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Don’t Make This Money Mistake When You Travel To China

Don’t Make This Money Mistake When You Travel To China

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Working out how much your next big adventure will set you back is your (savings account’s) least favourite part of holiday planning. But while you’re no doubt well-versed in calculating how much money you’ll need for a trip, how often have you thought about how you’ll access that money?

Will there be ATMs where you’re travelling, and how reliable will they be? Will there be EFTPOS facilities or are you heading to a place where cash transactions are preferred, or the only option? Think about your destination: Have you fully thought out how you’ll access your money in China? Because it turns out, I didn’t.


Some folks convert all their money before leaving (I don’t like dealing with the anxiety that comes with carrying that much cash on me) or pre-load a travel card at a locked-in exchange rate (I’m far too disorganised to look into such things). Others (read: me) convert some money before leaving and supplement that with some Aussie cash (to exchange further into the trip) along with a debit card.

However, on a recent trip to China, I found out the hard way that this plan doesn’t always work. It’s not as easy to access your money in China as in other countries.

What I did

money in China
Image: Brittney Rigby

Before leaving, I did some research and realised that the exchange rate in China is regulated because it has a “closed capital account”. This means strict rules govern how you can move money in and out of the country. Long term, there are plans to open, or “liberalise”, this setup, but it’s all very complex. The point is, this system affects how you can access Renminbi – or Chinese Yuan (CNY) – while in China.


It also means that Beijing airport offers the same rate as Shanghai airport, or a currency exchange anywhere else in the country. For that reason, I figured I’d take Australian dollars with me and swap them over at the airport when I landed. That part of the plan was fine. Once I got there, however, I only exchanged enough for a few days. Enough, I thought, until I got to another currency exchange.

Turns out, currency exchanges are few and far between outside of city airports.

Where can I get money in China?

money in China Shanghai
Image: Brittney Rigby

You can easily buy Chinese Yuan in Australia, before you leave. It’s once you get to China that finding ways to exchange money becomes tricky. As mentioned, your best bet is to stock up at the airport. Exchange more than you think you’ll need and hang on to your receipt – currency exchange facilities in China allow you to swap any unused Yuan back into Australian dollars when you leave the country, so long as you have the receipt as proof you exchanged it at an airport.


Otherwise, I was told banks and hotels would have the capacity to exchange money. But there’s a catch: sometimes the bank didn’t have any money available, the hotels I stayed in never had cash on hand, and it’s almost impossible to find someone who speaks English.

In fact, I had to rely on my tour guide having money she was happy to swap for me, acting as a currency exchange operating out of a large pencil case. (She told me that, once, she accidentally left her bag containing thousands of dollars in a public bathroom! She got it back though – what a victory.)

Without my tour guide to swap money for me (at a pretty good rate too, I’ll add) I would have been in a pretty grim situation.

Why does this matter? Can’t I just use my card?

money in China terracotta warriors

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All of this is important because you need cash to spend money in China. This surprised me: as such an economic powerhouse, I expected to simply tap and go wherever I went and bear the brunt of the small international transaction fees. But no.

Unless you’re a local (who can use certain apps to pay for things) China runs on cash: at restaurants, markets, shops and attractions. The only places that accepted card payments were large, touristy stores selling expensive wares like jade, pearls and silk.

The moral of the story?

Despite my Googling, nothing told me that it would be near impossible to get my hands on some sweet, sweet cash outside the airport. I got lucky because I was travelling with a guide who saved the day, but I was still down to my last Yuan by the end: I simply hadn’t taken enough cash because I was relying on paying by card.


If you’re going to China, don’t be like me. Exchange money here, exchange money in the airport upon landing, but whatever you do: Exchange. Enough. Money. You can thank me later.

Also check out why Beijing should be on every traveller’s bucket list.

[qantas_widget code=PVG]Check out Qantas flights to China.[/qantas_widget]

(Main image: Roman Boed / Flickr)

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