By Sumeet Chatterjee
HONG KONG (Reuters) - U.S.-based payment card companies, including American Express <AXP.N>, MasterCard <MA.N> and Visa <V.N>, are preparing to submit license requests to operate in China within months, according to three people with direct knowledge of the matter.
The long wait for the U.S. companies is, though, unlikely to end soon. It may take as long as two years or more for the companies to clear all official scrutiny, including from banking regulators, and for them to pass a security review, as well as meeting other conditions, the sources said.
The move comes against a backdrop of growing economic friction between China and the United States, after the two countries failed on Wednesday to agree on major new steps to reduce the U.S. trade deficit with China.
U.S. payment network operators have been waiting for more than a decade to get access to China. It is set to become the world's largest bank card market by 2020, when the number of cards in circulation is forecast to rise to 9 billion from 6 billion in 2016, according to research firm GlobalData Plc.
China first agreed in 2015 to open the card market to local and foreign businesses, a move triggered by a 2012 World Trade Organization ruling. However, foreign card companies have been unable to set up local operations in the absence of a clear roadmap from Chinese authorities.
In May, Beijing and Washington agreed to a July 16 deadline for China to issue "necessary guidelines" for the launch of local operations by U.S. payment network operators, leading to "full and prompt market access".
The People's Bank of China (PBOC), the central bank, issued the guidelines on June 30, according to three people familiar with the matter and a copy of the document reviewed by Reuters.
The expected entry of foreign card companies will challenge the dominance of state-backed China UnionPay Co Ltd, which currently is the sole operator in a yuan bank card payment network worth more than $8 trillion in China.
"It's exciting that the uncertainty is finally over and they have finally come out with the rule book, but it's not going to be a fast and smooth journey," said one of the people with knowledge of some of the U.S. payment companies' plans.
The people said the applicants would be subject to intense scrutiny by the banking regulator as well as security agencies. The companies will also have to set up extensive local infrastructure.
An American Express spokesman said it will apply for a license as soon as possible. "The PBOC's guidelines clearly set forth the process ... and we're continuing to work with different regulators as we move through this process," he said.
A spokeswoman for Visa declined to comment, citing the quiet period ahead of the announcement of the company's quarterly results. MasterCard did not immediately respond to request for comment.
The PBOC declined to comment in response to questions faxed to them by Reuters.
Under the conditions laid out by the central bank, all payment companies would have to set up technology and data infrastructure and a back-up data system within China.
This is a concern for the foreign payment network operators, which fear this could result in internal systems being put under surveillance and could make it difficult to maintain the confidentiality of proprietary data, according to industry insiders familiar with the situation.
"There was some expectation that this requirement would be eased a bit but that has not happened, so all the companies will have to build business plans keeping this mind," said one of the people. "That's the biggest challenge."
Some industry insiders have privately expressed concerns about whether China would provide a level-playing field for foreign companies, which could significantly impact the market share of UnionPay, set up in 2002 by China's central bank and China's top government body, the State Council.
UnionPay also has been expanding its operations overseas and has a presence in over 160 countries including the United States, while the likes of MasterCard and Visa have been waiting to offer yuan-denominated cards for years.
UnionPay's share of the global credit card market rose to 25 percent in 2015 from 13 percent in 2010, drawing level with MasterCard but lagging Visa's more than one-third market share, according to Euromonitor International.
The plans by the major global card companies to enter China also comes at a time when Chinese consumers are increasingly turning to mobile and online payments and money transfers using services such as Tencent Holdings' <0700.HK> WeChat Pay and Alibaba Group Holding's <BABA.N> affiliate Alipay.
(Reporting by Sumeet Chatterjee; Additional reporting by Lusha Zhang in Beijing; Editing by Philip McClellan in Singapore)