Note: If you’re looking for ideas on how to send money out of China, check out our Guide to Sending Money from China.
The good news is that China is full of banks at almost every street corner. That means ATM’s, quick cash and convenience.
The bad news is that it comes at a price. Whether that’s time standing in line, time waiting for a wire transfer, or bank fees, you’re going to have to pay somehow.
So based on my years of experience, here’s a quick rundown of the 5 Cheapest Ways to get money to China.
#1: Walk the Money Across the China Border
The absolute cheapest way to get money to China is to walk it through. That means one of two things for you:
- Risking it with a bunch of cash
- Using traveler’s cheques
No doubt you should always have a little cash on hand (US dollars are still the best), it’s just a matter of how much. I’ve walked across the border with a couple hundred dollars and I’ve also walked across with a couple thousand. Both worked great, the latter was just harder on the nerves.
A more secure option is traveler’s cheques. The great thing about these cheques is that they’re practically risk-free and extremely cheap. If you lose them or somebody steals them, they can be replaced (just make sure you securely write down the cheque numbers).
The problem with both of these options is that although they are very cheap, getting the money converted to Renminbi is a nightmare. Don’t even consider going to a Chinese bank as you might end up waiting in line for hours just to get money. Anywhere else and you’re going to get ripped off on the exchange rate.
My advice: use cash walked across the border as a backup plan in case something goes wrong. Don’t use it as your primary way to get money.
#2: Use an ATM in China
A majority of the ATM’s all throughout China accept Visa as well as the local UnionPay. It’s incredibly convenient to use the ATM in China, which is why so many people prefer this method, but there are two distinct disadvantages:
- Limits: there is a withdrawal limit, usually somewhere around 2,000-3,000RMB per day. This should be more than enough but if it isn’t my wife and I realized that the limit is for the card, not the account. In other words, we both have debit cards linked to the same account but by using our cards individually we were able to double the daily limit.
- Bank Fees: its a rare bank that doesn’t charge ATM fees, so expect somewhere between US$5-10 to show up on your statement every time you use the ATM. On top of that, you’re also getting an exchange rate that is never in your favor.
My advice: ATM’s are a great option but when you use one, take out the max withdrawal limit so you don’t have to do it more than once. Also, carry two cards if possible (debit, not credit). Sometimes it just doesn’t work and you don’t want to get stuck.
#3: Wire Transfers to China
Wire transfers may not be the most efficient way for travelers to get their money to China, but for those of us that live here it can be another great way to get money in and out of the country.
There are two primary ways that I’ve wired money in and out of China:
- Bank Wire Transfers: Back in the US I bank with Chase. In less than 15 minutes I was able to log into my account online, setup my China bank as a new “wire recipient” and then make the transfer. It cost me about $40 for each transfer regardless of the amount, but it’s hassle free. The only catch is that I had to open a China bank account for this to work and the whole process takes about a week. If this interests you, you should consider opening a Chinese bank account for yourself.
- 3rd Party Wire Transfers: There are companies like MoneyGram or WesternUnion, however, that can do it cheaper than your bank and have the money to you in less than a day. In my experience, it works well but has been a hassle on the China end. I accessed the money quickly but had to stand in line at the bank to retrieve the money and then stand in line again to convert it to Renminbi. It was cheap though: less than $20 to send a couple thousand.
My Advice: Check with your bank to see what they charge. If you need to make transfers regularly it’s just too convenient not to use the bank. If it’s a one-time deal consider a service like MoneyGram.
#4: Write Yourself a Check
Believe it or not, writing yourself a check from your bank is a perfectly viable way to get money into your China bank account. Your China bank will probably charge you an insignificant fee (around US$15) and your home bank will charge you nothing.
There is a BIG catch, though. The check takes anywhere between 30-60 days to clear. Yikes! I don’t like waiting that long, so I prefer not to use this method, but I have many friends who do.
My Advice: if you can plan far enough ahead, writing a check to yourself might not be a bad option.
#5: Use an International Credit Card
This is a newer option that works well if you’re a high-end traveler: staying at hotels that accept credit cards and traveling within the big cities.
There are some credit cards that boast no fees for international purchases. You have to check how they calculate exchange rates, but usually this can be a pretty good deal.
The only down side is that anything less than a major department store or 5-star hotel will not accept credit cards. You’re still going to need cash, and using your credit card to get cash is not a good option.