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Section II: Living in China continued

Currency and Banking

This chapter will discuss seven topics related to currency and banking: notes and coins, especially how to identify counterfeit money; banking services; initial perception of low cost of living; how to change, send, and receive money; international credit cards in China; notary services and, finally; how to pay bills.


The official currency in China is the Renminbi (RMB—literally, "The People's Currency"). One RMB—often referred to, in spoken Chinese, as "yuan" (you-en) or kuai (kweye)—is equal to approximately USD .14 (14 cents).6 The official ISO 4217 abbreviation is CNY, although it is also commonly abbreviated as "RMB." The Latinized symbol is ¥. Ten jiao (or less commonly "mao") equal 1 yuan and 10 fen equal one jiao. So 15.43 yuan would represent 15 yuan, 4 jiao and 3 fen (although, in many regions, the fen are simply rounded up and you would be charged 15.50 yuan). In common spoken Chinese this would be referred to as shiwu (15) kuai wu (5) or shiwu dian (point) wu. The denominations of paper notes consist of 100, 50, 20, 10, 5, 2 and 1 yuan; 5, 2 and 1 jiao and; 5, 2 and 1 fen. The denominations of coins are: 1 yuan; 5, 2 and 1 jiao and; 5, 2 and 1 fen. However, in many regions of China, coins are rarely used.

Chinese renminbi

After being in China for awhile, you will notice that most Chinese will wash their hands after returning to their apartments, and, especially, after having handled paper money. This is a habit you definitely want to acquire, if it's not one you already have.

Counterfeit Money

In China, counterfeit money is a big problem and almost every foreigner, in the beginning, has been passed a fake bill or two. There are several ways you can detect a fake bill (and you will notice that every cashier in China will carefully inspect all 50 and 100 yuan notes). There are five main things to look out for.

First there are two things to see in the light. If you hold the bill up you will see on the left side in the white space, there is a clear picture of Chairman Mao's face. On the fake bills, the outline of his face is blurred.

Second, below the white space and below the serial number, there is a red and blue symbol inside a red circle. In the real bills, the red and blue boundaries in the symbol are very distinct. They are perfectly aligned, or else they overlap just very, very slightly. In the fake bills the symbol is distorted. The red and blue sections are not aligned, one is usually a little higher than the other and often there is either a white space between their boundaries or they overlap unevenly. This is the easiest identifying mark of these bills.

Third, just next to the red and blue symbol there is a green 100 (or 50 on the 50 bill, 20 on the 20 bill, etc.) sign. When looking flat at this sign, it is green. When the bill is tilted upwards, and you are looking at the sign from the bottom up the 100 turns brown. This is a real bill. But if when you tilt the bill upwards the symbol is only dark green, then this is a fake bill. This difference is slight and is easily seen if you have a real bill next to the fake bill.

Fourth, hold the bill in your hand and rub your thumb gently against the collar on the big picture of Chairman Mao. You will notice a difference in texture on his collar. You will only feel it if you rub gently. If the paper is completely smooth, without any texture, you are holding a counterfeit bill! Next, on the top right hand corner, there is a 100 sign, just overlapping a little below the 100, there is a oval design. If you turn this design up, so you are looking up from the bottom, then place it so that light shines on it, you will see a very faint "100" on the oval. It is just slightly raised, this is a real bill. In the fakes, the 100 is either not there, or is very, very difficult to see.

Finally, take the bill the long way up in your hands and kind of ruffle it in your hands. The sound should be clear and distinct. In the fake ones, the sound is muffled. You will see all the clerks do this, though this is the most unreliable way to identify a fake bill, as many of the bills are very old and worn and that will affect the sound it produces.

Though it takes a little bit of experience to identify a fake bill quickly, these tips can help you avoid being passed a counterfeit bill.

Everything is "So Cheap!"

All foreigners initially think in terms of their own currency and, as such, are amazed, at first, at "how cheap" everything is in China. Consequently, a meal isn't 30 Yuan; it's "only $4.20." Most foreigners begin thinking in terms of yuan, instead of their own country's currency, in about two years time—as well you should because you're being paid in renminbi, not Western currency, To check for the latest currency exchange rate, you can navigate to

Banking in China

In comparison to all Western countries, and even other developing countries, the banking system in China is technologically primitive and customer service is shockingly unreliable. Owing to the gross inefficiency of the overall system, the lack of standardized training across personnel, and the absence of sufficient English language skills among tellers, even otherwise emotionally temperate foreigners can be expected to occasionally lose their tempers while banking in China. You can accurately think of China's banking system as the Aberdeen Proving Ground of personal restraint.

The major problem is that the banking system is not internetworked with either major Western banks or even other branches of the same bank across different provinces within China. For example, if you open a savings account at the Bank of China in Henan province and lose your ATM card while visiting friends in Shanghai, the Bank of China in Shanghai would be unable to reissue a new ATM card: you would have to travel back to the same branch in the same province you opened the account in to receive a replacement card. Depending on the particular bank, province, branch, and teller, you could possibly receive a replacement card while you wait or the process could take up to 10 working days (and, in the interim, your account, as well as access to your money, is frozen).

The other significant problem is that customer service in all banks and branches in China is extremely arbitrary and, therefore, entirely inconsistent. There appears to be no standardization of procedures or policies, and each teller seems authorized to make subjective judgment calls on the spot, such that what was true today may not be so tomorrow.

To offer a very personal and recent example, in August of 2008 my wife and I moved to a different province. My new employer, a government university, was unable to use my savings account with the same bank (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China) from a different province, so I was required to open a new account in a local branch. My wife, who is also working, opened an account in her name at the same bank (but at a different branch) a few days before I did. At that time she was told by the teller that she could not have both a passbook and an ATM card (but no explanation was offered as to why), so she was simply issued an ATM card only.

I opened the same type of savings account at the local branch of the same bank (ICBC) inside the university campus and had asked a couple of students to accompany me. I indicated that I wanted both a passbook and an ATM card for the new account. The students suggested that they didn’t think this was possible but could also offer no explanation as to why other than "this is China." Nevertheless, they did ask for both instruments on my behalf and were mysteriously told that this would not be a problem. In fact, I was issued both a passbook along with the new ATM card and when I inquired why I was able to receive both instruments when my wife could not, their answer in unison was “you were lucky.” So there you have it: Banking in China appears to be mostly a matter of luck, based on which teller you happen to draw each time you visit the bank, and the particular mood he or she happens to be in.

Changing, Sending and Receiving Money

The most practical way of receiving and sending money from and to home is to use Western Union, which is available in many China post office stations throughout the country: Doing so requires U.S. currency. It is easy to change U.S. dollars into RMB but changing RMB into U.S. dollars is a far more complicated process. To do so legally, you will need your passport, tax receipts, your foreign expert certificate (FEC) and an awful lot of patience. For this reason, most foreigners rely on the "gray market" of money changers who congregate just outside the main branch of the Bank of China in each city. They typically offer rates that are competitive with those posted inside the bank and you can negotiate with them.

Another possibility for sending money home is to obtain a money order ("bank draft") from the Bank of China, and then mail it home via DHL (an equivalent of Federal Express with branches all over the world), although this requires going to the main branch of the Bank of China in your city and a considerable amount of patience, not to mention an interpreter. This process can take as long as three hours owing to the amount of bureaucracy involved (no less than three managers will have to be summoned to authorize the transaction), not to mention the sheer amount of inadequate training, and impromptu last minute and arbitrary requirements you will encounter. As a rule, using Western Union is far more convenient unless the total amount you need to send is greater than $2,000 U.S. dollars (the maximum amount allowed for a single transaction at Western Union).

For those with Visa/MasterCard debit and credit cards issued by Western banks, you will be able to withdraw cash with them at ATM machines located at any Construction Bank of China (only). Look for the machine with the CIRRUS network logo on it.

Finally, according to the State Administration for Foreign Exchange, foreigners may carry the equivalent of USD$5,000 in any currency and 20,000 yuan (approximately USD$2,860) either in or out of China without needing to declare the amount with China Customs.

Bank of China International Credit Card

Bank of China Visa Credit Card

If you have a Western credit card you will be able to use it in China wherever Visa and MasterCard are accepted, at least until such time that you establish permanent residency here. However, receiving and paying that credit card bill will be another matter altogether, and keep in mind that most Western credit card companies will not allow their customers to use the card if permanent residency has changed to mainland China. My best advice is to avoid using Western-issued credit cards and pick up a Bank of China credit card instead

A Bank of China credit card is a lot easier to negotiate than trying to pay Western credit card bills from China, as the statement can be paid in renminbi at any local branch that is authorized to exchange RMB into U.S. dollars (but not every local branch in cities outside of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou can do that). How it works is that you open an account and deposit an amount in renminbi equal to the amount of credit you want in U.S. dollars, i.e., the card must be fully secured irrespective of your credit rating back home. An unsecured credit card would only be available to Westerners who owned real estate or had other considerable assets in China. If you want to increase your credit limit in the future, you will have to return to the original branch you opened your account in to make another security deposit. As mentioned earlier, branches of the same bank within and across provinces are not internetworked.

Once received, the credit card can then be used to make purchases over the Internet and wherever the Visa Card is accepted. Transactions are converted into U.S. dollars and the bill must technically be paid in U.S. dollars. However, as previously stated, any branch that exchanges currency will usually accept the equivalent amount in renminbi, convert it into U.S. currency as a paper transaction, and then apply the payment in U.S. dollars to your account. Depending on province, branch and teller, you may need to provide your Foreign Expert Certificate and tax receipts in order to pay in Chinese currency. If the Bank of China branch closest to you will not allow you to pay in renminbi, simply ask a Chinese friend to convert the renminbi into U.S. dollars and then use that to pay your bill. Unfortunately, you cannot pay in excess of the total amount due, i.e., you cannot prepay charges that were incurred since the closing date of the last billing cycle until they show up on the next month's statement.

Notary Public

In closing, it is also worth mentioning that China does have the equivalent of a notary public, but they seem to be very squeamish around foreigners, especially when the documents are in English only. We know of one foreigner who had to travel to four different public notaries before one would finally agree to notarize his signatures on two simple marriage related forms issued by Hong Kong (and these documents were bilingual). He was told by the first three notaries that he'd have to take the forms to his country's consulate, as only a foreigner's consulate can notarize marriage documents for him. Of course, this was not true as all that was being sought was simple verification of the signature, and not certification of the actual content.

Nevertheless, what you will find is that Chinese public notaries routinely prolong and complicate what is otherwise a very simple and straightforward process in our respective Western countries. With all the self-importance they can muster, they carefully examine, evaluate, and then ask detailed questions about the actual substance of the document, as if any of that was required to verify the source of the signature. For example, when attempting to notarize a verification of supervision form for a former student of mine who was seeking licensure in a different state, I was asked several specific questions about the former supervisee, why he needed this particular document, and the exact nature of my relationship to him. Did we mention that if you decide to move to China, you will need the patience of Job (and a lot of taxi money)?

Paying Bills

Paying bills in China, with the only exception of one's electric bill, requires paying a cash security deposit upfront against future usage. That is, in regard to one's home telephone, mobile phone, cable TV, and Internet access, etc., one opens an account, deposits money, and then uses the service until the monies are exhausted. There is no "billing," per se, in China, nor do people maintain or use checking accounts—services and most utilities are strictly managed on a "pay as you go" basis, and require that you appear in-person in order to pay another deposit. Most foreigners know they have run out of money on their accounts only after the services have been abruptly interrupted. China Telecom and China Mobile do send service announcements (or voice recordings) when one's balance reaches 30, and then 10, yuan, but most foreigners cannot read or understand them and, so, they are generally useless to all but the Chinese.

The apartment electric and water bills seem to be the only exception to the above rule. Your FAO or building manager will present you with a bill for the previous month's usage and you typically have up to 15 days to pay it in person.


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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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