Shanghai isn’t one of those places where you can use US dollars or Euros as a parallel currency – it’s RMB (renminbi, the People’s Currency) all the way. While people use debit and credit cards all the time, it’s still much more of a cash economy than in the West and you may often find yourself in situations where you’re carrying a brick of cash to pay rent, or buy airline tickets. In many ways this makes life simple – for example, you can order a plane ticket online from an agent and have it delivered to your door, where you hand over the cash – but you may need to plan ahead. Since RMB100 is the biggest banknote, probably to limit the rewards of forgery, you can end up with a big pile.
RMB is the currency; yuan is the word used. Notes come in denominations of ¥1, ¥5, ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100 yuan, all graced by Chairman Mao on one side and various Chinese sights on the other. There are 10 jiao to a yuan; coins come in 1 jiao, 5 jiao and 1 yuan values. In Shanghai the RMB1 coin is far more common than the paper version, but in most of the country it’s the inverse, and you may find that in smaller places they don’t accept your coins. There are also jiao banknotes but they’re not that common anymore; and the jiao even breaks down into 10 fen, but these are worth so little that even beggars don’t want them and they’re rarely seen. In spoken Chinese, kuai is often used rather than yuan.
Changing foreign currency to RMB is simple and can be done at any big branch (and many small branches) of banks. Rates are pretty much the same everywhere and fees aren’t high. The best rate is usually found by taking out cash with your credit card and paying their 2-3 percent fee though. Any ATM will accept Visa and MasterCard, and often American Express and Diners Club too. Changing money the other way is easier than it used to be but there are limits and you’ll need more paperwork and possibly an account with the bank in question. Find out in advance what’s needed; big branches in places like People’s Square will have someone who speaks English.
Shanghai is full of banks, with branches both big and small everywhere you look. The biggest state-owned banks are ICBC, Bank of China, China Merchants’ Bank and China Construction Bank; but you’ll find HSBC, Standard Chartered and plenty of other foreign banks too. Ideally your company will help you open an account, but failing that go into the bank of your choice with your passport, work contract and all your residence documents and there shouldn’t be any problems other than language – bring a Chinese-speaking friend the first time if possible. You’ll be issued a bank book and an ATM card right away, which is free for your own bank’s machines or with a small fee (RMB2-4 for other ones). China’s banking system is strangely regional in some ways, and you’ll find that using an ATM in another city, even from your own bank, will entail a fee. An account which includes foreign currency will be more complicated to open.
Going into a bank to do business used to be a nightmare of haphazard queuing and unclear instructions, but now most places have a ticket waiting systems, better English levels and younger, more helpful staff. Still, avoid it if you can. You can check your balance and transactions, and print updated bank book at special machines – staff will help you.
Cash or Card?
It’s possible to live in Shanghai using very little physical cash now, until you want to buy fruit or your morning baozi. When it comes to paying for services, your bank card also functions as a debit card through UnionPay. You need both PIN and signature. Any shop, convenience store, restaurant or bar of a decent size (and certainly any catering to foreigners) will offer both this and credit card payment – smaller local restaurants and shops will be cash-only. Just check if you’re not sure before you get stuck. Note, however, that taxis take transport cards (jiaotong ka) but not bank cards.