The official currency of the People’s Republic of China is the Chinese yuan, known in Mandarin as renminbi (人民币 “people’s money”), international currency code CNY. All prices in China are quoted in yuan; the Chinese character is 元. For example, a price can be quoted as 20 元, 20 rmb, RMB 20, 20 yuan or ¥20; we use the latter form here. In informal spoken Chinese and sometimes spoken English, kuai may be used instead; similar to “buck” in the US or “quid” in the UK.
The Chinese yuan is not legal tender in the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, which both issue their own currencies. However, many companies also accept the Chinese currency, albeit at an unfavorable exchange rate.
In June 2014, the yuan was just above 6 to the US dollar.
The official subdivisions of the yuan are the jiao (角), with 10 jiao to the yuan, and the fen (分), with 10 fen to the jiao. The fen is almost extinct nowadays, but can still be seen in less developed areas. A coin worth ¥0.10, therefore, reads 壹角 (“1 jiao”), not “10 fen”. In colloquial Mandarin, however, people often say kuai (块) instead of yuan, and the jiao is also called mao (毛). A price like ¥3.7 would therefore be read as “3 kuai 7” (the trailing unit is usually omitted).
When dealing with numbers, note that, for example, wu bai san, literally “five hundred three”, means 530 or “five hundred three tens”, with the trailing unit omitted. The number 503 would be read as wu bai ling san, literally “five hundred zero three”. Similarly, yi qian ba, literally “one thousand eight”, means 1800. When using larger numbers, remember that Chinese has a word for ten thousand, wàn (万), and so 50,000, for example, becomes wu wan, not wu shi qian.
Much of China’s currency will be in the form of notes – even small change. Notes are more common in some areas, coins in others, but both are accepted everywhere. Even the jiao, with only one-tenth of a yuan, exists both as a note (the smallest) and as two different coins. Conversely, a yuan exists both as a coin and as two different notes. You should be prepared to recognize and handle both versions.
Most major banks and upmarket hotels will exchange travelers’ cheques. You will need to show identification and your signature on the cheques, your ID and your signature in front of the counter clerk will be checked very carefully. In second-tier cities, you must go to the main branch of the Bank of China or Merchants’ Bank. The exchange of travelers’ cheques is usually slower than the exchange of cash.
Foreign currencies, including the Hong Kong dollar or the US dollar, are rarely seen as substitutes for the RMB, except in some 5-star hotels, some shops on the Hong Kong/Shenzhen border, and on the stock exchanges. You are unlikely to use other currencies for most transactions (after all, the average visitor comes to China to sightsee and shop, not to play day trader, but for the curious: The minimum balance for trading USD is $1,000 with an account opening fee of $19, while the minimum for trading Hong Kong dollars is HKD5,000). If you run out of money and only have dollars in your pocket, it usually means you have no money to pay the bill without going to a bank. Many shops will not accept it because they have no idea of the exchange rate or how to check if the notes are fake.
Counterfeit notes and coins are a serious problem in China and anyone who spends a few months in China is likely to have encountered them. Banknotes of ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100 and even ¥1 coins pose a counterfeiting risk. It is very important to learn how to scrutinize notes and coins. The main focus is on the texture of the different parts, the metal line, the change of colors under different lights. Everyone has their own method, so just ask.
It is very common for cashiers to check banknotes closely and the more expensive supermarkets even have machines that can detect counterfeits. This is common practice in China and should not be taken as an insult. Similarly, you should carefully check notes that are returned to you, as sometimes sales staff will try to give you counterfeit money as change.
Counterfeiting at ATMs is not common, but many people are still concerned. If you are worried, withdraw your money at the bank counter and say “I am worried about jiabi (counterfeit money)”. You will find that the bank staff are very understanding about this.
It is not uncommon for unscrupulous money changers to pass counterfeit money to travelers in the Chinese border areas. It is strongly recommended that you visit a bank if you are not experienced in checking banknotes.
When you pay with a ¥50 or ¥100 banknote in a shop or taxi, it is socially accepted that you write down the last digits of the banknote you hand over. This is in case they claim your banknote is counterfeit, then these remembered digits will ensure they give you back exactly the same note.
Currency exchange in China
Although still restricted, the yuan is easily convertible in many countries, especially in Asia. The Hong Kong dollar, the US dollar, the Canadian dollar, the euro, the pound sterling, the Australian dollar, the Japanese yen and the South Korean won can be easily exchanged in China. Southeast Asian currencies are generally not accepted, the exception being the Singapore dollar. Money should only be changed at major banks (especially the Bank of China) or at the licensed money changers usually found at airports or upscale hotels, although they offer very poor rates.
There is a black market for exchanging money, but you should avoid it at all costs, as counterfeiting is a big problem when exchanging money in China. Beware of the private money changers found in markets and near large banks. Their exchange rates may look attractive, but unless you have a local friend to help you, you should not exchange money with them. It is not uncommon to exchange a large amount of cash only to find that most of what you got is fake. Stick to the official exchange counter at the Bank of China or one of the other big banks, because although you will get slightly worse rates there, the risk of getting counterfeit notes is almost nil.
Foreign exchange trading is strictly controlled in China. Private money changers, as found in many tourist resorts or shopping centers around the globe, are still uncommon in China. In a bank, it usually takes 5 to 60 minutes to process the change, in a hotel sometimes a little faster, depending on the experience of the staff. Generally, bank branches in big cities know the procedure and are relatively quick, while even main branches in third and fourth-tier cities can take much longer.
Regardless of location, you will need to fill out a form and present your passport. Your passport will be photocopied and scanned. Keep the exchange receipt if you plan to leave the country with a large sum of money. Note that not all banks with the “Exchange” logo exchange money for non-customers or for all currencies in cash. Standard Chartered, for example, only exchanges cash for their clients and only does USD and HKD in cash (but opening an account is quick and doable, even with a tourist visa, and they offer a better cash exchange rate than most local banks).
Exchanging US currency for RMB can be easy, but expect the notes to be heavily scrutinised before the exchange is processed. Opportunities to buy RMB before entering China, for example when entering by land from Hong Kong or Vietnam, should be taken as the rates are better. The same applies in the opposite direction – if you sell directly across the border, you often get a better rate. You are only allowed to import or export a maximum of RMB 20,000 in local currency in cash, and amounts over USD 5,000 in cash should be declared.
Most international banks allow you to get a cash advance via a debit or credit card at a Chinese ATM. However, the prices for such promotions are often unfavorable and may include high service fees. It is useful to carry an international currency such as pounds sterling, US dollars or Japanese yen to fall back on in case you do not have access to an ATM.
Banking in China
Setting up a Chinese bank account is a very good idea for long-term travel or stays. For Chinese-owned banks, you only need your passport with a valid visa, and even tourist visas are sometimes acceptable. Some banks, such as the Bank of East Asia, require proof of residency and some also require an initial deposit of approx. Bank staff usually cannot speak English, although some branches of the larger banks in major city centres may have English-speaking staff.
You may be given a passbook to record all transactions and balances, although most major banks offer card-only accounts. Depending on the bank, a PIN and/or ID card may be required for over-the-counter withdrawals.
China currently imposes certain restrictions on the international transfer of Chinese yuan out of the country. The rules change frequently, although for the most part they set a limit on the amount you can transfer each day.
Banks usually charge a fee (about 1%) for deposits and withdrawals in a city other than the one where you opened your account. ATMs are now available in almost all towns, except in the most remote areas. Many ATMs accept Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Maestro and Plus debit and credit cards, although some only accept UnionPay and Pulse, Interac or Link ATM cards.
In Shanghai, most smaller local banks have relationships with each other that allow for fee-free interbank deposits for any amount and withdrawals over ¥3,000. In addition, any Bank of Shanghai ATM with deposit capability can make deposits for any bank with an account issued in Shanghai.
Attention! If you open an account with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, be aware that they now issue their bank cards without magnetic stripes. Most ATMs outside mainland China do NOT accept these cards. So if you plan to travel outside the mainland, it would be a good idea to have a second account at another bank for this purpose.
China Construction Bank offers Bank of America customers the use of ATMs without fees to withdraw RMB. However, Bank of America now charges 3%.
Standard Chartered is very foreigner-friendly, although there are only a few branches outside the major cities. They offer unlimited ATM withdrawals within the city where the card was issued, as long as the amount withdrawn is over ¥2,000 each time, and they also offer several foreign currency investment products.
DBS requires a minimum deposit of ¥2,000 and also offers free withdrawals from DBS ATMs in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Woori Bank has even fewer branches than Standard Chartered but offers the Shanghai Tourist Card as a debit card that offers discounts at various restaurants and half-price tickets to various attractions. This is usually only available at local banks. They also offer unlimited free ATM withdrawals throughout China. As a South Korean bank, they also offer links to Korean bank accounts.
HSBC is another good international choice for expatriates, although branches are mostly located in the business centres of major cities. Customers who spend a lot of time in Hong Kong will find this a pretty good option.
Note that if you are employed in China, you may not have a choice: Many companies and schools only pay into one bank, and therefore you must have an account with that bank to get paid.
ATMs are available throughout the country, but most ATMs outside the major cities that accept the Cirrus, PLUS, VISA and MasterCard network are owned by the Bank of China or the Industrial and Commercial Bank. In big cities like Shanghai, most ATMs take Visa/Plus/MC/Maestro/Cirrus. However, cash withdrawals with Diner’s Club, American Express or JCB cards are more difficult. For visitors from Hong Kong or Macau, the only ATMs that accept JETCO cards are Bank of East Asia ATMs. Most ATMs charge a small and flat fee.
Note: The ATMs of Minsheng Bank, Shenzhen Development Bank and Bank of Shanghai all display PLUS/Cirrus/Maestro logos. In reality, only selected ATMs from these banks are connected to these networks and there is usually no indication until you try. This is also true for the ATMs of many other banks, even the Agricultural Bank of China (one of the big four).
Before traveling, find out if your house bank charges a conversion fee (often between 0-3%) for such transactions. It is worth opening an account without exchange fees beforehand, if possible. Otherwise, it would be better to open a local account on arrival where you keep money for a sufficiently long stay.
If you have problems because the ATM requires a 6-digit PIN and your PIN is only 4-digits, try putting 2 zeros in front of it. If you are in a city where there is a Bank of China branch but no ATM with an international network, it is usually possible to get a cash advance on a credit card at the bank. Just ask.
UnionPay, the local ATM card network, has agreements with various ATM card networks around the world. If your card is covered, any ATM in China will accept withdrawals and balance enquiries from your card. Currently covered are NYCE and Pulse in America (also applies to cash withdrawals from Discover cards), Interac in Canada, and LINK in the UK.
If your bank is part of the Global ATM Alliance, you should also note that China Construction Bank is the local partner for fee-free withdrawals.
Electronic bank transfers
Electronic money transfers to another country are no longer as difficult as they used to be. Just about every bank in the big cities offers this service nowadays. On the downside, service fees are variable (depending on the sending and receiving banks), staff are sometimes poorly trained, and the process can take up to a week. Alternatively, you can find a Chinese branch of a foreign or Hong Kong-based bank to make transfers. However, this is easier in the big cities.
It will be much easier to make transfers if you have a dual currency account with the Bank of China – opened at the branch from which you want to collect your money. There are no or very low fees for electronic transfers to dual currency accounts, but it usually takes about a week. Transfers to Chinese accounts from abroad also take between three and ten working days. All you need to open an account is your passport, a visa, and a small initial deposit (can be RMB) plus the new account fee (¥10-20). If you are opening a foreign currency account or a dual currency account, be sure to check if you can access it in another province or abroad. Alternatively, Wells Fargo offers a service for visitors from the US called ExpressSend, which allows money to be sent from the US and arrive in a China Agricultural Bank account the same day.
Western Union works with China Agricultural Bank and China Post, so there are a lot of Western Union signs. This is what overseas Chinese sending money to relatives or expats sending money out of China generally use; it is generally easier and cheaper than the banks. You can find a list of locations on the Western Union website. However, there can be problems. It may be that the system is down or the staff member you are dealing with asks for silly things – the recipient’s passport and visa number for a transfer abroad, or cash in US dollars for a transfer within China. Just try another branch if you have difficulties.
Credit cards in China
Outside of star or chain hotels, large supermarkets, and high-class restaurants, credit cards are generally not accepted and most transactions require cash. Many department stores and large grocery shops have point-of-sale terminals for Chinese bank cards, but these do not work for most foreign cards.
Most Chinese banks and many merchants use the UnionPay system, so a foreign card that supports UnionPay – Discover or JCB (Japan Credit Bureau) – is widely accepted. Visa, MasterCard, or American Express are less common. Most supermarkets take UnionPay, as do most restaurant chains, shops selling high-value items, grocery chains, and most ATMs.
If you spend a lot of time in China and use larger amounts of money, you should get a Chinese bank account or apply for an international card that can interact with UnionPay. If you are in a large city and later travel to smaller towns, try opening an account with smaller banks such as Woori Bank or Ping An Bank; they offer free ATM withdrawals throughout China (Ping An Bank also offers free withdrawals abroad, an advantage if you are traveling to nearby countries). Alternatively, Travelex offers UnionPay cash passes in certain countries.
If you have a bank account in Hong Kong, you may be able to open an additional Renminbi account with a UnionPay card, which is very convenient for mainland travel.
As with debit cards, Chinese sales staff will usually present the cardholder with the POS credit card terminal to enter a PIN for chip-and-pin cards. Visitors from signature or chip-and-signature countries, such as the USA, should try to explain this to the clerk or simply press the green button or Enter for no PIN. Chinese terminals have old-fashioned miniature dot-matrix printers that print receipts on carbonless paper. If no PIN is entered, the clerk presents the receipt to the cardholder for signature, then separates the layers and gives the carbon copy to the cardholder.
Costs in China
While China is no longer the bargain travel destination it was in the 1990s, it is still quite affordable for Western visitors, even if it is significantly more expensive than large parts of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Unless you are travelling to Hong Kong or Macau, China is generally much cheaper – from a traveler’s point of view – than developed countries. If you eat local food, use public transport and stay in very cheap budget hotels or hostels, then ¥200-300 is a workable daily budget for backpackers. However, if you want to live an extravagant lifestyle and only eat western food and stay in star hotels, then even ¥3,000 per day would not be enough.
Prices vary greatly depending on where you travel. Big cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou tend to be more expensive than second-tier cities and rural parts of the interior. The boom cities of Shenzhen and Zhuhai are also known to be quite expensive by Chinese standards. Nevertheless, many Hong Kong or Macau residents (who live just across the border from Shenzhen and Zhuhai respectively), who are generally wealthier than mainlanders, often travel to these cities to shop, play golf and enjoy services such as massages, as prices are much lower.
Tipping in China
As a rule, tipping is not done anywhere in China. While tipping is rarely seen as an insult, in some cases it could be taken as an indication that a relationship is based on money rather than friendship. If you leave a tip on your table, it is common for a waiter to chase after you to return the money you “forgot”.
In China, compliments about service are usually expressed in an implicit way. If you are a smoker, you are expected to pass a cigarette to the service staff or manager. If you do not do this, you will be seen as selfish and self-centered. It is customary to buy a bartender or pub owner a drink.
In a hotel, it is generally customary not to tip for room service, airport service, taxis or other items, although hotels that routinely serve foreign tourists may allow tipping for tour guides and associated drivers. Masseurs in some areas such as Shenzhen are known to ask for a tip. However, if they become pushy about tipping, most Chinese see this as blackmail and an immoral practice, so just be firm if you don’t want to tip.
Taxi drivers are happy to receive a few rounded-up RMB if they have made a special effort for your ride; however, it is by no means necessary.