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An Expat’s Guide to Money in China

By Logan Clements

· Travel,Tips

I’d packed my bag, double-checked my visa in my passport and was looking over my things when I thought, shoot, what am I going to do about money when I get to Shanghai? I wasn’t concerned with how to make money but how I would be able to access my US-based accounts once I got to China.

When I studied abroad in Shanghai in 2011, the most common payment method was cash. We used it for everything and when we ran out, we’d have to find certain banks that accepted foreign bank cards at their ATMs. Years later, I was preparing to move to China permanently and I had no idea what to expect.

After moving to China in 2014, I have witness the financial space continue to evolve. Today, the top four payment methods in China are cash, credit and debit cards, AliPay, and WeChat Pay.

Not everyone needs a Chinese bank card or feels comfortable using their credit card abroad, but here are my recommendations for you depending if you’re traveling to China as a tourist, business traveler, or relocating expat.

For the Leisure Traveler

As a tourist just passing through, you don’t need to worry about setting up any of the local payment methods. Instead, I would focus on using cash or your international debit and credit cards.

First off, how do you exchange your USD for RMB in cash? Some people like to exchange a large amount of cash in the airport before they arrive or at their local bank. I’ve found the most cost-effective way (lower fees, better exchange rate) is to notify your bank that you’ll be traveling to China and ask if they have any partnerships with banks in China. If they have a partnership, you usually will have lower or no ATM fees when you’re in China. Bank of America used to have a deal with China Construction Bank but they don’t any more.

If they don’t have a partnership, ask if they can estimate how much your ATM fees will be abroad and compare that with exchanging cash at home. I use my Wells Fargo and Bank of America cards to withdraw cash in China. Wells Fargo charges me a $5 ATM fee and little to no exchange fee but my Bank of America charges closer to $18-$20 per transaction with ATM fee and exchange fee combined.

If you’re looking for an option outside of cash, you can use your credit and debit card at most hotels, large retail stores, and restaurants. Most vendors will accept Visa, with the second most accepted card being MasterCard. I’ve had trouble finding places that accept Discover and American Express so I’d avoid bringing those. Also be sure to put a travel notice on your card before you leave and note the limit you have on your card.

Flights and hotels are great to put on your credit card but I’d suggest using cash for most everything else for both card security and convenience. You can ask at most restaurants before you order if you can 1) 刷卡 shuaka use a card (credit or debit) and 2) 用外国卡 yong waiguo ka use a foreign credit card.

For the Business Traveler

Business travel is a class all it’s own as you usually have someone else picking up the bill. Similar to my advice for leisure travelers, I’d recommend using cash to get around in China. It’s the easiest and most convenient way for you to pick up meals on the go or pay for taxi and subway rides.

If you need receipts for reimbursement be sure to ask for the 发票 fapiaowhich translates as “invoice.” All taxi drivers should be able to give you this but sometimes you just have to ask. A fapiao has a red stamp on it and information about the Chinese company. Most businesses (outside of cabs) will offer you a receipt and then only provide you with fapiaos by request. If your company doesn’t require the red stamp on the slip, you should be ok just accepting the receipt. The receipt is different from the fapiao because it won’t have the red stamp, or the chop as we call it in China.

If you’re planning on using a company credit card, be sure to ask the waiter ahead of time that you can use your card before you order as it depends on the size of the restaurant and if they can take foreign credit cards (外国卡 waiguoka). You should be able to use your credit card at your hotels and major restaurants without a problem.

If you’re traveling to China often and there’s a Chinese branch of your company, it’s worth asking if you can get access to AliPay. It’s complicated to set up an account as a foreigner, especially without a Chinese bank account but it’s definitely possible and worth the investment if you find yourself spending more and more time in China.

For the Expat Moving to China

If you’re moving here for work or anything that’ll keep you in China for more than a year, I’d suggest opening a Chinese bank account. Depending on your visa status and the Chinese bank you go to, the required documents you need to open an account will vary. Some will ask for proof of employment and others will just need your passport.

Also, double check with your company’s HR to see if they have a preference of what bank you use. That’s how I picked mine, ICBC, because a former employer preferred all of their employees to bank there. But there are plenty of other options available including China Construction Bank, Bank of China, and many others.

As a foreigner it’s relatively easy to open a bank account, just time-consuming so bring a friend who speaks fluent Chinese and block off 2–3 hours of your day to suffer through the Chinese version of a trip to the DMV. I suggest bringing snacks and entertainment (I always bring a book just in case) to help you pass the time.

Once you have your Chinese account and debit card, it’s fairly easy to set up AliPay and WeChat pay on your phone. This will become your life as both mobile payment methods are everywhere and so easy. Most of my friends don’t carry wallets around anymore, just their phone since you really can use it everywhere from a high-end retail store or hotel to the friendly breakfast pancake lady at the end of your street.

For each type of travel, I’ve found you have different payment needs while traveling in China. Hopefully this list gives you a little more clarity on which payment option works best for you and maybe, just maybe, it’ll save you a few dollars in bank and foreign transaction fees.

If you have any questions about spending money in China, traveling around the country, or just where to get the best cup of coffee (everyone needs their caffeine), email me at logan@loganstrategygroup.com or reach out on Twitter @Loganmclements.

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