Cash and Credit Cards
China is still a largely cash-based society, especially in smaller cities and away from the more touristy areas. You can exchange your home currency for Chinese Yuan before you leave, or within China; alternatively, you can take cash from one of the many 24-hour ATMs. We don’t really recommend exchanging money at the bank in China, as you will be in for a lengthy wait.
Chinese people normally carry large sums of cash on them, so make sure you have enough money on you whenever you’re out and about, as many foreign credit and debit cards may not be accepted everywhere.
Getting Cash in China
An alternative to exchanging money is to use a debit card to take money out of an ATM or cash machine. Not every card works on every machine, so it’s best to stick with major banks such as the Bank of China, ICBC, China Construction Bank or HSBC.
This may prove to be the easiest and most convenient way to get foreign currency in China. Big cities and smaller towns have 24-hour ATMs. However, Tibet and many rural areas, such as the villages around the Longsheng Rice Terraces, don’t have many ATMs.
Cash on arrival
It’s easy and quick to get cash on arrival at any Chinese international airport. There are cash machines in the baggage areas and after exiting customs at both the arrival and departure levels.
There are also plenty of currency exchange services in the airport. However, most foreigners can only exchange up to 500 USD per day.
Foreign cards in China
More and more places in China, including hotels, upscale restaurants, and foreign brand name stores accept cards, so it’s still worth bringing your credit card with you.
Visa, American Express, MasterCard, can be used for different transactions in
China, and can also be used to withdraw cash. However, they may not be accepted in the more rural areas.
Using foreign credit cards in China will seemingly always incur a foreign currency exchange fee from the issuing bank, which can be expensive and add up fast, but it’s easier to use them for big payments, like hotels, tours, and major shopping. The best thing to do is to exchange some money before arriving in China, bring at least two credit cards, and prepare to exchange more money on arrival.
You should let your bank back home know that you will be using your card in China.
Mobile payment in China
China is quite advanced when it comes to mobile payments and you will very often see QR codes for mobile payment (find out how to buy Forbidden City tickets by scanning a QR code). Although most foreign cards can’t be linked to WeChat or Alipay, it’s important to know them as a reference, since they enjoy great popularity in China.
Pretty much every single store, big or small, accepts WeChat payments, which make it a very convenient way to purchase things without carrying your wallet around or pay for things when you don’t have cash with you. WeChat belongs to Tencent Holdings.
Alipay is very similar to WeChat, but it’s owned by a different company, called Alibaba, and unlike WeChat, it´s not a social app. If you have to choose between one of them in China, it’s better to go with WeChat.
Both companies are currently ensnared in a ferocious battle for the Chinese market and have set goals to expand abroad in the near future.
Sometimes you may be unable to pay using your credit card or even cash, especially in smaller stores; if this happens and you are on one of our guided tours, ask your guide to pay with WeChat or Alipay and you can pay them back with cash.