After you arrive in China, you will exchange your US dollars for Chinese Yuan (CNY), also commonly known as Renminbi (RMB). The unit of currency is called a yuan, and commonly called a kuai. At writing, USD $1 = 6.25 RMB or kuai.
There are a few ways to exchange money, including withdrawing funds from ATM machines or exchanging traveler’s checks. Please note that the Alliance recommendation, based on past students' preferences, is to use ATM cards from specific banks which are noted in the Bank Account section below.
When exchanging money, you will receive a receipt. Keep this receipt, as you may need it when you leave the country and want to exchange renminbi back to dollars. Do not under any circumstances exchange money on the street (on the black market). Not only is it illegal but you’ll often times receive counterfeit bills. You should exchange money at banks, hotels, and stores with authorized tellers.
Credit cards are not widely accepted in China. While they may be used at hotels and some large stores, restaurants, and airlines, most small stores and restaurants do not accept credit cards. If you have a VISA or MasterCard in your name, you may get a cash advance at a Chinese bank. However, fees for accessing money this way are high, often 3% on each transaction, and you often need to pay interest on the money immediately. We recommend that you use this method of accessing money only in an emergency situation and not as a regular way to access all your funds for the term.
A convenient way to withdraw money from your account at home is to use an ATM card that has a VISA or MasterCard logo. However, you should not rely on ATMs as your only source of cash, as sometimes cards do not work at certain ATM machines.
You may withdraw local currency at ATM machines of major local banks (e.g. Bank of China, ICBC, China Construction Bank and CITIC Bank). Usually your home bank will assess a small fee for withdrawing money from a non-affiliated bank. We recommend that you bring more than one ATM or debit card in case one is lost, stolen or gets 'eaten' by an ATM machine.
Be sure to carry the PIN number in a safe place separate from your card and also confirm with your bank that your ATM card will work internationally. Also ask if there are any bank fees associated with international ATM withdrawals. It is best to test your card in the U.S. before you leave to make sure it works with your PIN number. Call your bank or credit card company to let them know that you will be using the card in China. Banks may put a stop on card transactions overseas for customer security.
If you lose your ATM card in an ATM machine, be sure to take a receipt from the ATM and present it with your passport to a teller at the corresponding bank branch (often ATMs are adjacent to a bank branch). The corresponding bank branch will retain found ATM cards at the teller window for claiming as long as proper identification is provided. Your passport can be used for identification.
Former students recommend setting up a US bank account with either Bank of America or Citibank before departing for China. Bank of America does not assess any ATM transaction fees if you use one of their 11,000 ATMs world-wide. Bank of America has an affiliation with the China Construction Bank (CCB) which has many branches in China. Citibank, however, assesses a 3% charge for ATM transactions made outside the US. For example, an ATM withdrawal of $100 would be assessed a $3 ATM transaction fee.
Former students have also opened bank accounts with ICBC (Industrial and Commerce Bank of China), which has a wide-range of ATMs in China. Be sure you understand any bank fees associated with ATM withdrawals within and outside the network. If you withdraw money from a different bank, the ATM charge could be 0.5%-1.0% of the amount withdrawn. (Banks can change their policy at any time. You should contact these recommended banks directly for further details on establishing an account or current ATM surcharges.)
Money can be sent via an American Express branch in the US to an American Express branch in Beijing or Shanghai. Service fees apply.
Western Union is another safe and fast way to transfer money to China, usually taking two business days. In China, Western Union partners with China Post (the local postal service) and the Agricultural Bank of China. You can receive your Western Union wire at either of these institutions throughout China.
You may wish to take some traveler’s checks to China for emergency purposes since they are relatively safe to carry. However, exchanging traveler’s checks can be very time consuming and is limited to select banks in China, particularly the Bank of China. Most students do not prefer using traveler’s checks for these reasons. Still, if you have the money available, you may bring all the money you need for the semester in traveler’s checks and exchange them as necessary throughout the term. Traveler’s checks offer a better exchange rate than cash and can be replaced if lost or stolen.
When cashing a traveler’s check, it is extremely important to follow the bank teller's instructions exactly. Inadvertent writing or a signature that does not perfectly match the original signature on the traveler’s check may result in a void check, rendering the funds inaccessible.