The official currency of the People's Republic of China is the renminbi "People's Money", often abbreviated RMB. The base unit of this currency is the yuan, international currency code CNY. All prices in China are given in yuan.
The RMB is not legal tender in the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, both of which issue their currencies although occasionally it will be accepted on an unfavourable 1 to 1 basis with Hong Kong Dollars.
The official subdivisions of the yuan are the jiao, at 10 jiao to the yuan, and the fen at 10 fens to the jiao. The fen is extinct nowadays but may still be seen in less developed areas. A coin worth ¥0.10 will thus say "1 jiao", not "10 fens", on it. But in colloquial Mandarin, people often say kuai instead of yuan, and the jiao is also dubbed the mao. A price like ¥3,7 would thus be read as "3 kuai 7" (although 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 dropped. 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, keep in mind that Chinese has a word for ten thousand, "wàn", and thus for example 50000 becomes wu wan, not wu shi qian.
A lot of Chinese currency will be in the form of bills - even small change. Bills are more common in some areas, coins in others, but both are accepted anywhere. Even the jiao, at just one-tenth of a yuan, exists as both a bill (the smallest) and two different coins. Conversely, one yuan exists both as a coin and as two different bills. You should be prepared to recognise and handle either version.
ATMs are all over the country but most ATMs outside the large cities that accept 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 will take Visa, Plus, MasterCard, Maestro and Cirrus.
However, cash advances from Diner's Club, American Express, or JCB cards are more difficult. For visitors from Hong Kong or Macau, the only ATMs that natively take JETCO cards are Bank of East Asia ATMs. Most ATMs will charge a small and flat fee.
Note: Minsheng Bank, Shenzhen Development Bank, and Bank of Shanghai ATMs will sometimes display Plus, Cirrus and Maestro logos. In reality, only selected ATMs of theirs are linked into these networks, and there is usually no indication until you try. This is true of many other banks' ATMs, even Agricultural Bank of China (one of the big four).
Before travelling, find out if your home bank charges a currency conversion fee (often between 0-3%) on such transactions. It is worth opening a zero conversion fee account beforehand if possible. Otherwise, it would be better to open a local account on arrival to store money in if staying for a sufficiently long time.
If you have trouble because the ATM requires a 6-digit PIN and your PIN only has 4 digits, try adding 2 zeros before it. If you find yourself in a town with a Bank of China branch but no international network-capable ATM, it is usually possible to get a cash advance on a credit card inside the bank. Just ask.
UnionPay, the local ATM card network, has made agreements with various ATM card networks across the globe. If your card is covered, any ATM in China will accept withdrawals and balance inquiries from your card. Currently covered are NYCE and Pulse in America (also applies to cash advances from Discover cards), Interac in Canada, and LINK in the UK.
Also, if your bank is part of the Global ATM Alliance, be aware that China Construction Bank is the local partner for fee-free withdrawals.
Using credit cards in China
Outside of star-rated or chain hotels, major supermarkets, and high-class restaurants, credit cards are generally not accepted and most transactions will require cash.
The most popular credit card in China is UnionPay, and due to an alliance between Discover and UnionPay, those with Discover credit cards will find that their card is much more widely accepted (under the UnionPay system) than those with Visa, Mastercard or American Express.
Most convenience stores take UnionPay, as do most restaurant chains, stores selling high-value items, grocery store chains, and most ATMs. Beware of pickpockets.
Many department stores and large grocery stores have point-of-sale terminals for Chinese bank cards; typically these will not work for foreign cards (unless it is also a UnionPay card). However, because of the nature of Discover's agreement with the UnionPay network, it is treated as a domestic card at ATMs and point-of-sale.
If you are going to spend a lot of time in China and use significant amounts of money, consider getting a Chinese bank account if signing up for a Discover card is impractical. Ideally, if in a big city and later travelling to smaller ones, try signing up for an account with smaller banks like Woori Bank or Ping An Bank; these offer free inter-bank ATM withdrawals anywhere in China (Ping An Bank also offers free withdrawals overseas, a plus if travelling to nearby countries later). Alternatively, Travelex offers UnionPay Cash Passports in certain countries.
Exchanging currency in China
Although still restricted, the yuan is readily convertible in many countries, especially in Asia. The Hong Kong dollar, U.S. dollar, Canadian dollar, Euro, British pound, Australian dollar, Japanese yen and South Korean won can be easily changed in China. Southeast Asian currencies are generally not accepted, the exception being Singapore dollars.
Currency should only be changed at major banks (Bank of China in particular) or with the licensed money changers usually found at airports or high-end hotels although these offer very bad rates.
A black market for currency exchange does exist but you are highly advised to avoid as Counterfeiting is a major issue when exchanging money in China. Beware the private money changers found in markets and hanging around large banks. While their exchange rates may look attractive, unless you have a local friend to help you out, do 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 with the official exchange counter in the Bank of China or one of the other large banks as even though you get slightly worse rates, the risk of getting counterfeit bills is close to zero.
Foreign exchange is under tight control in China. Private money changers, widely seen in many tourist spots or shopping malls around the globe, are still uncommon in China. In a bank, it usually takes 5 minutes to 60 minutes to process the exchange, sometimes a little faster in a hotel, depending on their experience.
Generally speaking bank branches in major 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 a form and show your passport. Your passport will be photocopied and scanned. Keep the exchange receipt if you plan to leave the country with a larger sum of money. Note that not all banks with the "Exchange" logo will exchange money for non-customers or all currencies in cash.
For example, Standard Chartered will only exchange cash for its customers and will only do US$ and HK$ in cash (but opening an account is quick and doable even on a tourist visa, and they offer a better cash exchange rate than most local banks).
Exchanging U.S. currency for RMB can be simple, but expect the bills to be heavily scrutinized before the exchange is processed. Opportunities to buy RMB before entering China, for example when coming overland from Hong Kong or Vietnam, should be taken, as the rates are better. The same is true going the other way - selling just across the border will often net a more favourable rate.
Also, most international banks will allow you to get a cash advance via a debit or credit card at a Chinese ATM. However, the rates for such actions are often unfavourable and may include steep service charges. It's useful to carry an international currency such as British Pounds, US Dollars, or Japanese Yen to fall back on should you not have access to a cash machine.
Exchanging travellers' cheques in China
Most major banks and upscale hotels will exchange travellers' cheques. You will need identification and your signature on the cheques, your ID, and your signature in front of the teller will be scrutinized very closely.
In second-tier cities, you will need to go to the head branch of Bank of China or Merchants' Bank. Exchanging travellers' cheques is usually slower than exchanging cash.
Counterfeit currency in China
Counterfeit Chinese currency is a serious problem. Anyone staying in China for a few months will certainly have experience of it. From ¥1 coin to ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100 bills, all currency are subject to risk. The very first lesson to survive in China is how to scrutinize notes and even coins.
The main focus is on the texture of different parts, metal line, change of colours under different lights. Ask anyone how all of them have their way.
It is very common for a cashier to scrutinise the banknotes you use to pay a bill. Don't be offended; they are not suggesting that you're using counterfeit currency. They just need to be responsible. When you get change, do the same, scrutinise the banknotes you get, especially notes over ¥50. Salespeople may try to give you counterfeit money that they took from other customers as change.
Counterfeits from ATMs became a hot topic in recent years, although it is not common. If you are worried, withdraw your money from the bank counter and say "I worry about jiabi (counterfeit)". Bank staff seem to be very understanding of this.
It's not unheard of a non-licensed money exchanger on China borders to change counterfeits to travellers. If you're not experienced in checking notes, you're highly advised to go to banks.
When you pay with a ¥50 or ¥100 banknote in a shop or taxi, it's socially accepted that you remember the last few digits of your currency number as you pass it. They may say that your banknote is fake, just make sure you get back what you gave them.
Tipping in China
As a general rule, tipping is not practised anywhere in China. When leaving a tip on your table, it is common to see a waiter chase after you to return the money you "forgot" to take.
In a hotel, it is widely accepted not to tip for room service, airport service, taxis or anything else. Masseurs in some areas such as Shenzhen have been known to ask for a tip. However, if they become pushy at getting tips most Chinese see this as extortion and an immoral practice, so just be firm if you don't wish to give any.
In China, compliments over service are usually expressed in implicit ways. If you are a smoker, you are expected to pass a cigarette to the service staff or manager. Else, you will be seen as selfish and egocentric. It is common to buy a bartender or pub owner a drink.
Tipping in the wrong way can lead to embarrassment, and can sometimes be insulting because you are suggesting that the relationship is based on money, not friendship.