Where and how you get your money are important aspects of a stay in China. Outside of shopping malls and hotels, many places only accept payment in cash so make sure you bring some cash with you in case of an emergency. For withdrawing money, debit cards are the easiest option. Traveller's Cheques and credit cards have limited uses for students in China.
The currency in China is the RMB, the abbreviation of the full Chinese name rénmínbì (pronounced rún mín bì), also known as the yuán (pronounced yuen). However, locals almost always use the term kuài (pronounced kwàai) or kuài qián (qián means money), in the same way that Americans refer to dollars as bucks or a Brit might say quid instead of pounds.
When you first arrive, it is a good idea to take some cash that you can exchange upon arrival at the airport. You can also change money at a bank (you’ll have to present your passport). It is possible to exchange money into RMB before you arrive in China, but not all banks or money exchangers will be able to and the exchange rate will be unfavorable. Only go through official channels to exchange money or you will almost certainly be cheated.
The best and most reliable way to get money in China is to use a bank card linked to an international network like Visa or MasterCard. ATMs in major cities accept international bank cards and more and more ATMs in other cities do as well. It is a good idea to take a decent amount of cash with you before you head into the countryside, as you may not find an ATM that accepts your card (or any ATM at all).
Many banks/ATMs have restrictions on how much money you can withdraw at one time or in one day. Therefore, if you need a large amount of cash (e.g. to pay for tuition or accommodation), make sure you plan ahead.
Keep in mind that foreign bank cards usually incur a small fee each time money is withdrawn. Some foreign banks have special partnerships with Chinese banks. Ask you bank if it cooperates with any Chinese banks to give free ATM service.
Notify your bank that you’ll be in China. Foreign banks sometimes cancel bank cards if they see if has unexpected overseas service to prevent fraud.
Credit cards are used at major hotels, some restaurants and some major supermarkets. In general they are not widely used in China, although they are becoming more and more popular. Visa, American Express, JCB and Diner's Express
Traveller’s Cheques are accepted at major hotels and some stores and restaurants that cater to tourists. In generally they can’t be used in daily life so it’s best not to rely too heavily on them. Western Union and Moneygram can be found in cities and are useful in case of an emergency.
Many Chinese universities only accept tuition payment in cash in RMB. Students should change money before the registration date. (At present, the exchange rate between RMB and US Dollar is roughly USD 1 = RMB 6.58). You are required to present your passport to change money/travelers checks etc.
Cash: All the universities accpet cash in RMB. It is possible to exchange cash at most banks in China.
Traveler's cheques: Some universities accpet travelers' cheques as a tuition payment method. If you want to pay tuition by traveler's cheque, please check with the school in advance. Don't worry if you take traveler's cheques, Bank of China can cash traveler's cheques sold by international commercial banks and traveler's cheque companies.
Credit/ debit cards: Some universities accept payment by credit card, but a 3%-4% service fee will be charged when using these cards. Cash withdrawals from ATMs are available on most common credit/debit cards e.g. American Express/Visa/MasterCard/Cirrus, but this facility is not available from all ATMs in China and a service fee will usual apply. Check with your credit/debit card provider for specifics before leaving your home country.
Money Wire Transfer: Western Union money transfer allows instant money wiring to and from 100 countries. Receivers can withdraw either RMB or USD.
Opening a Chinese Bank Account
If you’ll be staying in China for a long period of time, it’s convenient to set up a Chinese bank account. Chinese bank cards are accepted throughout the country and cash can be withdrawn without a fee. Also if you lose your card or there is a problem with your account you can fix the issue in person rather than having to make an international phone call to a different time zone.
Getting a bank account is simple. Go to the bank you’d like to get an account with (banks like Bank of China, China Construction Bank and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China have branches all over the country). Bring your passport and ask to fill out an application. The entire process takes about 30 minutes and is completely painless.
Not all banks have English service. Consider bringing a friend that can speak Chinese if you don’t feel confident to do it yourself.
Counterfeit money is relatively common in China so it’s important that you can distinguish it from real money. There are certain telltale signs that a bill is fake, and the government has come out with detailed instructions how to identify counterfeit bills.
If someone gives you fake bills when giving change, you must refuse to accept the money on the spot. If you take the money and then return later, any hope of getting real money is lost. If you attempt to spend counterfeit money and someone notices, they are legally able to confiscate the bills and hand them over to a bank.
If you notice an ATM gives you fake bills, it is essential that you do not leave the front of the ATM. Call the service number on the front of the ATM. If you leave the view of the ATM’s security camera, you will have no hope of getting the bank to replace your fake bills because they will assume that you exchange the notes you took from the machines with real ones.
When someone hands you money for any purpose, don’t feel shy about checking for counterfeits. You’ll find that many Chinese will do this when you hand them money as well. It’s also a good idea to refuse to take money that is torn or in very bad shape, as some shops and restaurants may refuse to take it and it will be difficult to spend.