Frommer's lists exact prices in the local currency. However, rates fluctuate, so before departing consult a currency exchange website such as www.xe.com/ucc to check up-to-the-minute rates.
While for most destinations it's usually a good idea to exchange at least some money before you leave home so you can avoid the less-favorable rates at airport currency-exchange desks, mainland China is different. Renminbi (RMB) yuan are not easily obtainable overseas, and rates are worse when they can be found.
There is no legal private money-changing in mainland China. Nationwide outlets offer the same rates on a daily basis. You can exchange currency at the airport when you arrive, at larger branches of the Bank of China, at a bank desk in your hotel, or at major department stores. Shops that offer to exchange money at other than formal Bank of China exchange counters do so illegally, and are known for rate shenanigans and passing fake bills, which are fairly common. Do not deal with black market money-changers.
Keep receipts when you exchange money, and you can reconvert excess RMB yuan into hard currency when you leave China, although sometimes not more than half the total sum for which you can produce receipts, and sometimes these receipts must be not more than 3 months old.
Hotel exchange desks will change money only for their guests but are open very long hours, 7 days a week. Banking hours vary from branch to branch but are limited on Saturday, and banks are closed on Sunday.
Yuan Notes -- There are notes for ¥100, ¥50, ¥20, ¥10, ¥5, ¥2, and ¥1, which also appears as a coin. The word yuan is rarely spoken, and sums are referred to as kuai qian, "pieces of money," usually shortened to just kuai. San kuai is ¥3. Notes carry Arabic numerals as well as numbers in Chinese characters, so there's no fear of confusion. The next unit down, the jiao (¥.10), is spoken of as the mao. There are notes of a smaller size for ¥.50, ¥.20, and ¥.10, as well as coins for these values. The smallest and almost worthless unit is the fen (both written and spoken), or cent. Unbelievably, when you change money you may be given tiny notes or lightweight coins for ¥.05, ¥.02, and ¥.01, but this is the only time you'll see them except in the bowls of beggars or donation boxes in temples. The most useful note is the ¥10, so keep a good stock. Street stalls, convenience stores, and taxis are often unhappy to receive ¥100 notes.
Exchange Rates: the Yuan, the Dollar, the Pound & the "Crawling Peg" -- In a bid to avert a trade war with the U.S., China allowed a 2% appreciation of the yuan in 2005. It is no longer pegged solely to the U.S. dollar, but rather to a basket of currencies, in an arrangement known as a "crawling peg." The U.S. dollar has recently been trading around ¥6.8, the pound sterling at ¥11, and the euro at ¥9.4. The latest rates can be found at www.xe.com/ucc.
There are many ATMs in China. Bank of China, ICBC, and China Construction Bank machines are reliable and accept foreign cards. Bank of America members can withdraw from China Construction Bank ATMs without a fee. Check the back of your ATM card for the logos of the Cirrus (www.mastercard.com), PLUS (www.visa.com), and Aeon (www.americanexpress.com) systems, and then contact the relevant company for a list of working ATM locations in Beijing, which is fairly well served. The capital also has seven Citibank branches (the most convenient being at Oriental Plaza) and eight branches of HSBC. These banks have ATMs that take just about any card ever invented. Bank of China machines have a limit of ¥2,500 per transaction, while HSBC and Citibank machines have a limit of ¥3,500 to ¥4,000. These banks often allow a second transaction the same day. Call tel. 95533 within China for locations. Note: If you have memorized your PIN as a word, be sure to learn it as a number.
Traveler's checks are accepted only at selected branches of the Bank of China, at foreign exchange desks in hotels, and at the exchange desks of some department stores. In bigger bank branches, checks in any hard currency and from any major company are welcome, but at department store exchange desks, currencies of the larger economies are preferred. You can exchange U.S. dollars in cash at most branches of almost any Chinese bank, so even if you plan to bring checks, having a few U.S. dollars in cash (in good condition) for emergencies is a good idea. Checks attract a marginally better exchange rate than cash, but the commission (generally 1%) to cash checks makes the result slightly worse (worse still if you paid the general 1-4% commission when buying them).
Although Visa and MasterCard signs abound, credit cards are of limited usefulness -- in many cases only the Chinese versions of the cards are accepted. You can use foreign cards at most hotels, but they are accepted only at relatively upmarket restaurants outside hotels, and at those souvenir shops where you are paying well over the odds -- in fact, if a shop accepts foreign credit cards, you might consider looking elsewhere.
You can also obtain cash advances on your MasterCard, Visa, Diners Club, or Amex cards at major branches of the Bank of China, with a minimum withdrawal of ¥1,200 and 4% commission, plus whatever your card issuer charges you -- this expensive way to withdraw cash makes sense only for emergencies. If you do plan to use your card while in China, it's a good idea to call your issuer in advance to let them know that you'll do so.
American Express runs an emergency check-cashing system, which allows you to use one of your own checks or a counter check (more expensively) to draw money in the currency of your choice from selected banks. Consult American Express for a list of participating banks before leaving home.
You can also have money wired from Western Union (tel. 800/820-8668; www.westernunion.com) to you at many post offices and branches of the Agricultural Bank of China across China, including 50 in Beijing. Western Union charges a $14 service fee for money transfers of up to $1,000 to China from the U.S. You must present a valid ID to pick up the cash at the Western Union office.
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.