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GUIDE TO CHINA

COSTS & MONEY


Compared with the rest of Asia, China is an expensive place to travel. Though it's always possible to eat and move around fairly cheaply, accommodation costs can be as high as in Europe or the US for comparable facilities, and daily expenses vary drastically, according to region. In descending order, the three main price "zones" are Hong Kong and Macau, the eastern seaboard, and the interior provinces, with some variation within these. Basically, things get cheaper the farther west you go, though costs are always relatively more expensive in popular tourist spots,

The mainland Chinese currency is for­ mally called yuan (Y), more colloquially known as renminbi (RIME, literally "the peo­ple's money") or kuai. One yuan breaks down into ten jiao or mao, with one jiao breaking down into ten fen. Paper money was invented in China and is still the main form of exchange, available in Y100, Y50, V20, Y10, ?5, and Y1 notes, with a similar selection of mao. You occasionally come across tinny mao coins, and brass Y5 pieces: people in rural areas may never have seen coins before and might not accept them. Be aware that China suffers regular outbreaks of counterfeiting, some of it very sophisticated - many businesses check notes for watermarks (something you should do too), or use ultraviolet lamps to reveal otherwise invisible fluorescent marks on the genuine article. At the time of writing, the exchange rate was approximately Y13 to ?1, Y8 to US$1. Y8 to €1, Y5 to C$1, and V4.5 to A$1.

Hong Kong's currency is the Hong Kong dollar (HK$), divided into one hundred cents, while in Macau they use pataca (usually written MS or ptca), in turn broken down into 100 avos. Both currencies are roughly equivalent to the yuan but, while Hong Kong dollars are accepted in Macau and southern China's Special Economic Zones and can be exchanged international­ly, neither yuan or pataca are any use out­ side the mainland or Macau respectively. Tourist hotels in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou also sometimes accept - even insist on - payment in Hong Kong or US dollars. Hong Kong dollars are available overseas, yuan and patacas are not, though both can be obtained in Hong Kong, and converted back at a bank before you leave the country.

 

Cost

Given the extreme regional variations, it's hard to make exact predictions of daily costs in China . But, wherever you are in mainland China, you should be able to keep your average daily budget for food and travel to a minimum ?10/US$16 or so by eating in y and mid-range restaurants, and trav­el on local buses or hard train classes. Waht really separates the east coast (includ­ing whole of Dongbei) from the interior provinces, however, is the cost of accom­modation. While budget travellers can find bed in western China for as little as US$32 a night, on the east coast it's hard d anything for less than ?25; US$35, or comfortable travel also comes at a premium - flights and tram sleeper berths it least five times as expensive as cover­ing same route by bus. In general, by doing everything cheaply and sticking mostly he Interior provinces you can survive on US$32 a day; travel a bit more widely 1 in better comfort from time to time and re looking at ?35/USS55 a day; while travelling in style and visiting only key places along t he east coast, you're looking at daily expe nses of ?60/US$95 and above.

Price tiering, where foreigners are charged mo re than Chinese for services, was formerly wiespread but has now been officially banned . This means that you should pay thesame as everyone else for accommodation, transport, or to enter museums or famous sight. In practice, some private transport or tour operators may still surcharge foreigners or you might be sold the most expensive option, without being informed of less costly alternatives, take comfort in the fact that C hinese tourists suffer the same treatment. Student rates are often available for entry fees, however, so it's worth getting hold of a Chinese Student Card - they are vaguely of ficial-looking documents, adorned with yo ur photograph and folded into a red plastic w allet You can get one officially by studying, even briefly, in China; unofficially, budget tour agents geared up to foreign needs can often supply them for about Y40. ISIC cards are also occasionally recognized, most likely in Beijing and Hong Kong .

To cut accommodation and shopping costs, try bargaining - It's usual for mid­ range and upmarket hotels to knock thirty percent off their advertised rates without too much persuasion, and in low season skillful negotiators can net even higher discounts. At markets, you may initially be asked for up to ten times the going price for goods, so find out what others are paying first and be prepared to haggle.

Costs in Hong Kong and Macau are high­ er than for comparable services on the mainland, particularly for upmarket accom­modation - though food and drink are again pretty reasonable and transport expenses negligible. The cheapest dorm beds will set you back ?5/US$$ while it's hard to come by a decent double room for under ~60/US$100. Staying at cheap lodgings and eating simply from noodle stalls will cost you about ?20/US$32 a day, up to ?25/US$40 with a mid-range restaurant meal thrown in. For more comfort and classier food, budget from ?80/US$125 and up daily.

Carrying your money

Traveller's cheques, available through banks and travel agents, are the best way to carry your funds around; their exchange rate in China is fixed and actually better than for cash, and they can be replaced if lost or stolen - keep the purchase agreement and a list of the serial numbers separate from the cheques, and report any loss immediately to the issuing company. On the downside, in mainland China they can be cashed only at major branches of the Bank of China and tourist hotels (very few parts of the country have neither) and the process always involves lengthy paperwork. In Hong Kong and Macau, any bank or bureau de change will be happy to cash them.

When buying traveller's cheques, stick to brands such as Thomas Cook or American Express, as less familiar, bank-issued trav­eller's cheques won't be accepted in smaller places. The usual fee for buying them is one or two percent, though this may be waived if you buy the cheques through a bank where you have an account; you will also be charged a commission (often hidden in the exchange rate offered) for cashing them.

In case you find yourself in difficulties, it's worth taking along a small supply of foreign currency such as US. Canadian or Australian dollars, or British pounds, which are more widely exchangeable. There's a low-key and burgeoning black market in China for foreign currency, but the small differential in rates and the risks of getting ripped off or attracting police attention don't make it worthwhile.

Banks

Banks in major Chinese cities are sometimes open seven days a week, though foreign exchange is usually only available Monday to Friday, approximately between 9am and noon and again from 2pm to 5pm . All banks are closed for the first three days of the Chinese New Year, with reduced hours for the following eleven days, and at other holi­ day times. In Hong Kong, banks are general­ly open Monday to Friday from 9am to 4.30pm, until 12.30pm on Saturday, while in Macau they close thirty minutes earlier.

Credit and debit cards

Credit cards are a very handy backup source of funds; upmarket hotels in China accept them and - depending where you are - they can be used for cash withdrawals either in ATMs or over the counter. Visa and Mastercard are widely recognized in China Amex less so, and other cards may not be. Remember that all cash advances are treat­ ed as loans, with interest accruing daily from the date of withdrawal: the Bank of China charges a three percent fee on top of this, though Hong Kong banks do not.

ATMs in China are common in cities and theoretically compatible with all manner of foreign cards, but periodically won't accept them; in Hong Kong, however, they function as advertised. When you can find a compli­ant ATM, you may also be able to make withdrawals using your debit card (or bank card marked with the Cirrus/Maestro sym­bol), which is not liable to interest payments, and subject only to a flat transaction fee which is quite small - your bank will able to advise on this. Make sure you have a per­ sonal identification number (PIN) that's designed to work overseas.

A compromise between travellers cheques and plastic is Visa TravelMoney, a disposable pre-paid debit card with a PIN which works in all ATMs that take Visa Cares. You load up your account with funds before leaving home, and when the, run out you simply throw the card away. You can buy up to nine cards to access the same funds - useful for couples or families travel­ ling together-and It's a good idea to buy at least one extra as a back-up In case of loss or theft The card is available in most coun­ tries from branches of Thomas Cook and Citicorp, For 24-hour assistance with the card, call the following toll-free numbers: in Chlna. 10800/110 2911; In Hong Kong, 800/967025. For more information, check @international.visa.com.

Wiring money

Wiring money from home basically involves someone paying money to you using an overseas branch of a money-transfer agent, allowing you to withdraw the same amount from their representative in China, The serv­ ice isn't cheap or particularly convenient, however, so it should be considered a last resort. It's also possible to have money wired directly from a bank in your home country to a bank in China, although this is a more complex operation because it involves two separate institutions. If you go down this route, your home bank will need the address of the bank where you want to pick up the money and the address and telex number of the Beijing head office, which will act as the clearing house; money wired this way normally takes two working days to arrive, and costs around L25/S40 per transaction.