Before going to study in China, it is very important to learn its money exchange system. The currency of China is the renminbi (RMB) or yuan (or colloquially known as ‘kwai’) and you may see Hong Kong dollars in southern China. ATMs are common in urban and tourist areas of China. “Union Pay” credit cards issued in China are widely accepted at regular stores and larger restaurants. American Express, Visa and MasterCard issued elsewhere without the Union Pay symbol are not widely accepted at stores and restaurants. Hotels, expensive tourist restaurants and expensive shops generally take foreign-issued cards. Elsewhere, the Chinese Yuan rules the payment in China.
Some tours advise that merchants will accept foreign currency. This applies only to expensive “shopping stops” and specific market vendors. In general, a Chinese merchant or restaurateur will shake their head no at any foreign currency. Carry Chinese yuan at all times to pay for your everyday purchases and meals at most restaurants. (Think to yourself, what would a merchant in your own country do when presented with a 100 Chinese yuan note?)
Traveler’s checks are an option in China, but not as convenient as periodic withdrawals from ATMs. The traveler’s checks can be exchanged at certain airports, certain large branch banks, some large department stores, and many hotels at a rate slightly better than cash. Exchange rates are regulated, but fees and commissions are not. So look at all the details when exchanging money, especially at currency exchanges at the airports. When you exchange money you must present your passport for identification. Exchanging anywhere other than at an ATM means you are carrying your passport. Most savvy tourists, when arriving at Shanghai or Beijing, use the several ATMs right in the airport so they have cash for a taxi and other incidentals.
Chinese banks sometimes are very busy, so you might find yourself waiting valuable touring time (15 minutes or longer) to exchange currency or cash a traveler’s check. Sometimes you have to wait for a teller who understands English. Many upscale hotels now have ATMs right in the lobby, and in China there is no service fee for using an ATM. Your home bank, of course, may charge you according to its terms, including a foreign transaction fee and per-withdrawal fee. Inquire before you leave home.