China’s currency is probably one of the most aptly-named ever (and for a “people’s republic”, it’s “politically correct” as well). The Renminbi, in essence people’s currency (or people’s money if you will), is used by literally billions, day in, day out. Its international abbreviation is officially CNY, although nearly everyone, especially in China, will default to using its alter ego initials — RMB. (It is alternatively known as the yuan and colloquially the kuai). Its symbol is officially
Y, although it is easily confused with its Japanese variant — ¥.
This As-Is Guide will brief you on the rather odd denominations of the Chinese currency, as well as give you an idea of its international use and convertibility, and clue you in on some basic purchases in China and how much it might cost you.
BANKNOTES AND COINS
China right now is using both the 4th and 5th series of the RMB banknotes (some coins date back to the 2nd series of the 1950s).
The 5th series of banknotes are easily identifiable by one figure of fame / infamy: Mao Zedong. (It’s really up to you how you judge the “helmsman”.) They come in denominations of RMB 100 (pink), RMB 50 (green), RMB 20 (brown-orange), RMB 10 (blue), RMB 5 (purple) and RMB 1 (moss green).
The 4th series of banknotes comprise mainly of the jiao notes. Unlike the UK and the US, amongst nearly all other countries, China’s currency is split twice — so that RMB 1 equates to either 10 jiao or 100 fen. A 5 jiao note (equivalent to RMB 0.50 or 50 fen) is dark pink; the 2 jiao note (RMB 0.20, or 20 fen) is green. The 1 jiao note (RMB 0.10, or 10 fen) is brown. The 4th series were instituted right after Deng’s reforms, and Deng abhorred personality cults. (For what it’s worth: Mao Zedong had a train named after him, and when Deng heard they were doing one for him, he immediately disapproved: to this date, no CCP leader after the Mao era has a trainset named after him!)
Anything below RMB 0.10 will most likely turn up in coins, although very few banknotes (RMB 0.05 or 5 fen, RMB 0.02 or 2 fen, and RMB 0.01 or 1 fen) still exist. The RMB 0.01 or 1 fen banknote is tan-beige, and is at times seen (illegally!) used around pencil boxes (!) around China, it virtually not being used in day-to-day circulation. The fen notes date to the 1950s; sinologists will immediately recognise the standard traditional script used (instead of the simplified set).
Coins-wise, the largest coin denomination is RMB 1, which is in silver. In fact, the only gold coin is the 5 jiao (RMB 0.50) coin. Remaining coins — 1 jiao (RMB 0.10), and all the fen coins (5 fen / RMB 0.05, 2 fen / RMB 0.02, and 1 fen / RMB 0.01) come in the form of coins.
Of the same rarity as the USD 2 banknote is its Chinese equivalent, the RMB 2 note. This is a green banknote (with no Mao portrait) that has almost completely been withdrawn from use. Acceptance of the note, once natural, is now treated more with care or doubt; if they’re reluctant to accept it, hang on to it as a relic.
THE PRICE OF TEA IN CHINA…
In its canned, cold version as a soft drink, a 500 millilitre bottle of tea is RMB 3 at filling station convenience stores and just around RMB 1 in major supermarkets. We’re on, of course, to average prices of day-to-day goods you’ll run into in the People’s Republic.
Mineral water is much more drinkable than tap water (which nearly everyone tells you not to directly consume, certainly if not boiled). These come at prices as low as RMB 1 per 500 millilitre bottle. Imported variants a la Evian, Perrier and Harrogate are much more expensive; expect to pay the price you pay in Europe or the US, converted into RMB, probably with an extra premium added (they had to be transported from outside the Middle Kingdom!).
Fruit juices are next in terms of price. They will probably be in the range of RMB 2-3 a bottle, with local brands just a bit cheaper. Note that you shouldn’t form your diet out of these all the time: quality of local fruit juices are sometimes shocking. For Coke and Co, you’d be looking something around the same price tag.
Taxis are a mixed bag. Smaller cities have a flag-fall rate of CNY 5 for the first couple of kilometres, where the meter will jump by around CNY 1.60-2.00 per extra kilometre. Larger cities will cost you upwards of nearly CNY 15 for a flag-fall rate, but that’s the first 3 kilometres included (plus probably a nicer car to ride in!)
A little cheaper are the city metros (generally CNY 3 for the first few kilometres, with most cities using a distance-based, though not zone-based, rate model). Buses are cheaper still (CNY 1 or 2), with sometimes steep discounts if you use a city transit card and / or are a student.
Fast food in China sets you back around CNY 20 for a decent meal, drinks included. (Imported brands, such as Fatburger, often set you back many times that price for the same stomach delights in dimensions.) For a “nicer” meal, look to basic prices around CNY 50 in more upscale places and three-figure digits at luxury restaurants per meal (per person). If you order unspeakable privates of exotic swimming creatures, or wines that were once the love of many a corrupt mandarin, expect stratospheric prices (not unexpected!).
Starbucks, resented by some but loved by an increasing number of the Chinese middle class, is never cheap: tea costs RMB 20 and the Cappuccino yours truly orders (with an extra shot) sometimes has prices going upwards of RMB 30, especially if it’s a Venti (and you don’t bring your own mug or tumbler). Costa has even more exorbitantly-priced drinks. It’s said Chinese consumers pay more than their US counterparts, and these cafés are much more a status symbol than anything else. (Honestly, the only reason they receive uninterrupted patronage must be due to the no-smoking policy; nearly all other cafés and teahouses are places for local chimneys.)
A month with a phone will set you back around RMB 100 or less if you pick the right plan, although here, extras (not included!) may involve your VPN (get it overseas — prices are around USD 10-15 a month for the better ones), and if you use a lot of data, expect bills that easily go into three-digit territory. The device itself is more expensive still: an Android phone is already a couple thousand RMB whilst an entry-level iPhone is easily RMB 5,000 or even more (older models might be just a “wee bit” cheaper).
A computer is around RMB 5,000-7,000 if it is a “usable” Windows / Linux machine; Macs are sold with a premium. For the top-of-the-line MacBook Pro with a terabyte of SSD storage, be ready to fork out upwards of RMB 20,000 or even more. Monitors for computers will also be an expensive item for the home, especially if they are from luxury brands (such as Apple).
To get your own set of motorised wheels, cheapest options (Chinese licence required!) include a QQ (local car brand), which are around on average RMB 50,000 for a “fair” deal. Anything more glitzier will attract a heavier price tag: the average VW Passat goes for around RMB 200,000, whilst Ferraris and Porsches will easily bankrupt you with a 7-digit price tag.
About the only other things that are around the same “dimensions”, price-wise, are nothing less than the walls of your private castle. Inside even urban Beijing (within the 5th Ring Road), it is nearly impossible to buy a house that costs less than RMB 10,000 per square metre (unless you qualified for budget housing, which will subject your particulars to an exhaustive check across government departments). A standard flat in central Beijing (around 100 square metres or so) will easily cost you upwards of a million RMB.
By contrast, water and power bills, usually no more than RMB 100-200, will appear to be ultra-budget steals. If you can’t afford to own your own bit of town, rents for better-furnished flats in central Beijing go upwards of RMB 7,500-9,000.
At the end of the day, the only cheaper options are budget flight tickets (usually RMB 1,000-1,500 for popular destinations in China) or Hard Seat train tickets (usually RMB 500 for a long journey across China; often within RMB 200 for intercity travel).
And curse the day your company sent you to China.
CONVERTIBILITY OF THE RENMINBI
In the 1980s, if customs spotted you with a Renminbi banknote, that was taken away from you, no buts. Thankfully, China is now more lenient: individuals are permitted a maximum of RMB 20,000 per person, either in, or out.
That’s because the Renminbi is more and more convertible. Limited amounts can be converted inside the mainland (against a personal annual quota). (In all cases, keep your exchange memos, as they will be needed.) Outside of the mainland, in places like Hong Kong and London, convertibility is more forthcoming.
You can also use a UnionPay card to take out your savings in foreign currency from your RMB account overseas, provided the cashpoint supports this. Expect handling fees, though. Finally, you can apply for a dual-currency credit card inside of China, which you can use anywhere in the world (except for at gambling places, which is banned by Chinese law).
If you have a Foreign Exchange Certificate, keep it – these are relics from a bygone era when China transitioned away from the Maoist planned economy and may become much more of value in the decades to come.