What is the Chinese currency? As you prepare for your visit to China, this guide will provide a simple introduction to the Chinese renminbi and answer questions related to exchanging money and avoiding fake bank notes.
China’s currency can seem incredibly confusing to foreigners. Even the name “renminbi” is hard for a lot of people to pronounce correctly.
So having a basic understanding of the local money will help you in so many ways to where you will:
- Understand the value of each bank note and coins you use to purchase things in China
- Not be confused on prices when buying things on your trip
- Have lower risk of getting cheated or overpaying for things in China
- Exchange money with exchange rates more in your favor
- Avoid counterfeit bills
There’s a lot to cover here, but I promise you it’s not as intimidating as it sounds. I’ve been exchanging US dollars into China’s yuan for over a decade now and it’s always been a positive experience.
Hopefully as I answer questions, you’ll better understand how to exchange it, use it and distinguish it from counterfeit. Let’s begin!
Chinese Currency 101 | Money Basics
First things first: I’m going to run you through the very basics of China’s money.
This includes a detailed explanation of what Chinese currency is called as well as the available bank notes and coins.
What is China’s Money Called?
There are a number of different names for Chinese currency that I want to go over here. These include:
- Renminbi (formal)
- Yuan (informal)
- Kuai (daily spoken term)
Officially, the money in China is referred to as rénmínbì (RMB or 人民币), which translates as “the People’s Currency”.
The less formal name for money is “Chinese Yuan (CNY)”, which is also how the currency is labeled in the exchange markets. If you’re not sure, the word ‘yuan’ is pronounced like saying “you + an.”
When you hear local people talk about their currency, however, they rarely use the term renminbi. Instead you’ll hear the words kuài or yuán. For example, something that costs 5 RMB is colloquially spoken as 5 kuài or 5 yuán in Mandarin.
In written form, it’s slightly different.
When you check online or visit banks to see the exchange rate for Chinese RMB, you may also see it written out as ¥ or 元, both of which are symbols or the “dollar signs” for RMB.
Chinese Currency Notes | An Explanation
Although nowadays most people in China don’t carry much cash with them, everybody is still familiar with the various bank notes available. While in China, you’ll use practically every bank note that exists. The table below shows each note in circulation in China.
After familiarizing yourself with the exchange rate with your home currency, it’s pretty easy to tell how much each note is worth. Where things can get tricky are with the mao/jiao notes and coins.
Each mao or jiao (these words are used interchangeably) is worth 1/10th of 1 RMB. How Chinese use mao or jiao in spoken conversation is similar to how you communicate cents in USD.
For example if I wanted to say 5.50 RMB, I would say, “5 kuài 5 máo qián (qián means money in Mandarin) or just shorten it to 5 kuài 5.
It will take some practice developing an ear to understand for how much something costs in China, but you can get a head start using some resources I recommend for learning Mandarin or just use my go-to-trick of bringing out your phone’s calculator when asking for how much something costs in China.
In any case, you’ll likely also get decent practice at hearing Chinese currency numbers when bargaining for things in China.
How to Exchange Chinese Currency
Exchanging money for renminb if actually requires quite a bit of strategy if you want to get the most bang for your buck. Unfortunately, it’s not a one-size-fits-all process.
The most common ways to exchange for Chinese RMB are:
- Order RMB from Your Home Bank: Most banks outside of China don’t keep a lot of foreign currency on hand, so you’ll need to order Chinese yuan in advance. Unfortunately, you can’t simply walk-in to your bank and get as much currency as you want. The cost to purchase is subject to the bank’s exchange rate when you order, and each bank is a little bit different.
- Exchange for Chinese RMB at the Airport or Hotel: When traveling internationally, you’ll see currency kiosks at the airport and potentially when you check-in to your hotel. This is definitely the most convenient way to buy renminbi, but it comes at the cost of a terrible exchange rate. Because of this, kiosks are my least favorite way to get renminbi.
- Withdraw Renminbi from an ATM: Most foreign travelers tend to use a Chinese ATM to get cash because it’s just so convenient. There are ATMs on pretty much every street corner (and in airports) and you generally get a good exchange rate. Be warned, though: the fees can add up. Plan on at least a $5 fee from the local bank plus whatever your bank will charge at home. Whenever you use a Chinese ATM, I’d withdraw the maximum allowed (usually 2,000-3,000) to minimize your fees.
- Exchange for Renminbi at a Local Bank: This is the cheapest way of exchanging for Chinese RMB. There are no fees and you always get the best exchange rates at Chinese banks. The problem is you may end up waiting a decent amount of time at the bank and encounter language barriers. If you’re exchanging a large amount of money, this is going to save you money. For anything under a few thousand Renminbi, it’s best to use an ATM.
I recommend you draw from several of these approaches. You may need to get a little cash at the airport kiosk when you land to pay for a taxi, but then you’ll want to pull from an ATM or go to a nearby bank to get the rest of your cash.
To learn more tips on how to exchange for Chinese currency, you can see my comprehensive guide here.
How to Avoid Fake Renminbi
When traveling internationally, there’s always the risk of receiving fake currency as you are targeted as an “unbeknownst traveler.” Luckily in China, the risk of getting your hands on fake RMB is really low.
Because the punishment for distributing fake Chinese yuan is extremely high (in some cases, the death penalty).
Regardless, you still want to travel smart and here are some tips on how to avoid fake Chinese currency.
- Use caution if Exchanging Money on the Black Market: You’ll often see groups of folks outside large banks selling renminbi as well as other international currencies to locals. While I’ve exchanged money with these folks before to avoid long waiting times in the bank, you run the risk of whomever you’re dealing with handing you fake RMB notes. Unless you know what you’re doing, it’s probably best to not deal with these black market people. For the typical traveler, I’d just go the safe route and exchange money in the bank.
- Withdraw Money from ATMs in Banks: I’ve heard some folks share experiences of withdrawing fake currency from third-party ATMs in China. While I think the risk of this happening to you is extremely low, I’d steer clear of third-party ATMs (i.e. non-bank branded ATMs) and only withdraw cash from trusted Chinese banks. This way you can also easily get your card if it gets eaten or left behind in the ATM – I’ve done this before!
- Don’t Use 100 RMB Bank Notes on Small Transactions: Taxi drivers and store or restaurant owners hate it when you use a 100 RMB note on a small transaction; some may even slip you a fake 50 RMB note when giving you change. To reduce the risk of this happening, you can always break your money into small change at banks when exchanging money or withdrawing it.
By following these tips, you’re pretty well guaranteed to avoid any counterfeit currency finding its way into your wallet.
How to Spot Fake Chinese Currency
In the rare event you do find yourself worried your money is fake, here is how to determine whether or not this is true.
- Hold the note up to the light or the sky. Genuine notes will have an image of Chairman Mao on the left side in the white space.
- The serial number on the lower left of the note should gradually get smaller as you read from the middle to the right.
- On Chairman Mao’s portrait, run your finger around his collar. If it feels raised when rubbing your finger over it, it’s a genuine note.
- On the lower left-hand corner, those weird markings become a “100” as you tilt the bill. The blank spaces will fill in with a different color.
- Also on the lower left-hand corner next to the numeric value should also list the value of the note in a white watermark (e.g. if it’s a 100 RMB note, then if real, it should also say 100 here).
- The security line that runs through the right side of the bill changes color from hot pink to green with different viewing angles.
Take a careful look at a real 100 RMB note and compare it against the one you believe to be counterfeit renminbi.
Be careful! Falsely accusing someone of giving you fake RMB could potentially put yourself in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation!
In the event you do receive counterfeit money, I’d take it directly to the nearest police station without starting a fuss with whoever gives it to you. They can easily manage the situation from there, especially if you received the bills from a black market currency dealer outside a bank.
Should you receive fake notes in a taxi, ask for your receipt and also take note of the driver’s license plate before going your separate ways. Both pieces of information can help the police deal justice on your behalf.
Does Everyone Accept Cash? | Mobile Payment Apps
Although credit cards never took off in China, mobile payment apps have become the primary way to pay for things in major Chinese cities in recent years.
You can use both Alipay and WeChat Pay to pay for things you buy at practically any hole-in-the-wall restaurant, taxi cab, movie theater and even cover other expenses like utilities or rent with the apps.
If you’re thinking this may be a potential loop-hole to where you can avoid exchanging for Chinese currency, don’t hold your breath as you need a Chinese bank account to use these apps.
You may have heard that WeChat added the ability to link a foreign credit card in 2018 but then in 2019 they revoked the right for that card to open a WeChat Wallet. It is now mandatory that a user have a valid Chinese bank account before mobile payments can be used.
Because of this, at least for now, mobile payment apps are generally only useful for expats moving to China. Since they are able to open a bank account in China, they can make use of WeChat and Alipay’s mobile payment system.
Final Thoughts | Chinese Money
After reading this guide, you should now be more confident in your understanding of Chinese currency.
Before you jump on a plane to China, you need to decide on your strategy for exchanging money into Chinese yuan and then study up on the security features of Chinese money so as not to get caught with a counterfeit.
For folks planning on getting a Chinese bank account, I’d also take the information on Chinese mobile payment apps to heart as they will keep your money more secure and will bring a great deal of convenience to your life in China.