE6, try upgrading to at least IE7 (though IE8/9 would be best).

Best of luck, and feel free to share additional solutions that you’ve found in the comments below — or just bitch about Chinese banks. And if you know of Chinese banks that offer online banking services in Chrome/Firefox/Safari (and thus work on Mac/Linux systems), please share that as well.