the china guide blog

Cash or Credit Card? How to Pay for Things in China

Last updated on 2022-07-29

Are foreign credit cards accepted in China? How much cash do I need? When and where can I exchange Chinese yuan? Can I use mobile payment? These are all common questions for travelers to China, and in this guide, we’ll provide all the information you need on how to make and manage payments during your trip to China.

Cash or Credit Card?

Cash is still more widely used in China than credit cards, especially in smaller cities and outside of more touristy areas. That said, many places in China, including hotels, upscale restaurants, and foreign brand-name stores accept credit cards, so it is worth bringing your credit card with you. Visa, MasterCard, and American Express are all widely accepted in big cities in China.

Depending on your bank, using a foreign credit card in China will usually incur a foreign currency exchange fee and a transaction fee from either your home or the local bank, which can add up fast. Because of this, we recommend only using a credit card for major transactions such as hotels, tours, flight tickets, and potentially costly purchases such as jewelry or art.

Meanwhile, make sure that you have enough cash on you to handle smaller payments whenever you're out and about, as foreign credit cards and debit cards may not be accepted everywhere.

Important Note: Please consult your bank or credit card company about whether you can use your card in China and if it will incur a fee. You should also let your bank back home know that you will be using your card in China; otherwise your transactions might be flagged as unusual activity and your card may get blocked.

Getting Cash in China

You can exchange your home currency for Chinese yuan before you leave or after you arrive in China. You can certainly exchange some money before arriving in China, but withdrawing RMB in China is usually cheaper than exchanging in your home country, so you can simply bring a debit card with you and withdraw cash as needed. You should also bring at least one credit card for any big payments.

It is easy and quick to get cash on arrival at any Chinese international airport. There are usually ATMs in the baggage claim area and after exiting customs on both the arrival and departure levels. There are also currency exchange counters in the airport, although they may charge steep fees.

A money exchange counter at Beijing Capital International Airport
A money exchange counter at Beijing Capital International Airport

While you are in China, you can use your debit card to withdraw money from a 24-hour ATM. Big cities and smaller towns all have 24-hour ATMs. However, many rural areas, such as parts of Tibet, don't have many ATMs. English interfaces are available for use on all ATMs.

Not every card works on every machine, so it is best to stick with major banks such as the Bank of China, ICBC, China Construction Bank, or HSBC. Be sure to check which cards are supported before you use the ATM (There are usually signs on the ATM indicating what types of card are supported).

An ATM that supports foreign bank cards
An ATM that supports foreign bank cards

Some hotels provide currency exchange services but they usually charge a hefty fee. We also don't recommend exchanging money at the bank counter in China, as you may be in for a lengthy wait and you could be asked to bring extra documents and fill out a complicated form.

How much cash do I need when traveling in China?

If you are traveling on one of our guided tours, you only need to pay for dinners and personal expenses while you are in China. As long as you don't plan on buying many souvenirs, we recommend that you bring 500 RMB per day per person.

If you are traveling on your own, the amount of cash you need will vary greatly depending on where you visit and how often you will use your credit card. To be on the safe side, 2,000 RMB per person should cover all of your expenses for a usual day trip in China (including entry fees, meals in decent restaurants, taxis), although you probably will not actually spend that much.

Note: Thanks to inflation and a strong RMB over the past ten years, traveling in China is not as cheap as it used to be.

Mobile Payment in China

Mobile payment in China is surprisingly advanced and widely used, even more so than cash in big cities. The two most common platforms are Alipay and WeChat. While traveling in China, you will see QR codes for mobile payment everywhere from taxis to street food stalls, making it a very convenient way to pay. Many younger people have essentially completely abandoned cash. (Find out how to buy a Forbidden City ticket by scanning a QR code here)

At the time of writing, you can link a foreign credit card (e.g. Visa, MasterCard, JCB) to your WeChat account and use it to make some online payments, and Alipay allows you to use foreign credit or debit cards to add money to its TourPass wallet which can then be used to make payments in China. However, while WeChat and Alipay keep evolving, at the time of writing neither WeChat nor Alipay allow you to transfer money to other people, which is actually the primary way to pay/receive money in China. Apple Pay is supported by only a limited number of international brands and is rarely used in China.

If you are on one of our tours and want to experience China’s mobile payment landscape for yourself, please let your travel agent know. We can help you set up a WeChat account then transfer a balance to you, which you can then use to pay for things while you are traveling around China. You can read more about how to use WeChat during your travels in China here.

In the event that you are unable to pay using your credit card and happen to not have enough cash to hand, you can also ask your guide to pay with WeChat or Alipay and then pay them back with your home currency.

How to avoid accepting fake Renminbi while traveling in China

While you are in China, there is a small possibility that you will receive some fake Renminbi notes. Rather than telling you how to recognize fake notes, since this is difficult for local Chinese let alone foreign travelers, we will instead give you a few tips on how to minimize the risk of fraud or fake notes.

Our number one advice is: always exchange or withdraw money from banks or ATMs attached to a bank. There have been reports of people withdrawing fake Renminbi notes from banks or ATMs, but it is still much safer than many other sources. (Exchange rates in China are highly regulated, so you will get a similar rate at all banks in China.)

Some unscrupulous taxi drivers or vendors may quickly switch your genuine banknote for a fake one and then return the fake banknote to you and tell you the money you gave them is fake. They usually do this with 100 yuan notes since they are most valuable, although it may happen with 50 yuan notes too. Because of this, we suggest travelers in China keep some 10 or 50 yuan banknotes for small payments and avoid using 100 yuan notes when taking taxis or making small transactions.

Otherwise, if you are able to pay by Wechat or Alipay, you can simply use these and avoid cash altogether!

The China Guide is a Beijing-based travel agency that customizes private tours, educational student tours, and incentive trips across China. We have more than ten years of experience crafting tours for tens of thousands of travelers from the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Spain, and beyond. We promise all our tours have no hidden fees, no shopping stops, no touristy restaurants, just memorable experiences! Learn more about us or contact us to start planning your perfect China trip.

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