Frommer's lists exact prices in the local currency. However, rates fluctuate, so before departing, consult a currency exchange website such as www.oanda.com/convert/classic to check up-to-the-minute rates.
Though it's usually a good idea to change at least some money before you leave home, this scenario doesn't apply as readily to mainland China, as the Chinese renminbi (RMB) is not a commonly held currency. Where it's carried, it will most likely be exchanged at a highly unfavorable rate. This shouldn't present too much of a problem for most travelers arriving in Shanghai by plane, as airports all have money exchange facilities and ATMs. Those travelers arriving by train from Hong Kong would do well to change a small amount of money in Hong Kong where the RMB yuan (¥) is readily obtainable.
Currency exchange in China is legal only if conducted at hotels, banks, and stores, at the official rate set by the central government through the Bank of China. This rate is the same at all nationwide outlets, saving travelers the hassle and stress of having to find the best rate. Besides the airport, you can change money at hotel bank desks and at larger branches of the Bank of China. Hotel desks have the convenience of being open long hours 7 days a week, but their services are usually restricted to guests. You'll have to provide your passport for any kind of currency exchange.
Keep all receipts when you change money; you will need them should you wish to reconvert any excess RMB yuan (¥) into your home currency.
Reject any attempts by private individuals or shops to change money at rates different from the official rate: Not only is this illegal, you may well end up with fake bills. Avoid especially the black-market money-changers who congregate outside branches of the Bank of China that are popular with tourists, such as the one on the Bund.
Yuan Notes & Exchange Rates -- Chinese currency is known as renminbi (RMB, literally "the people's money") or the yuan (¥). However, you'll mostly hear money referred to as kuai qian, literally "pieces of money," or kuai for short. Bills come in denominations of ¥100, ¥50, ¥20, ¥10, ¥5, ¥2, and ¥1, which also appears as a coin. The next unit down is the jiao (¥.10), commonly referred to as mao. There are notes and coins for ¥.50, ¥.20, and ¥.10. Beyond that is the fen (¥.01), but you'll hardly ever see or have use for it. China being primarily still a cash society, keep a good stock of smaller bills, especially ¥10 notes, for street stalls, convenience stores, and taxis, all of whom will balk if you offer a ¥100 bill first thing in the morning.
After years of being pegged solely to the U.S. dollar, China allowed an appreciation of the yuan in 2005, ostensibly pegging it to a basket of currencies (known as a "crawling peg"). However, critics note that since then, the yuan has been appreciating steadily against the dollar without much reference to the other currencies (which were never specified), and since the financial crisis of 2008, has once again been all but frozen against the dollar. In mid-2010, the Chinese government again signaled that it would allow the yuan to be tracked to a trade-weighted "basket" of currencies, but since none of the details are made explicit, it is difficult to get a clear picture of what is actually happening with the valuation of the yuan. At press time, the U.S. dollar has been trading at ¥6.80, the pound sterling around ¥11, and the euro at ¥8.60.
There are many ATMs in China, but only a handful that will accept your foreign-issued card. In Beijing and Shanghai, the situation is improving as more banks have ATMs that are able to accept foreign cards. Check the back of your ATM card to see which network your bank belongs to: Cirrus (www.mastercard.com), PLUS (www.visa.com), or AEON (www.americanexpress.com). Before you leave home, you can contact the proper institutions to locate ATMs currently available in Shanghai or ask your bank for a list of ATMs in China and Shanghai. Be sure you know your personal identification number (PIN) and daily withdrawal limit before you depart. In general, the ATMs at the major branches of the Bank of China, Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), and China Construction Bank will accept your card, as will a Citibank ATM at the Pudong International Airport (in the arrival hall right after immigration). The above-mentioned bank ATMs usually allow a maximum withdrawal of ¥2,500 per transaction, but it is possible to make another withdrawal the same day. Note: Remember that many banks impose a fee every time you use a card at another bank's ATM, and that fee can be higher for international transactions (up to $5 or more) than for domestic ones (where they're rarely more than $3). In addition, the bank from which you withdraw cash may charge its own fee. For international withdrawal fees, ask your bank.
Credit cards are another safe way to carry money. They also provide a convenient record of all your expenses, and they generally offer relatively good exchange rates. In China, however, despite the plethora of Visa and MasterCard signs throughout, your international credit card (guoji xinyong ka) is usually accepted only at the top international hotels, and at restaurants and shops catering to foreigners. You can also obtain cash advances (in yuan) against your American Express, Visa, MasterCard, and Diners Club card at major branches of the Bank of China (bring your passport). This is an expensive way of getting cash, as there is a minimum withdrawal of ¥1,200 and you'll have to pay a 4% commission plus whatever your card issuer charges you, so use it only as a last resort.
In general, beware of hidden credit-card fees while traveling. Check with your credit or debit card issuer to see what fees, if any, will be charged for overseas transactions. Recent reform legislation in the U.S., for example, has curbed some exploitative lending practices. But many banks have responded by increasing fees in other areas, including fees for customers who use credit and debit cards while out of the country -- even if those charges were made in U.S. dollars. Fees can amount to 3% or more of the purchase price. Check with your bank before departing to avoid any surprise charges on your statement.
If you plan to use your credit cards in China, notify your issuer(s) beforehand, as many companies, to prevent fraud, often put a hold on cards that suddenly start registering foreign charges. Loss of credit cards should be reported immediately.
With the proliferation of Shanghai ATMs accepting international cards, traveler's checks are becoming a less popular but still acceptable way to bring money into China. However, they are only accepted at major branches of the Bank of China, at foreign exchange desks in hotels, and occasionally at major department stores and shops targeted to foreign tourists. Bigger bank branches will accept checks in any hard currency from any major company, but smaller branches will only accept the currencies of larger economies. The exchange rate for traveler's checks is fractionally better than for cash, though the commission charged on checks (.75%) usually offsets any gains. Most Chinese banks will change U.S. dollars cash into yuan, so it's a good idea to have some U.S. dollar notes on hand in case of emergencies. If you carry traveler's checks, be sure to keep a separate record of their serial numbers so you're ensured a refund in case of loss.
You can buy traveler's checks at most banks. They are offered in denominations of $20, $50, $100, $500, and sometimes $1,000. Generally, you'll pay a service charge ranging from 1% to 4%.
The most popular traveler's checks are offered by American Express (tel. 800/807-6233 or 800/221-7282 for card holders -- this number accepts collect calls, offers service in several foreign languages, and exempts Amex gold and platinum cardholders from the 1% fee); Visa (tel. 800/732-1322); and MasterCard (tel. 800/223-9920).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.