What is the best way to exchange money in China and where can you do it at? Whether you’re an expat in China or just a traveler passing through, getting cash exchanged into Chinese yuan (or renminbi) is a priority.
There are a number of ways to get it done (and some alternatives I’ll share), but these are my favorites.
The problem I know a lot of people run into is the inability to obtain Chinese yuan before they enter China. Chinese currency, known in Chinese language as “renminbi” or RMB for short, is not a freely convertible currency. You can’t just hop into your bank at home and request to exchange your money into RMB.
In most cases, that means entering China without any RMB in your pocket. It’s a scary thing, no doubt, but it doesn’t have to be. I’d like to share with you my favorite and most reliable ways to exchange money in China.
I will dive into pros and cons of each in this article, but first, let me share with you my recommended “money strategy” for travelers to China:
- Notify your bank that you’ll be traveling to China (so they don’t freeze your card when trying to use it).
- Take the equivalent of a few hundred US dollars in your home currency with you. This is your “emergency fund”.
- When you’re in the airport, either at home or when you land, exchange about US$100 worth of that cash into RMB. This is your initial exchange that will allow you to at least take a taxi and eat on your first day. Exchange rates are bad at the airport, which is why we do very little.
- For the remainder of your trip, use your debit card or global payment card to pull cash from the ATM (usually 2,000 RMB at a time). This will give you the best exchange rate without having to wait at the bank.
Before I go any further, I feel the need to make one thing clear:
As travelers, we are only allowed to carry the equivalent of US$5,000 or 20,000 RMB into or out of China. Anything more than this will need to be declared and in some cases will require a legal warrant.
I never recommend that people carry this much cash on their person while traveling. However, I’ve written about smart packing for China and this includes carrying at least a little cash for emergencies.
Where to Exchange Money in China
When carrying foreign currency into China (such as Euro or US dollars), there are numerous places where you can exchange cash. You’ll need to take into account the exchange rates, the overall convenience and the risk involved as you choose your method.
The three primary places to exchange foreign currency in China are the bank, the airport exchange kiosks and the black market. Here’s a quick explanation of each.
Chinese banks have traditionally been the most reliable way to exchange money in China. Banks will offer the best exchange rate with the least amount of risk.
The problem with using a Chinese bank to exchange cash in China is the convenience factor. I rarely spend less than an hour waiting in a Chinese bank and I’ve been known to wait 2-3 hours.
That’s not to mention the fact that you can’t rely on a bank to have an English-speaking employee. If you have little time and even less skill in the Chinese language, you might need to avoid the banks in China.
On the other hand, if you’re an expat who will be spending at least a year in China, I highly recommend you open a bank account in China.
Airport Kiosks & Hotels
For travelers, the most popular way to exchange cash in China is at the airport or at your hotel. The exchange rate is abysmal but the convenience is sometimes worth it.
For the most part, you’ll find the airport kiosks located outside the baggage claim in Chinese airports. Sometimes the employee can speak English but for the most part it isn’t necessary. Give them the cash you want exchanged and they’ll hand you over Chinese RMB.
The same goes for Chinese hotels. Smaller hotel chains might not be willing to exchange cash, but most of the four- and five-star hotels will.
Convenience is key here. You don’t have to wait in line at a bank, although the exchange rate you’ll get will be at least 10-20% worse than at a bank.
Black Market Exchange
As you near any major bank branch in China, you might find yourself approached by currency speculators with bags full of cash. I used to avoid these people at all costs, but I’ve learned to appreciate their service.
For the most part, these people spend all day speculating on currency changes. They want your US dollars in order to make a few bucks on the exchange. They can also sometimes be the reason that bank wait times are so long.
There’s a risk to dealing with these black market exchanges. Unless you’re intimately familiar with Chinese currency, it’s easy for them to give you fake bills without you knowing.
That being said, you can get near-bank level exchange rates with a 5-minute convenience you won’t get at a bank.
A Note about Travelers Cheques: I used to use Traveler’s Checks in China when I first arrive 10 years ago. I don’t anymore. The problem with Traveler’s Checks, besides the fact that you have to wait in line at the bank, is that not every bank will accept them anymore.
You can always get a bank to accept cash. It is up to their discretion whether or not they accept Traveler’s Checks.
Exchange Money in China | Alternative Methods
Of course, exchanging cash isn’t always the fastest – or best – way to get Renminbi in China. Hands down, the quickest and easiest way to get money in China is to use the China bank ATMs.
You might be surprised to find out how many ATMs there are in China. To me, it feels like two on every street corner. Most Chinese ATMs will show a sign above that indicates whether or not they accept Visa, MasterCard and Diner’s Club.
The exchange rate will be good, but you’ll likely be charged a fee, both from the Chinese bank and from your bank at home. For this reason, I’m a big advocate of a global payment card like eCard (US residents only). Applying for the eCard – which is absolutely free – provides you with a UnionPay card, a network that is accepted at every single ATM in China with a flat fee.
You simply load the card from your bank before your trip and use the card to either pay for things or pull cash from the ATM.
Using something like Visa or MasterCard can work sometimes, but it’s still not universally accepted throughout China. Most major hotels, restaurants and stores will accept your credit card, but you’ll want to have cash handy for taxis, souvenirs, and those snacks you’ll find along the street.
Other Things to Consider Before Traveling to China
Now that you know how you’re going to exchange money in China, there are a few other things you should consider before you jump on your flight headed for China.
- Will your phone work in China? More and more travelers are relying on their smart phones to help them with maps and translation as they travel. This will require you to have network access in China, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Here’s how you can use your phone in China.
- Have you downloaded a VPN? Popular social networks like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are blocked in China. So are Gmail, YouTube and many other news sites. If you want any hope of using these apps in China, you’ll need to install a VPN like ExpressVPN. It’s a paid service you need to set up before you enter China and it allows you to legally circumvent China’s censorship of the internet. Almost every expat in China uses it and personally, I have three!
- Did you alert your bank about your upcoming travel? If you plan to use your ATM card or credit card in China, you’ll want to call your bank to let them know so they don’t freeze your account on suspicion of fraud.
I could go on and on with more tips, but instead I’ll just point you toward one of my favorite PDF downloads that I created called 44 Things You Must Know Before Traveling to China.