Outside of dedicated tourist areas, such as major shopping malls and hotels, many places only accept payment in cash so it is important to carry cash at all times if you plan on purchasing anything. Major stores may accept a local debit card, but generally in China, credit and debit are not as popular as they are in the West. In regards to withdrawing money, debit cards are the easiest option. Traveler’s cheque and credit cards have limited uses for students in China.

Chinese Currency

The currency in China is the RMB which is an abbreviation of the full Chinese name rénmínbì (pronounced rún mín bì), also known as the yuán (pronounced yuen). However, locals use the slang term “kuài” (pronounced kwàai) or kuài qián (qián means money), in the same way that Americans refer to dollars as ‘bucks’ or the British say quid instead of pounds.

Getting Money

When you first arrive, it is a good idea to bring some cash in hand that you can exchange upon arrival at the airport or a local currency exchange booth. You can also change money at a bank although you will have to present your passport and this may be a more lengthy process. Generally, it is easier to bring money from home as it can be difficult at times to access money unless you set up an account with a Chinese bank in your home country (HSBC, Bank of China). It is possible to exchange money into RMB before you arrive in China, but not all banks or money exchangers will be able to do this and the exchange rate in your country will be quite high. Only go through official channels to exchange money or you will certainly get cheated – it is best to consult your guide or another trusted figure when you are planning on exchanging money after you arrive in China.

Another way to get money while you’re in China is to use a bank card linked to an international financial company such as Visa or MasterCard. ATMs in major cities accept international bank cards, as well as in smaller cities, but you may have to search online to find an ATM that will accept your card. Conveniently, both Visa and MasterCard have online ATM locators that you can find by searching “Global ATM Locator”, followed by either Visa or MasterCard. You can even do this before you arrive in order to figure out whether this will be a viable option at your destination. However, many banks/ATMs have daily or weekly withdrawal limits that may restrict your ability to make large purchases or withdraw large sums of money. Therefore, if you need a large amount of cash (e.g. to pay for tuition or accommodation), you must plan ahead. Besides, you should be aware that foreign bank cards usually incur bank fees each time money is withdrawn as well as applying higher than average exchange rates to your withdrawals. This can amount to hundreds of dollars depending on how much is being exchanged, so this should be taken into consideration. In other words, plan ahead in order to get the best value for your dollar! You can also choose to use Western Union or MoneyGram – their service providers can be found in major cities and are useful in case of an emergency. Traveler’s Cheques are accepted at major hotels and some stores and restaurants that cater to tourists. Generally, they cannot be used in daily life so it’s best not to rely too heavily on them.

Opening a Chinese Bank Account

If you’ll be staying in China for a long period of time, it will be easier, as well as safer, to set up a local bank account. Chinese bank cards are accepted throughout the country and cash can be withdrawn at any time, with generally few to no bank charges. This means that you can bring or withdraw a large amount and simply put in the bank for safekeeping. This may be a bit safer than storing it under your mattress! As well as it being much safer, if you happen to lose your card or if there is an issue with your account, you will have can easily fix the issue in person rather than having to make an international or wait days for emails from your bank.

Getting a bank account is also relatively easy for foreigners in China. First, it will be important to pick a bank you are familiar with or one that is conveniently located near your residence – the Bank of China, China Construction Bank and ICBC have branches all over the country. All you have to do is bring your passport and fill out an application. The entire process takes about 30 minutes and is completely painless. Unless your Chinese skills are better than average, it would be recommended that you bring a guide or a friend in order to assist you through the application process.