The official currency of the People's Republic of China is the renminbi (人民币 "People's Money"), often abbreviated as RMB. The base unit of this currency is the yuan (元), international currency code CNY. All prices in China are given in yuan, usually either as ￥ or 元. The RMB is not legal tender in the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, both of which issue their own currencies although occasionally it will be accepted on an unfavourable (for those using yuan) 1 to 1 basis with Hong Kong Dollars.
The yuan is currently hovering at ￥6.14 to the U. dollar and slowly rising in value (Oct 2014).
10 jiao is 1 yuan (元), the base unit
yuan is commonly called kuai (块)
jiao is commonly called mao (毛)
10 is shí (十)
100 is bǎi (百)
1000 is qiān (千)
10000 is wàn (万)
The official subdivisions of the yuan are the jiao (角), at 10 jiao to the yuan, and the fen (分) at 10 fen to the jiao. The fen is essentially extinct nowadays but may still be seen in less developed areas. A coin worth ￥0.10 will thus say 壹角 ("1 jiao"), not "10 fen", on it. But in colloquial Mandarin, people often say kuai (块) instead of yuan, and the jiao is also dubbed the mao (毛). A price like ￥3,7 would thus be read as "3 kuai 7" (although the trailing unit is usually omitted).
When dealing with numbers, note that for example wu bai san, literally "five hundred three", means 530 or "five hundred three tens", with the trailing unit dropped. The number 503 would be read as wu bai ling san, literally "five hundred zero three". Similarly yi qian ba, literally "one thousand eight", means 1800. When using larger numbers, keep in mind that Chinese has a word for ten thousand, wàn (万), and thus for example 50,000 becomes wu wan, not wu shi qian.
ATMs are all over the country but most ATMs outside the large cities that accept Cirrus, PLUS, VISA and MasterCard network are owned by Bank of China or the Industrial and Commercial Bank. In big cities like Shanghai most ATMs will take Visa/Plus/MC/Maestro/Cirrus. However, cash advances from Diner's Club, American Express, or JCB cards are more difficult. For visitors from Hong Kong or Macau, the only ATMs that natively take JETCO cards are Bank of East Asia ATMs. Most ATMs will charge a small and flat fee.
Note: Minsheng Bank, Shenzhen Development Bank, and Bank of Shanghai ATMs will all display PLUS/Cirrus/Maestro logos. In reality, only selected ATMs of theirs are linked into these networks, and there is usually no indication until you try. This is true of many other banks' ATMs, even Agricultural Bank of China (one of the big four).
Before travelling, find out if your home bank charges a currency conversion fee (often between 0-3%) on such transactions. It is worth opening a zero conversion fee account beforehand if possible. Otherwise it would be better to open a local account on arrival to store money in if staying for a sufficiently long time.
If you have trouble because the ATM requires a 6-digit PIN and your PIN only has 4 digits, try adding 2 zeros before it. If you find yourself in a town with a Bank of China branch but no international network-capable ATM, it is usually possible to get a cash advance on a credit card inside the bank. Just ask.
UnionPay, the local ATM card network, has made agreements with various ATM card networks across the globe. If your card is covered, any ATM in China will accept withdrawals and balance inquiries from your card. Currently covered are NYCE and Pulse in America (also applies to cash advances from Discover cards), Interac in Canada, and LINK in the UK.
Also, if your bank is part of the Global ATM Alliance, be aware that China Construction Bank is the local partner for fee-free withdrawals.
Most major banks and upmarket hotels will exchange travellers' cheques. You will need identification and your signature on the cheques, your ID, and your signature in front of the teller will be scrutinized very closely. In second-tier cities you will need to go to the head branch of Bank of China or Merchants' Bank. Exchanging travellers cheques is usually slower than exchanging cash.
Foreign currencies, including the Hong Kong dollar or US dollar, are rarely seen as a substitute for RMB except in several 5-star hotels, some shops on the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border, and stock exchanges. You are unlikely to use other currencies in most transactions (after all, the average visitor comes to China to sight-see and shop, not to play day-trader, but for the curious, the minimum balance for US$ trading is USD1000 with USD19 account opening fee while the minimum for HKD trading is HKD5000). If you are running out of money and only have dollars in your pocket, it usually means that you don't have money to pay the bill without a trip to a bank or one of the very few automatic currency exchange machines scattered around Tier 1 cities. Many shops won't accept it, having no idea on exchange rate or how to check if the bills are counterfeit.
However, with credit or debit cards, this can become a problem in reverse; a merchant may choose to charge you in your home currency instead of local currency. When they do so (a practice referred to as "dynamic currency conversion" or DCC), they apply a commission on top of the exchange rate, typically 3%, sometimes more. Make sure you understand what is happening, and to understand the terms associated with your card; you may get charged by your bank on top simply for having the transaction occur overseas regardless of currency, or you may have a card that exchanges currency for you without any additional commission. In both cases DCC places you at a disadvantage. Ask the merchant to void the transaction and to process it again in local currency.
Electronic money transfers to another country are no longer as difficult as they used to be. Just about every bank in the big cities offers this service nowadays. On the other hand, service charges are variable (depends on the sending and receiving bank), the staff is sometimes ill-trained, and the process can take up to a week to clear. Alternatively, you may choose to look for a Chinese branch of a foreign or Hong Kong-based bank to do transfers. This is easier in the big cities, though.
It will be MUCH easier to do transfers if you have an dual-currency account with the Bank of China - opened at the branch from which you plan to get your money. Electronic transfers to dual currency accounts incur no or very low fees although it will usually take about one week. Transfers to Chinese accounts from overseas also take from three to ten business days. All you need to start an account is your passport, visa and a small initial deposit (can be RMB) plus the new-account fee (￥10-20). If you open a foreign currency account or a dual currency account, be sure to check if you will be able to access it in another province or overseas. Alternatively, for visitors from the US, Wells Fargo offers a service called ExpressSend that allows someone to send money from the US and have it arrive at a China Agricultural Bank account on the same day.
Outside of star-rated or chain hotels, major supermarkets, and high-class restaurants, credit cards are generally not accepted and most transactions will require cash. The most popular credit card in China is UnionPay, and due to an alliance between Discover and UnionPay, those with Discover credit cards will find that their card is much more widely accepted (under the UnionPay system) than those with Visa/Mastercard/American Express. Most convenience stores take UnionPay, as do most restaurant chains, stores selling high-value items, grocery store chains, and most ATMs. Beware of pickpockets.
Many department stores and large grocery stores have point-of-sale terminals for Chinese bank cards; typically these will not work for foreign cards (unless it is also a UnionPay card). However, because of the nature of Discover's agreement with the UnionPay network, it is treated as a domestic card at ATMs and point-of-sale. If you are going to spend a lot of time in China and use significant amounts of money, consider getting a Chinese bank account if signing up for a Discover card is impractical. Ideally, if in a big city and later travelling to smaller ones, try signing up for an account with smaller banks like Woori Bank or Ping An Bank; these offer free inter-bank ATM withdrawals anywhere in China (Ping An Bank also offers free withdrawals overseas, a plus if travelling to nearby countries later). Alternatively, Travelex offers UnionPay Cash Passports in certain countries.
As with debit cards, Chinese retail clerks will usually present the POS credit card terminal to the cardholder for entry of a PIN for chip-and-pin cards. Visitors from sign-only or chip-and-sign countries like the United States should attempt to explain that fact to the clerk or simply hit the green button or Enter for no PIN. Chinese terminals have old-fashioned miniature dot-matrix printers which print receipts on carbon-copy duplicate paper. If no PIN was entered, the clerk will then present the receipt to the cardholder for a hard copy signature, then separate the layers and give the carbon copy to the cardholder.