World ? Asia ? China

China: Money

It's always advisable to bring money in a variety of forms on a vacation: a mix of cash, credit cards, and traveler's checks. You should also exchange enough petty cash to cover airport incidentals, tipping, and transportation to your hotel before you leave home, or withdraw money upon arrival at an airport ATM.

In many international destinations, ATMs offer the best exchange rates. Avoid exchanging money at commercial exchange bureaus and hotels, which often have the highest transaction fees.

Currency

Mainland China -- For most destinations it's usually a good idea to exchange at least some money before you leave home so you can avoid the less-favorable rates you'll get at airport currency-exchange desks. Mainland China is different. Yuan, also known as RMB (Renminbi, or "People's Money"), are not easily obtainable overseas, and rates are generally worse when they can be found.

There is no legal private money-changing in mainland China, and rates are fixed to be the same at all outlets nationwide on a daily basis. So change at the airport when you arrive, and then at larger branches of the Bank of China, or at desks administered by the bank in your hotel or at major department stores in larger cities. If you find a shop offering to change your money at other than a formal Bank of China exchange counter, they are doing so illegally, and you open yourself to shenanigans with rates and fake bills, which are fairly common. Even the meanest hole-in-the-wall restaurant has an ultraviolet note tester. Do not deal with black-market money-changers.

Hotel exchange desks will only change money for their guests, and they are open very long hours 7 days a week. Bank hours vary drastically from province to province, so be sure to check.

In a bid to avert a trade war with the U.S., China allowed a 2% appreciation of the yuan in 2005. It is no longer pegged solely to the U.S. dollar, but rather a basket of currencies, in an arrangement known as a "crawling peg." The U.S. dollar has recently been trading around ť7.50, the pound sterling at ť15.30, and the euro at ť10.67. For this edition, we have taken ť7.40 to the U.S. dollar as an approximate conversion. The latest rates can be found at www.xe.com/ucc.

There are notes for ť100, ť50, ť20, ť10, ť5, ť2, and ť1, which also appears as a coin. The word yuan is rarely spoken, and sums are usually referred to as kuai qian, "pieces of money," usually shortened to just kuai. San kuai is ť3. Notes carry Arabic numerals as well as numbers in Chinese characters, so there's no fear of confusion. The next unit down, the jiao (ť.10), is spoken of as the mao. There are notes of a smaller size for ť.50, ť.20, and ť.10, as well as coins for these values. The smallest and almost worthless unit is the fen (both written and spoken) or cent and, unbelievably, when you change money you may be given tiny notes or lightweight coins for ť.05, ť.02, and ť.01, but this is the only time you'll see them except in the bowls of beggars or donation boxes in temples. The most useful note is the ť10 ($1.30/65p), so keep a good stock. Street stalls, convenience stores, and taxis are often not happy with ť100 ($13/ţ6.50) notes.

Keep receipts when you exchange money, and you can reconvert excess yuan into hard currency when you leave China, although sometimes not more than half the total sum for which you can produce receipts, and sometimes these receipts must be not more than 3 months old.

Hong Kong & Macau -- In Hong Kong the currency is the Hong Kong dollar (HK$), whose notes are issued by a variety of banks, although all coins look the same. It is pegged to the U.S. dollar at around HK$7.80 to US$1. Keep foreign exchange to a minimum at the airport (use the ATMs at departures level) or at other points of entry. Do not change in hotels or banks, but with money-changers, and choose money-changers away from the main streets for a significantly better rate. Banks have limited weekend hours, but money-changers are open every day.

Macau's official currency is the pataca (MOP$), pegged to the Hong Kong dollar (and thus to the U.S. dollar) at a rate of MOP$103.20 to HK$100 -- about MOP$8 to US$1. Hong Kong dollars are accepted everywhere, including both coins and notes (even on buses), but at par. If you arrive in Macau from Hong Kong for a short stay, there's little point in changing money beforehand.

ATMs

Generally, the easiest and best way to get cash away from home is from an ATM (automated teller machine), sometimes referred to as a "cash machine," or a "cashpoint." Unfortunately, while there are many ATMs in China, many won't accept foreign cards. Check the back of your ATM card for the logos of the Cirrus (www.mastercard.com), PLUS (www.visa.com), and Aeon (www.americanexpress.com), systems, and then contact the relevant company for a list of working ATM locations in China. Beijing and Shanghai are both fairly well served, and have additional Citibank and Hongkong and Shanghai Bank machines which take just about any card ever invented. But even some major tourist destinations have no ATMs that accept foreign cards, even if their screens say they do. Nevertheless, it is possible, as long as you plan ahead, to travel in China relying on ATMs -- just be sure to replenish your supplies of cash long before they run out, and have a couple of hundred U.S. dollars in cash as a backup. If you do find a working ATM, keep in mind that some machines have a limit of ť2,500 ($325/ţ162) per transaction, but often allow a second transaction the same day. In Hong Kong and Macau there are ATMs everywhere that are friendly to foreign cards.

Note: Many banks impose a fee every time you use a card at another bank's ATM, and that fee can be higher for international transactions (up to $5 or more) than for domestic ones. In addition, the bank from which you withdraw cash may charge its own fee. For international withdrawal fees, ask your bank.

Banks that are members of the Global ATM Alliance charge no transaction fees for cash withdrawals at other Alliance member ATMs; these include Bank of America, Scotiabank (Canada, Caribbean, and Mexico), Barclays (U.K. and parts of Africa), Deutsche Bank (Germany, Poland, Spain, and Italy), and BNP Paribas (France).

Traveler's Checks

Traveler's checks are only accepted at selected branches of the Bank of China, at foreign exchange desks in hotels, at international gateways, and at some department stores in the largest cities. In the most popular destinations, checks in any hard currency and from any major company are welcome, but elsewhere, currencies of the larger economies are preferred, and hotels may direct all check-holders to the local head office of the Bank of China. U.S. dollars cash, in contrast, may be exchanged at most branches of almost any Chinese bank, so even if you plan to bring checks, having a few U.S. dollars cash (in good condition) for emergencies is a good idea. Checks attract a marginally better exchange rate than cash, but the .75% commission makes the result slightly worse (worse still if you paid commission when buying them). Occasionally, if the signature you write in front of the teller varies from the one you made when you bought the check, it may be rejected. In Hong Kong and Macau, checks are accepted at banks and money-changers in the usual way.

Credit Cards

Although Visa and MasterCard signs abound, credit cards are of limited use in China -- in most cases only the Chinese versions of the cards are accepted.

Credit cards are still relatively uncommon for ordinary Chinese folk, although changes are taking places as domestic debit card companies such as Union Pay come into operation. Otherwise, an establishment will accept all of them -- American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, and Visa -- or none at all. Many hotels accept foreign cards, but only the most upscale restaurants outside hotels do so, as do those high-priced souvenir shops where you are already paying well over the odds.

You can also obtain cash advances on your MasterCard, Visa, Diners Club, or Amex card from major branches of the Bank of China, with a minimum withdrawal of ť1,200 ($156/ţ78) and 4% commission, plus whatever your card issuer charges -- a very expensive way to withdraw cash, and for emergencies only. If you do plan to use your card while in China, it's a good idea to call your card issuer and let it know in advance.

All major credit cards are widely accepted in Hong Kong and Macau.

Emergency Cash

American Express also runs an emergency check cashing system, which allows you to use one of your own checks or a counter check (more expensive) to draw money in the currency of your choice from selected banks. This works well in major cities but it can cause confusion in less-visited spots, and the rules on withdrawal limits vary according to the country in which your card was issued. Consult American Express for a list of participating banks before you leave home.

If you're stuck in a province where banks are closed on weekends, you can have money wired from Western Union (tel. 800/325-6000; www.westernunion.com) to many post offices and branches of the Agricultural Bank of China across China. You must present valid ID to pick up the cash at the Western Union office. In most countries, you can pick up a money transfer even if you don't have valid identification, as long as you can answer a test question provided by the sender. This should work in Hong Kong but might cause difficulties in mainland China. Let the sender know in advance that you don't have ID.

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