There are several places you can exchange currency in China, including the airport, some major hotels, most local banks, and exchange kiosks. It's easier to exchange cash directly in China rather than via a traveler's check or credit card, so it's important that you plan ahead and bring enough cash with you. You may find it difficult to withdraw American dollars once you arrive.
You should also keep all of your exchange receipts and make sure you choose to print one if you use an ATM to take out cash. If you plan to change any Chinese currency into another currency at the end of your trip, you'll need the receipt to do this. If you don't have the receipt, the exchange counter will refuse to change your money from CYN.
Where to Exchange Money in China
While there are a number of locations to exchange foreign currency in China, the most convenient option for travelers is to go to an exchange counter at the airport when they arrive in the country. These counters typically accept both cash and traveler's checks and charge a nominal fee for the transaction, but otherwise have the same exchange rate as any other method.
However, you can also exchange U.S. dollars for CYN at banks in large cities, as well as at many local hotels. Although both offer the same exchange rate, the hotel will likely charge more for the transaction. Additionally, only large branches of banks will offer foreign exchange, but there will typically be a sign in English advertising a bank that offers this service.
Exchange kiosks were a bit late to catch on in China, but booths have popped up in major cities across the country. These kiosks look like ATMs but have a big English sign that says "Exchange," making them easy to identify and use on the go.
The Best Method for Exchanging Currency: Cash
No matter which location you choose to exchange your money, you'll want to make sure you do so before you head into the countryside to visit smaller towns. It won't be easy to find a bank with a foreign exchange counter outside the major cities, so make sure you have enough CYN before you leave for the smaller towns.
Cash is much easier to exchange than a traveler's check since banks in China can and will refuse service to customers if they don't want to verify the validity of the check. However, Chinese bankers will always accept and exchange cash.
Budget for your trip appropriately by planning out how much money you will need for each day of the trip and bringing the right amount of cash to exchange. This can also be done in the U.S. before you depart. Most Chinese travel websites recommend 2,000 CYN per day if you're traveling alone (to account for accommodations, three meals, transportation, and any incidental costs), which amounts to about $300.
Other Tips and Payment Methods
As China has rapidly modernized, other payment methods have become possible for international travelers including using debit cards at local ATMs and various mobile payment methods like AliPay and WeChat.
You can withdraw money from ATMs in major cities (and even some smaller towns), but you should consult with your U.S. bank before your trip to get some idea of what the fees will be like and if you will even be eligible to withdraw money abroad. it might be a little more expensive than withdrawing money from a bank, but the convenience alone is worth the added cost.
When making purchases at stores, you can almost always pay with WeChat or Alipay, but neither of these apps currently support foreign credit or debit card transactions, so you'll need to get a Chinese card in order to use them. On the other hand, Apple Pay is used in China, but it is only accepted at a limited number of retailers in the country. Many places, especially larger cities, will also accept credit cards, but cash is still more commonly used.