Nieh hau or hello? Find out the best way to take and spend money in Hong Kong, Macau and China.
China is a huge country with an even bigger history, emerging as one of East Asia’s must-see travel destinations. On the tips of Southern China lay Hong Kong and Macau, two special administrative regions of China. Hong Kong is the financial hub of Asia and Macau is known as the Vegas of the East. The Renminbi is the official currency of mainland China, Hong Kong dollars (HKD) is the currency of Hong Kong and Macanese Patacas (MOP) is the currency of Macau — though you can also use HKD in Macau.
This travel money guide for China and Hong Kong will give you the information you need to make an informed decision about which types of travel money you should take on your trip. Read about which cards to take on a trip to China, Hong Kong and Macau so you can spend for less in the Pearl of the Orient and beyond.
Interesting points about Travel Money Guide: China, Hong Kong and Macau
Which should I choose: a travel card, debit card or credit card?
While travel cards, debit cards and credit cards can all come in handy in China, they also have restrictions and conditions. It’s common for businesses in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou and Tianjin to take credit cards; however, outside these cities in rural areas and even smaller cities of millions, you will need cash to make payments. Start your comparison of travel money products by finding a debit or travel card which lets you make cheap ATM withdrawals. Visa and Mastercard are accepted in more places than American Express. AMEX can really only be used in places specifically targeted to tourists. Visa and Mastercard debit cards and travel cards should be able to be used at all merchants with card payment facilities.
Hong Kong is an international hub for financial services. Visa, Mastercard and American Express products enjoy wide acceptance in the region, the same applies to Macau. You can use your credit card, debit card or prepaid travel card in hostels, hotels and shops. Look for the Visa and Mastercard stickers in shop windows and at the point of sale (or ask) to find out whether a business takes cards.
There are times when you will need cash. Cheap restaurants, market and stall shopping and small purchases at convenience stores are predominantly cash only — you’ll need to factor the price of ATM withdrawals in your comparison of travel money options for Hong Kong and Macau — you won’t have trouble finding an ATM which takes your British card.
Tip: If you’re asked if you want to pay with British pounds, always opt to pay using Hong Kong dollars. Dynamic Currency Conversion (DCC) gives you a worse rate.
How much currency do I need for my trip to China/ Hong Kong/ Macau?
Hong Kong’s status as an international city puts prices on par with London, Sydney, Paris, New York and so on. Although Hong Kong is expensive compared to other Asian cities, like London, a trip to Hong Kong can be as expensive as you want it to be as well as offering prices to suit travellers on a shoestring — if you know the right places to eat and you’re willing to share a room with other travellers in a hostel.
Hostel dorm £8 – £45 per night
2 Star Hotel £35 – £120 per night.
5 Star Hotel £180 – £600+ per night
Tsim Chai Kee Wanton Noodles from a street stall £3 (or less)
SuperStar Seafood Restaurant £10 – £20 per dish
5 Star Dining at Island Tang £60 + a head
Museum of Tea Ware, Railway Museum, Lei Cheng Uk Han Tomb Museum Free entry
Hong Kong half day guided tour £30 per person
Private full day tour to Macau from Hong Kong £180 per person
*Prices are approximate and subject to change.
The official currency of China is called the renminbi. The renminbi is made up of yuan. When referring to the name of the Chinese currency we use the title renminbi, which means ‘the people’s currency’ in Mandarin. Holiday prices in China are a little cheaper than other developed nations in the region such as South Korea and Japan; however, expenses can easily balloon if you’re on a 5 star holiday.
Hostel dorm £6 – £12 per night
2 star hotel £12 – £90 per night
5 star hotel £90 – £350 per night
Yang rou chuan’r (street food lamb kebab) £0.50
Midrange restaurant £6 – £12 per person
High class restaurant experience £35 per person
Visit and hike on The Great Wall of China £3.50 – £5
1 day Forbidden City tour £30 per person
Beijing photography tour £180 per person
How each travel money option works in China, Hong Kong and Macau
Using a travel prepaid card
These products let you spend in CNY. There shouldn’t be too many instances, if at all, where a merchant will take Union Pay but not a Visa or a Mastercard travel or debit card. Most prepaid travel cards charge a couple of dollars each time you make an ATM withdrawal in addition to the local ATM operator fee.
Tip: Travel cards are dual card accounts. You get a second card to use in case the first card is lost or stolen.
Avoiding the currency conversion fee is the main reason to take a travel card on holiday; but there are other benefits too. You get two travel cards when you open one of these accounts (a backup to use if the main card is lost) — these benefits are provided at cost. The cards which waive currency conversion fee usually apply a fee for international ATM withdrawals, an additional margin to the exchange rate and fees for when you load and reload the card.
Tip: Order your travel card online in advance. Purchasing one of these products at a branch may mean your name is not embossed on the front. This can lead to issues with acceptance in some places.
Using a debit card
Visa and MasterCard debit cards can be used at the point of sale (if the merchant accepts card payments) and to withdraw cash from an ATM. Look for a card that doesn’t charge for currency conversion (which is the main benefit of a travel card) and doesn’t charge international ATM withdrawal fees. These two fees are the main charges to avoid when you’re using a debit card product overseas. The other main cost to watch out for on holiday is the fee applied by the ATM operator; however, Chinese banks don’t charge this fee so choosing a product which waives the international ATM fee and the international ATM fee mean you can make free ATM withdrawals while you’re on holiday in China (plus a small percentage inbuilt to the exchange rate, which is unavoidable).
A travel debit card lets you spend in a foreign currency without paying extra for international transactions.You can use these card to make over the counter purchases and ATM withdrawals everywhere Visa is accepted in Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China. Look for a card that does not charge a currency conversion fee (the main advantage of a travel card), an international ATM withdrawal fee (most travel cards charge for ATM withdrawals) and an application fee or account keeping fee.
Using a credit card
Credit cards are the preferred means for deposits at hotels in China, you’re going to need a credit card to pay for large holiday related expenses. Places you can use your credit card include 3-star hotels and above, large department stores and retail chains and larger restaurants. If in doubt, ask whether credit cards are accepted before you buy or sit down for a meal. If you’re staying outside the major cities, for your day to day purchases, it’s better to use cash. You can preload your credit card with your own money and use it to make ATM withdrawals: you’ll avoid the cash advance charge and interest rate, and you won’t get any interest free days on cash advance transactions. You can avoid the international ATM fee and the currency conversion fee with the right card too. Using a credit card with a positive balance is not advised. You waive the card scheme anti-fraud guarantees when you’re using your credit card to spend your own money.
Tip: Some credit cards provide complimentary travel insurance when you pay for your return airfare with your card.
You can preload your own money on credit cards so the account has a positive balance and you can withdraw cash from an ATM and only the cash advance fee and the local ATM operator fee applies. If you deposit your own money and spend this way, the Mastercard and Visa no-liability guarantees do not apply if you’re the victim of credit card fraud.
Credit cards provide other benefits for overseas travellers: Purchases get up to a number of interest free days in which you can pay back the cost of the purchase without incurring the purchase rate of interest. And if you charge the cost of your return travel ticket to your account some credit cards will give you complimentary international travel insurance, which is a saving as soon as you’ve left the country.
Debit and credit card exchange rates
Withdrawing funds once you get to China is a popular way of getting your hands on some cash. The Visa and Mastercard foreign exchange rate applies when you use your credit card or debit card to make an over-the-counter purchase or to withdraw cash. The rate offered by Visa and Mastercard is similar to the interbank rate and may be better than what’s offered by Chinese banks and licensed exchange offices.
Using a traveller’s cheques
Banks in China usually refuse to cash traveller’s cheques. The time spent searching for a bank to cash your cheques and waiting in line to see a teller can mean that traveller’s cheques are more hassle than they’re worth.
Traveller’s cheques can be exchanged at banks and currency exchange offices in Hong Kong and Macau. These businesses and financial institutions will charge a commission when you cash your cheques, which can be as high as 60HKD at some banks (avoid Hang Seng Bank). The Bank of China and Travelex can cash your cheques for a reasonable commission. However, the exchange rate will be much poorer than what you can get by using a debit or travel card product to make an ATM withdrawal.
Tip: You will need photo identification to cash traveller’s cheques.
Paying with cash in Hong Kong, China
China is developing at a rapid pace, and is emerging as a centre for global banking and financial services; however, outside of the major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an and Hong Kong, you won’t be able to reply on using your card and will need to carry cash.
There are no restrictions on the amount of British pounds you can bring into Hong Kong. You will need cash in Hong Kong, for example, you’ll need to pay cash to purchase the Octopus Card, which is popular and widely accepted prepaid debit card that works at a number of businesses in Hong Kong. Still, if you want to get a taxi, go market shopping, eat at cafeterias and buy goods from street stalls you’ll need cash. Your options: change British pounds when you arrive or withdraw from an ATM (this is the best option to get Hong Kong dollars). Furthermore, in some places you’ll get a better price if you pay cash.
In Macau, — including on buses and in taxis. Although the official rate of exchange between HKD and MOP is 1HKD to 1.3MOP, the currencies are basically treated 1:1. The main thing to note here is that the Macau currency can not be used in Hong Kong, it isn’t worth your time to exchange your Hong Kong dollars to Macau patacas.
Using ATMs in China, Hong Kong and Macau
Visa, Mastercard and American Express cards can be used at Chinese ATMs. Look for the logo on the front of the machine. Bank of China, HSBC, ICBC and China Construction Bank ATMs all accept foreign cards. These machines will let you complete the transaction in English.
6-digit PIN. Chinese cards have a 6-digit PIN. Contact your card issuer before you travel to China to find out how you should withdraw cash if you have a 4-digit PIN. Anecdotal evidence suggests you can enter two zeroes followed by your PIN, but definitive advice from your card issuer is preferable.
ATM withdrawal limit. Chinese ATMs have low maximum withdrawal limits. A common withdrawal limit is approximately CNY2,000 per day, so keep this in mind when managing your travel budget.
Tip: Note the local ATM operator fee still applies when you use a foreign debit, credit or travel card, even if the card provider has an ATM agreement with the foreign ATM operator.
You’ll find ATMs everywhere in Hong Kong and Macau; airports, ferry terminals, shopping centres, convenience stores and train stations (subway) all provide ATM facilities. ATMs are linked to the Cirrus and PLUS international Mastercard and Visa networks and ATMs facilities are available 24 hours a day. If you’re using an American Express branded product such as their travel card or credit cards (with a cash advance facility), you can use Aeon ATMs to withdraw cash.
British pounds can be changed at banks and exchange offices in Hong Kong and Macau. Banks give the best rates of exchange, it will pay to shop around till you find a rate you’re happy with. Hang Seng Bank, Wing Lung Bank and the Bank of China are popular for changing cash due to low commissions and better rates.
Tip: You’ll pay more to exchange cash at international hotels: convenience comes at a price. Money changers in the tourist districts (Tsim Sha Tsui) are likely to provide a poor rate of exchange and charge a higher commission.
You shouldn’t have any trouble finding a bank or licensed exchange office that can exchange GBP for CNY. The renminbi is regulated by the Chinese government. The rate you get at the airport is the same as the rate you get at banks and at official exchange offices.
Before joining her family in mainland China, Guangzhou for Chinese New Year, Shirley was keen to travel to Hong Kong with her friends.
Where could you use your cards?
Shirley says there were no issues with card acceptance when she tried to use her debit card. She used cash most of the time. She says in rural areas of China, card acceptance would have been a problem.
What about ATM withdrawals?
Shirley didn’t use ATMs when she was in Hong Kong.
Do you have any travel money tips?
Shirley says if you’re travelling during the Lunar New Year expect all the banks to be closed for as long as two weeks straight, so have your money already exchanged beforehand. She also says the Octopus Card is a popular option; while she didn’t get one, a friend of hers did. It simplifies the payment process on public transport and many retailers take the Octopus card too.
Bargaining in China
If you’re shopping for tourist items, haggle for a price you think is fair. The point is to come to an agreement over what the item is worth. Remember that haggling is a friendly and social interaction and should always be approached with a smile. There are no hard or fast rules about haggling, but keep these tips in mind when you’re hunting for the best price:
Shop around. The same item is often sold at different shops and stalls. Visit a few places to find the best deal before you make a purchase.
Don’t be afraid to walk away. If you don’t like the price, smile and say thank you and move on to the next place.
Don’t feel bad. The vendor isn’t going to sell something for a loss. Don’t think the price you’re paying is too low if the vendor agrees to a sale.
Buying currency in the UK
The best way to get foreign cash is to make an ATM withdrawal in the airport when you arrive at your destination. You’re subject to the Visa / Mastercard exchange rate, which is the best everyday consumers can get, and if you’re using a no currency conversion and no international ATM fee product to avoid the lion’s share of international ATM withdrawal charges, it’s the cheapest way to get foreign cash. If you do want to purchase foreign currency in the UK, consider these financial institutions.
Why you’ll need a combination of travel money options.
China is still largely a cash economy. You can use your card to make payments at major department stores, hotels and restaurants. Taxi drivers, guides, any merchant on the street and most shops outside big cities accept cash only. Spread your travel money across a number of products (including cash) to ensure your holiday to the South of China will go off without a (financial) hitch. A select few prepaid travel cards are suited for this part of the world. As always, a line of credit for emergencies can be essential for a trip overseas, so look out for a credit card that doesn’t charge for currency conversion to save on fees.
If you have any questions about travel money options for China, Hong Kong or Macau get in touch with us using the form at the bottom of the page.
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