Money matters while traveling in China

You’ll find a good range of banking services, ATMs and money exchange services in banks in major Chinese cities, as well as in international airports, top-end hotels and even some high-end shopping malls and department stores.

Mainland China’s currency is called “yuan” or renminbi (or RMB, “the people’s money”) but verbally, most just say “kuai” (pronounced “kwye,” which rhymes with “sigh”). Denominations of bills: 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, and 1 yuan.

Counterfeiting remains a big problem in China, so don’t be offended when merchants inspect your bills. Likewise, you should also inspect your change, paying particular attention to the look & feel of Y100 notes, the most commonly counterfeited (See “Scams”).

For years, the Chinese government pegged the yuan to the dollar at about 6.8yuan = US$1, which has helped their export-driven economy grow. In June 2010, the Chinese government — under pressure from the U.S. for complicated reasons involving trade deficits – agreed to make the yuan more flexible (but it’s basically remained the same, more or less).

Hong Kong and Macau have retained their separate currencies. The Hong Kong dollar (HK$) is pegged to US dollar at rate of HK$7.8 = US$1. The HK$ can be used in Macau and China’s Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. Unlike the yuan, the HK$ can be exchanged internationally.

Link to: Yahoo! Finance currency converter


Cash is king

"I'm gonna make it drizzle up in here yo!"

China is still very much a cash culture so don’t expect to rely on your credit cards, except in upscale shops, hotels, and restaurants. Airline tickets can be paid for with credit cards but train and bus tickets must be purchased in cash.

And while China’s banking and ATM network continues to expand, it’s best to stock up on cash before venturing to smaller towns and less developed interior provinces.

Before you leave, check to see what your credit card issuers charge for foreign transactions (typically around 3%). From my personal research, Capital One Bank is the best US credit card to use overseas (they don’t charge foreign transaction fees…but I can’t say I recommend them to use domestically).


Currency exchange

Major currencies are accepted in banks and upscale hotels (you’ll get a slightly better rate at a bank). US dollars are the most widely accepted, followed by Euros and the British Pound. Also, don’t forget your passport, which you’ll need to show.

NOTE: You can’t exchange RMB into other currencies outside of China. So keep exchange receipts so that you can re-convert any surplus RMB before leaving the country (or plan to use it all up).

Avoid the Chinese “black market” for exchanging foreign currency, which offers only slightly better rates than banks (and definitely not worth hassle or risk of getting ripped off with counterfeit bills).


ATMs in China

Your best bet for cash is to pull out money from an ATM machine (better rate than currency exchange office or bank). But you’ll also typically be charged a foreign exchange fee by the Chinese bank, as well as a fee from your own bank (so withdraw the maximum amount, which in many ATMs is up to Y2500 or about $360).

Many ATMs from bigger Chinese banks will accept major credit cards (Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, Cirrus, & AmEx). Also note that most ATMs in China are located inside banks or shopping centers so are not accessible 24 hours/day.

Uh, every day is Earth Day?

Global network-connected ATMs (Cirrus, Plus) can be found in most decent cities these days. But using ATM machines can still be somewhat of a hit or miss affair again, so stock up before venturing into less developed areas and small towns just in case.

TIP: Before leaving home, contact your bank to let them know the dates you’ll be in China as well as to verify that your ATM card will work. I also carry a second ATM card as an emergency back up. As an additional back up, it’s a good idea to request a PIN from your credit card company so you can use it at ATMs (often takes a couple of weeks to process).

To get an idea of how far China’s banking & ATM network has developed, see:

VISA card’s Global ATM locator

MasterCard’s Global ATM locator

Recommended Chinese Banks

Whenever possible, use ATMs operated by the largest banks that you can find. In Hong Kong and Macau, major banks and ATMs that accept international cards are everywhere (I prefer HSBC Bank, which is the biggest player in town).

In mainland China, your best bets are:

Citibank, with offices in Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, has ATMs that accept wide range of cards.

Bank of China— which has most extensive network in the country and accepts most foreign cards. English instructions should automatically appear on screen. They have ATMs and branches everywhere but here are some main branches if you need other banking services:

Beijing: Asia Pacific Building, 8 Yabao Lu, Chaoyang district, 100020, 1 Fuxing Men Nei Dajie, 100818

24 hour ATMs in Beijing:

Arrivals hall, Capital Airport
Corner of Sundongan Plaza & Wangfujing Dajie.
Corner of Oriental Plaza & 1 Dongchang’an Jie

Shanghai: 39/F, Bank of China Tower, 200 Yincheng Rd, Central, Pudong, 200120

Hong Kong: 2A Des Voeux Road, Central, 24-28 Carnarvon Road, Tsim Sha Tsui

Other major nationwide banks: Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank, Agriculture Bank of China, and China Merchants Bank.


Using Traveler’s Checks in China

Although traveler’s checks are the safest way to carry large sums of money….they’re definitely NOT the most convenient in China. As you can probably imagine, not many places accept them outside of major banks.

In my humble opinion, if you have a backup ATM and credit cards, traveler’s checks aren’t worth the hassle. But if you do decide to use them, keep your proof of purchase slips in case of loss or theft, as well as your encashment slips so you can re-convert any leftover RMB at the end of your trip.

Finally, forget about wire transfers—they take several weeks and a lot of paperwork and patience. If you’re in dire straits, you’re better off wiring money to China through Western Union (www.westernunion.com). They’ve got offices around the country, (often located in post offices). Again, don’t forget your passport.

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