When travelling to China, you should get hold of local currency. Although some vendors may accept foreign currency, this usually only applies to tourist areas and expensive outlets. It's also worth noting that localities near Hong Kong may accept Hong Kong dollar (HKD), but the exchange rate will be very unfavourable.
Cash or cards — how do you pay in China?
In smaller towns and outside the more touristy areas cash is still very much in use, but many hotels, restaurants and shops freely accept Visa, MasterCard, American Express cards.
Remember that foreign credit and debit cards may not be accepted everywhere, so it makes sense to carry enough cash to make small payments.
Where to get CNY cash:
- You can exchange your home currency for CNY before you leave or when you arrive in China. The second option is usually much more favourable.
- Any Chinese international airport makes it easy and fast to get cash on arrival. ATMs are usually available in the baggage claim area and after customs at both arrival and departure levels. There are also currency exchange counters at the airport, although they may charge high fees.
- All cities have 24-hour ATMs. Rural areas, such as parts of Tibet, may not have them. There is always the option to switch to an English interface at the ATM.
- It is better to use major banks such as Bank of China, ICBC, China Construction Bank or HSBC because not every card will work in every ATM. Information about accepted card types is indicated on the device.
- With BestChange, you can find exchangers online that have offices in China and use their services.
Some hotels provide currency exchange services, but usually charge a hefty fee. It's also not a good idea to exchange money at a bank branch, as you may have to wait a long time and may be asked to bring additional documents.
The denominations and appearance of Chinese yuan (CNY) cash
As of 2023, the following CNY banknotes are issued in the PRC:
- 1 yuan
- 5 yuan
- 10 yuan
- 20 yuan
- 50 yuan
- 100 yuan
Now all banknotes use a portrait of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong instead of the various leaders and ethnic groups that were depicted in the earlier series. Only the colour design differs. Also, new anti-counterfeiting features have been added for the updated series.
As for the coins, previously very small coins of 0.01 — 0.05 yuan were minted, but since 1991, new aluminium coins of 0.1 — 0.5 yuan have been in circulation. However, since the beginning of 2005, the 0.01 coin has been given a "new life", and to date it has been minted every year. Coins tend to be more popular in urban areas due to the abundance of various vending machines.
How much cash to take for travelling in China
If you are travelling with a tour (on a pre-paid tour), you only need to pay for dinners and personal expenses. Unless you plan to buy a lot of souvenirs, it is recommended to take about 500 RMB per day per person.
If travelling on your own, the amount of cash needed will vary depending on where you plan to visit and how often you use the card. In any case, 2000 RMB per person should cover all expenses for a day trip in China.