FOREIGN VOICES: Banking, other services should be more convenient

Taipei, Feb. 18 (CNA) Many Taiwanese have more than one credit card in their wallets, because it is easy to apply for one. However, this is not the case for foreigners living on the island. Benoit Girardot, a Paris native who has lived in Taiwan for four years, told CNA that his life in Taiwan is generally comfortable and convenient. But the only problem for him is the heavy restrictions imposed by Taiwanese banks on foreigners. "It's hard" to get a credit card from a Taiwanese bank, the 31-year-old said. He added that Taiwanese banks also do not allow foreign clients to transfer money through the Internet. In addition, a banking card issued by Taiwanese banks to foreigners does not allow users to withdraw money from overseas, said Girardot, a manager of a medical device company in Taiwan. Kimba Vetten of South Africa, who came to Taiwan in 1999, shared similar views and complained about the difficulty in obtaining a credit card in Taiwan. Vetten said she had to provide the bank NT$15,000 (US$518) in security deposit to get a credit card with a NT$10,000 limit. Yet if her husband were Taiwanese, she would not have faced that problem and could have been given a credit card "immediately," Vetten said. Before August 2007, Taiwan's regulator actually put in place many restrictions for foreigners applying for credit cards, but these restrictions have been loosened in recent years by allowing local banks to determine their own regulations related to issuing credit cards, Taiwanese banks told CNA. However, the loosening measure has led to discrepancies among local bank regulations, as some of the banks are fully open to foreigners applying for credit cards, some require guarantees and others allow only domestic transactions, the banks said. Besides the inconvenience of applying for a credit card, Mutsuko Inada from Japan, who has worked in Taiwan for two years following four years of studies here, also complained about the hassles of applying for Internet service and even mobile phone service. Foreign applicants, even people with an Alien Resident Certificate (ARC), need a Taiwanese citizen as a guarantor or must make a deposit to purchase a cell phone with services provided by a local telecom carrier, Inada added. Taiwan's three major telecom operators told CNA that it actually requires a deposit for foreigners applying for a cell phone number without a contract. However, it takes only two identification certificates for foreigners to apply for pre-paid services, the operators said. The reason for this is that the carriers are concerned that it would be difficult to collect their service fees if foreign customers leave Taiwan and do not return. To help foreigners, the operators said, they have offered receptionists and online customer service assistance in multiple languages. Meanwhile, Taiwan's business sector has for years called on loosening restrictions to attract more talented workers to the country, but the efforts seem to have not been enough. A Japanese technology worker, who identified herself as "A" and has been in Taiwan for six years, said she likes living in Taiwan because most Taiwanese are friendly to foreigners, but some of Taiwan's laws and policies still make her feel that the country is less welcoming to foreigners. Also, a 31-year-old American worker, who identified himself as Bill and is working in the technology sector, pointed out that imposing a high withholding tax on foreign employees is similar to interest-free loans for the government, which seems to be discriminatory against himself and his colleagues. According to Taiwan's laws, foreign workers who live in Taiwan for less than 183 days per year have to have income taxes of 18 percent withheld in the first half of the year, the amount will be refunded during the second half if they stay that long. Employers can apply similar tax rates as Taiwanese taxpayers for foreign employees who obtain a long-term residency certificate, the laws state. However, some employers still prefer withholding taxes on foreign employees, regardless of their residence time in Taiwan in case these workers leave their jobs earlier than scheduled, and to avoid the employers suffering losses from unpaid taxes. Under this circumstance, Taiwan's National Taxation Bureau of the Northern Area suggested that foreign workers could negotiate with their employers to reduce the amount of the withholding tax. On the other hand, some foreigners said the procedure of applying for working in Taiwan is more complicated than in neighboring regions, such as Singapore and Hong Kong. Chinese-American reporter Lin Yang said he needed to apply for only one resident certificate when he worked in Singapore, but he was required to submit a working permit and an ARC when he came to work in Taiwan. Yang suggested Taiwan's government simplify the application procedure to make it easier for foreigners to work in the country. In fact, Taiwan's National Immigration Agency launched a multiple functional "employment PASS card" for foreign employees in 2008, integrating the features of a resident visa, a working permit, an ARC and a re-entry permit into a single card. However, only about 300 people so far have applied for the service, the agency said, adding that it is considering opening a website in the future to make the application procedure more convenient for foreigners. As of December last year, foreigners with valid resident certificates exceeded 480,000 -- some 389,000 of whom were labor-intensive workers -- the agency said. Although Taiwan's regulations have much room for improvement, the country is still a good place for foreigners to live and work while providing many opportunities for them, added Bill, the foreign worker. Yang echoed Bill's viewpoint and said given that his salary in Taiwan is 33 percent less than in Singapore, he still chose to work here because "Taiwan has a free environment for journalism." (By Elaine Hou, James Lee, Christie Chen, Jeffrey Wu and Tien Yu-pin)