Money and Banking Tips for China Travel

Sun, 12/16/2012 - 20:00

Below you’ll find the basic info on how to handle money while you travel in China, on matters such as exchanging for cash, using bank cards and ATM’s, etc.

The Chinese Currency

The Chinese currency is called renminbi, “pepole’s money,” which reflects the Chinese communist origin of the money. Today it is the money of whoever has it, people or capitalists, Chinese or foreigners.

The abbreviation of Renminbi is RMB. Its symbol is ¥ (this is the same symbol for the Japanese yen, a character that has a Chinese origin.)

In the Chinese case, ¥ (CNY) stands for yuan, which is the Chinese dollar, the basic denomination of the Chinese currency. Larger denominations include bills of ¥5, ¥10, ¥20, ¥50, and ¥100. Smaller denominations include coins of 5 jiao (50 cents or ¥0.50) and 1 jiao (10 cents or ¥0.10). There is also a ¥1 coin. There used to be some other bills and coins of small denominations, for 1, 2, 5, and 20 cents, but they’re falling out of circulation.

Exchange Rates

As of the end of 2012, the exchange rate between the US dollar and the RMB is $1.00 for ¥6.25; the exchange rate between the Euro and the RMB is €1.00 for ¥8.20. Foreign currencies are not usable in China, so foreign travelers in China must change their money into RMB.

Exchange for Cash

You can convert major foreign currencies into Chinese money at exchange booths at airports, bank offices in the streets, and possibly at your hotel too. They’ll go by the exchange rate on the day. When you do so, you need to show your passport and fill out a form. Keep your paperwork with you – in the event you want to convert the Chinese money you have not spent back your original currency, you need to show your receipt. Sometimes they insist that you do so at the bank office where you did your original exchange.

Credit Cards

International credit cards such as Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Discover, and Diner’s Club are accepted at major hotels, upscale department stores, and luxurious restaurants. They can also be used to book flights, but rarely for buying train or bus tickets. Naturally international credit cards are more widely accepted in larger cities and destinations frequented by foreign travelers; in smaller, remote places the use of credit cards is more limited.

Local Chinese also use bank cards, but most of them are debit cards. Cashiers are used to asking customers to input their pin’s. Holders of international credit cards do not have such pin’s, but credit cards should be useable without such pin’s if the business take foreign redit cards at all.
If you intend to use your credit cards in China, you may want to contact your card-issuing company to let them know that you’re going on a trip abroad and that your card may be used out there. Otherwise your bank may suspect that somebody else is using your card.

You should also be aware that when you use your credit cards in China, you may be charged a 2%-3% international transaction fee.

Traveler’s Checks

A safe way to take money to China is with traveler’s checks, which you can cash at a branch office of the Bank of China, the Chinese bank that does most business with foreign countries. However, bank offices in small places may not be too knowledgeable on the use of traveler’s checks; in such situations, do not rely on traveler’s checks solely.

Local Bank Account

If you stay in China for an extended of time, you may want to open an account with a local account. It costs very little and you’ll get a Chinese debit card that you can use on ATM’s and a lot more businesses that the case with the credit cards you have brought with you. Plus you won’t pay the international transaction fees. The four most well established banks in China are Bank of China, China Construction Bank, Agricultural Bank of China, and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Again, Bank of China has the most experience in dealing with foreign countries. The main payment service company in China is Union Pay, a name you’ll see on your card and on ATM’s.

Foreign Bank Cards on Local ATM’s

With some foreign debit cards one can withdraw money (Chinese money) from local ATM’s in China. In some cases, one pays a transaction fee for the use, but in some other cases, the fee is not incurred. This depends if the original issuing banks have service agreements with Chinese partners. It is said, for example, Bank of America has such an agreement with China Construction Bank. Capital One does not seem to charge transaction fees in China. HSBC has branch offices and provide ATM service China. Discover seem to have an agreement with China’s Union Pay, so with a Discover card you can get cash from Chinese ATM’s. One needs to look into the particulars of such matters before making use of the ATM service.

When you withdraw from ATM’s in China, even with your foreign cards, you get Chinese currency, which is dispensed to you based on the exchange rate of the day. There are also per-withdraw limit (about ¥2,500) and per-day limit (about ¥20,000).


When you travel in China, you often see cashiers check the bills they’re taking in under ultraviolet light. That is because there are counterfeit bills going around. The counterfeit banknotes mostly come in larger denominations such as ¥100 or ¥50. If for some reasons you take such large bills from someone, check to make sure you’re not getting fake bills. Take a close look at the bills you get from a bank, feel them with your hand, view them against light, so that you’ll be equipped with the basics of the authentic bills to spot suspicious money. Of course, in most cases, as a traveler you’ll be paying others instead of the other way around, and the changes you get should be mostly in small bills, so you should be all right on this.