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Unfortunately it’s still not possible to legally exchange Chinese money abroad. Small dealers offer wads of RMB on the back streets of Chinatowns throughout the world, but if you go to them you risk being scammed and are breaking the law.
Once in China it gets a lot easier. Most major currencies can be exchanged at banks, top-end hotels and some large department stores. In all these places the rate offered is usually the official rate, so there’s little point in shopping around.
When you exchange money, keep the receipt as you’ll need it if you want to change back any spare RMB you have left at the end of your trip.
People often hang around outside banks and in tourist centres offering to exchange currency. You would be breaking the law, and will be ripped off in one way or another, whether it be by being given fake notes, a poor exchange rate, or no money at all.
Travellers cheques are not a bad idea. Not only are they safer (you won’t lose out if they’re stolen), but they often work out cheaper too. To be on the safe side, it’s best to stick to US dollars or Euros and major companies like Visa. The exchange rate is better than for cash, but you have to either go to the main branch of Bank of China, or a major tourist hotel.
Follow the instructions of the issuer to the letter, remember to make a note of all serial numbers and keep the purchase agreement.
ATMs are a convenient way to get money, but the cost effectiveness will depend on your bank back home. Some UK and US banks charge so much for withdrawals abroad that it’s cheaper to get a cash advance on a credit card than to draw directly from your account.
Most large branches of Bank of China now have ATMs compatible with foreign cards, other banks do not. Visa, Mastercard, Cirrus, Maestro, AmEx and Plus can all be used in Bank of China ATMs.
Don’t rely entirely on ATMs to get money in China, a variety of things could go wrong.
Foreign credit cards can be used in large hotels, the most upmarket restaurants, and to buy aeroplane tickets, but for virtually nothing else. Visa, Mastercard, JCB and AmEx are the most widely accepted.
Cash advances on foreign credit cards are available at the Bank of China, but usually only from the main branch in each town. You’ll need to bring a passport have to withdraw at least 1200Y. The commision is 4%, but AmEx users don’t have to pay it.
Don’t be fooled by the visa sign outside other Chinese banks and in hotels – it refers to Chinese Visa, which is a different kettle of fish entirely.
Having money sent to you should really only be a last resort. It takes up time and energy that would be far better spent elsewhere, and it is not cheap either.
If you end up having to, try CITIC (China International Trust and Investment Bank), who are much better for this purpose than Bank of China. Western Union and Moneygram both have agents throughout China.
Foreigners can open bank accounts in China, this is rather convenient if you’re planning to be in China for a long time. CITIC have reputation for efficiency, but if you’re planning to travel around then Bank of China might be worth a shot because they have so many branches. After you’ve opened your account, it’s relatively easy (though rather expensive) for someone in another country to transfer money into it.
Counterfeit money is a problem in China, and you as a foreigner may be seen as a good person to slip fake notes to. Nobody will take 50Y or 100Y notes without inspecting them first. Check the watermark, and don’t accept notes that are torn.
The basic unit of Chinese currency is the Yuan (Yuán 元) which is sometimes translated to dollar. In colloquial Chinese people often say ‘kuài – 块’ instead of yuán.
One Yuan divides into 100 cents, which are called ‘fēn – 分’ in Chinese, but are of so little value that they are virtually never used. More commonly used is the jiao (jiăo 角) which is one tenth of one Yuan – ie ten cents. In colloquial Chinese the jiao is more commonly referred to as a ‘máo – 毛’.
Notes come in denominations of 100Y, 50Y, 20Y, 10Y, 5Y, 2Y and 1Y. Below these, there are also notes of 0.5Y, and 0.1Y. There are also notes of even smaller denominations, including one worth 0.05Y, but these are never used. You may be given some if you exchange money at the bank. You won’t be able to spend it, so keep it as a souvenir or throw it away.
The highest denomination of coin is 1Y, below which there are coins of 5 jiao (0.5Y), 1 jiao (0.1Y) and 5 fen (0.05Y).
If you travel around China you may notice that small denomination notes are more common in the North than the South. This is supposedly because the damp Southern climate causes the notes to disintegrate more quickly – or maybe just because the rich Southerners are happy to throw them away.
Wonder at the Great Wall, be awed by the magnificent Forbidden City, drink in the scenery from a boat on the Summer Palace’s Kunming Lake.