Money forms a big part of the everyday lives of Chinese. With very few purchases being made with bank cards or checks, and relatively few transactions done electronically, notes of various denominations are changing hands all day long, even for quite large amounts. Becoming rich is a common wish, dream and pursuit.
In China notes are preferred to coins, especially in rural areas, though historically, and up until only about 140 years ago, the coin with the hole in the middle was currency. Red envelopes containing bank notes are ritually given at special occasions rather than presents: festivals (particularly Chinese New Year), marriages, births, visiting sick relatives, etc. Paper "money" (actually yellowy low-grade perforated paper) is even burned for the dead in the belief (or tradition) that it will give them money for the afterlife, especially on Qingming Festival or Tomb Sweeping Day. Replica 100 yuan notes are also stuck on tombs.
Foreign currency (cash or traveler's checks) may be exchanged for Chinese currency at licensed exchange facilities of the Bank of China and other authorized banks.China Money & Currency Converter
Money exchange facilities are available at major China airports, China hotels, and department stores. Major brands of traveler's checks are accepted at such exchange facilities and cash advances against a credit card can be arranged, a service charge is usually added. Consult with your bank before departing the United States to be sure that your brand of check or credit card will be accepted. Major credit cards (American Express, Mastercard and Visa) are accepted by most major hotels and in many well-known restaurants. ATMs compatible with US bankcards are also available throughout Hong Kong and to a limited extent in major Mainland cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.
Denominations of Chinese Money
The basic unit of Chinese currency is the yuan (元 /ywen/), spoken colloquially as kuai (块 /kwhy/). There are 10 jiao (角 /jyaoww/), known colloquially as mao (毛 /maoww/), to the yuan. The fen (分 /fnn/), 1/100th of a yuan, is so seldom used now that fen coins and notes are almost out of circulation.
Paper notes come in 1 and 5 jiao, 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 yuan denominations. There are also 1 jiao, 5 jiao and 1 yuan coins. See below for photos.
How to Recognize Fake Money and Other Tips
Information on withdrawing yuan in China and exchanging foreign currency is on our Chinese Currency page.
There is fake money in circulation in China and unscrupulous traders particularly look for opportunities to give it in change to foreigners or other unsuspecting people. See also Avoiding Tourist Traps for tricks to beware of. Particularly check 50, 20 and 10 yuan notes.
- The image of Mao Zedong should not be blurred and you should be able to feel the embossed surface of his coat shoulder.
- The metal strip should be of the correct width and in the correct position, well-embedded in the note.
- The number showing the denomination of the note on the front bottom left should be white and sharp when you hold it up to the light.
- The round symbol with a square in the middle (like an old coin) next to it, front bottom left, should line up with the like image on the back of the note when held up to the light.
Carry some low denomination notes when buying things on the street to avoid being handed fake money in your change. Also avoid showing large numbers of 100 yuan notes in public to avoid attracting the attention of thieves. Money belts virtually eliminate the risk of being pick-pocketed.
Always check your change to be sure that you have not confused jiao and yuan. Jiao notes and coins can be useful if you want to drop small change into a beggar's bowl.
Any questions about traveling in China? View our Q&A page and find the answers.
Photos of Current Chinese Bank Notes
Below is the fifth series of banknotes, commissioned in 1999, with the head of Mao Zedong on the front, and fourth series jiao notes. The 2 jiao note is now seldom seen.
10 Yuan (Reverse Image: The Yangtze Three Gorges, Central China)
Photos of Current Chinese Coins
1 Yuan (Reverse Image: Chrysanthemum)
5 Jiao (Reverse Image: Lotus)
1 Jiao (Reverse Image: Orchid)
Photos of Old Chinese Bank Notes
Apart from the 2 yuan and 1 yuan notes these notes from the fourth series are seldom seen in circulation.
The History of Chinese Money
The earliest form of Chinese money was shells (hence the use of the shell character in many other characters related to value, money and wealth). Money shells were later bronzed. In the period of rival states (770 – 221 BC) different shapes of money were used by different states: knife-shaped, spade shaped, and ant-nose-shaped.
When Qin Shihuang, the First Emperor, united China in 221 BC round coins with a square hole in the middle were introduced and this form of currency was used until around 1890. The end of the imperial era and the turbulent time that followed saw first local mints, then high inflation and financial instability. It was not until the Communist era began in 1949 that a stable currency was established, using mostly notes, and coins for denominations of 1 yuan and lower.
China Highlights have designed a China Bank Notes Tour which enables our customers to SEE IN PERSON all the scenery printed on China's bank notes. Click the picture below for more details.
I updated this article on May 10, 2012
See all my travel articles
Questions and Answers About Chinese Money
Hi Kit, Passengers can carry RMB 20,000 in cash or foreign currencies with a conversion rate of US $5,000 into China. The amount in excess shall be processed by Customs in accordance with the current regulations. Sorry, I don't know the limit on carrying out of China.Whitney Liao replied on 2013-07-04
Hi Kevin, you can go to any bank to have it changed.Whitney Liao replied on 2013-01-05
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