How to Carry and Get Cash and Shop with ATM and Credit Cards in China

RMB China currency yuan
••• Counting RMB. Photo: China Photos / Getty Images.

Introduction to Using Cash And Cards in China

Using money in China is becoming increasingly more manageable for those of us who live here and have local accounts. There are online and smartphone payment systems (such as WeChat Wallet and Alipay) that will probably have us all cashless within a year or so. That said, for travelers visiting China, you will still need to have a way to pay for things. The following describes what to know and how to manage your money and cards while you travel in China.

ATM Machines

In larger cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, there are many ATM machines that accept foreign bank cards. You can usually find machines that will accept your foreign-bank issued card inside major shopping centers and international hotels. These ATM machines will have signage that states only foreign cards can be used. Some Chinese bank branded ATM machines will also accept foreign cards but it can be hit or miss. The ATM will have signage illustrating what type of cards are accepted.

All ATM machines will remit RMB (Chinese currency) notes. Remember that if you want to exchange your RMB back to your home currency on the way out (you can do this at the airport), you will need to keep the ATM or bank receipt or the exchange won’t be accepted.

ATM Alert

Travelers should note that not all number keyboards on ATM machines are the same. Once in a while, an ATM machine will have the numbers reversed so that the 7-8-9 keys are on the top row (instead of the bottom).

Take note of this when you're punching in your PIN - you might not notice and find that you've keyed in your PIN wrong because the numbers are not where you're used to them being!

Travelers' Checks

Travelers' checks are arguably the safest way to carry cash but also the least convenient. Supposedly only the Bank of China is allowed to exchange the checks and there will be a lengthy process behind it.

Allow a few hours for the transaction (finding a bank to do it and then completing the process). Note, you don't want to be caught in any part of remote China with only travelers' checks.

It is recommended that travelers to China not use travelers' checks because of the trouble visitors encounter in changing them.

Credit Cards

Credit cards are becoming more widely accepted in China but you can't always depend on being able to pay with them. Certainly at international-standard hotels, upscale restaurants and shops and tourist agents you will be able to use them. However, ask before you purchase to ensure no commission is added on to your purchase (in my experience, this usually only happens at tourist agent offices when purchasing domestic travel flights or tours).

Expert Suggestions for Travelers

I advise using the following while traveling in China:

  • An ATM card
  • A credit card
  • No travelers' checks. While officially welcomed at main branches of the Bank of China in major cities, you might be hard-pressed to find a teller to make the transaction.

Don't forget to make copies of the front and back of all your cards and have copies with you as well as leaving copies with someone back home. Having photos on your phone doesn't hurt either.

Bottom Line

  • Make sure you've got some home-currency cash with you to exchange at the airport upon arrival.
  • Bring along at least one ATM card and possibly a back-up.
  • Bring along a credit card for major purchases and hotel stays. Be sure to inform your credit card company that you'll be traveling so they don't block your purchases.
  • Keep photocopies of your cards (front and back) and emergency numbers separately in case you lose your wallet or purse. Better yet, leave them with someone trustworthy at home whom you can contact in case of emergency.
  • Keep your exchange (or ATM) receipts so you can re-exchange your Chinese currency for home currency on your way out.