Travel Money Cards for China


Co-author: Maddie Clarey

Going to China for a holiday? If you’re thinking about using a travel money card for your spending while you’re there, here are some things you might like to consider.

From the Great Wall to the Terracotta Warriors and everything in between – there are plenty of reasons to visit the world’s most populous country. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in July 2019 alone, almost 48,000 Australians returned from short-term stays in China. Whether you want to explore tranquil temples or bustling big cities, China could be the perfect place to visit if you’re up for experiencing a culture that’s vastly different to our own but also very welcoming.

One way of withdrawing cash and making card payments with retailers during your Chinese holiday could be to use a travel money card.

The Great Wall is a popular tourist destination in China. Source: Zhu Difeng (Shutterstock)

How do travel money cards work?

Typically travel money cards work like this: you exchange your Aussie dollars for Chinese yuan (sometimes referred to as Renminbi) – or whatever eligible currency you need – and load them onto your card before your trip. Then, when you arrive in China, you can expect to use the card to withdraw yuan and make card payments in-store or online at selected outlets. You may also be able to reload your card with extra funds if you need them. Bear in mind, though, that some cards may only offer some of these features.

Is a travel money card the right option?

Depending on the type of traveller you are, travel money cards can be useful for a number of reasons. For example:

  • They allow you to lock in the exchange rate in advance of your trip
  • They are designed to be easy to use – similar in function to a debit card
  • They can be used with multiple currencies
  • They aren’t connected to your transaction account, so you can only lose the amount that’s on the card if it’s stolen

There can also be disadvantages to using a travel money card:

  • You may lose out if the exchange rate improves after you’ve locked in your rate
  • Travel money cards can come with various fees, such as currency conversion fees, ATM fees and inactivity fees
  • They may not be accepted everywhere you go, so you may need to take some cash with you as well
  • Some travel money cards have a reload delay – that is, it may take several days for you to be able to access extra money you load onto the card

Travel money cards aren’t perfect for every situation, or every traveller,  and given the limited number of travel money cards on offer in Australia that allow you to load Chinese yuan onto them, it could be smart to consider a combination of different travel money options for your trip to China, such as loose cash, as well as a travel credit or debit card.

What exchange rate will I get?

The exchange rate you might get when converting your Aussie dollars into yuan is likely to vary depending on when you load your card, as exchange rates generally fluctuate regularly due to a number of factors. Check with your travel money card provider as to what the current rate is before you load your money onto a travel money card.

It’s also important to note, that the exchange rate quoted by your card provider may be different to the official exchange rate quoted by the RBA.

This is because travel money card providers typically charge an ‘exchange fee’ on top of the quoted exchange rate. This fee can vary from card to card, so it’s worth comparing what each one offers for yuan – as well as considering the other features and terms offered by the provider – to see which card best suits your needs. It’s worth considering that some travel money card providers may not list an ‘exchange fee’ as such – instead the cost of the exchange to the cardholder would be factored into the exchange rate the provider offers.

The exchange rate you receive is likely to change depending on when you load the funds onto your card. Source: Roman Sigaev (Shutterstock)

What to be aware of when travelling to China

China, like some other Asian countries such as Japan and Korea, can be heavily cash-centric in parts. This means that many places, especially smaller cities and rural locations, may not offer merchant-services and instead you may be expected to pay in cash. 

While major cities like Beijing and Shanghai are likely to have more businesses that accept Visa and Mastercard payment, cash is often still preferred. So in addition to carrying sufficient cash around (be sure to carry it securely), finding a travel money card with no or low ATM fees could help you withdraw extra cash where necessary.

In bigger cities, you generally have access to numerous ATMs that are foreign card-friendly. However, foreign cards may not be accepted by every single ATM. In smaller cities, you may have more difficulty finding ATMs that accept foreign cards, so it could be a good idea to take cash out when you have the opportunity to do so.

Having cash in hand could also be useful if you’re planning on haggling for goods. Haggling is a big part of Chinese culture and you’ll likely find plenty of opportunities to bargain for goods at markets and small shops. Just remember that you generally can’t haggle at supermarkets, department stores or brand-name stores – anywhere you can see a physical price tag on the goods. You could, however, consider bargaining at markets, but be aware that vendors may charge tourists premium prices compared to local shoppers.

If you are planning on haggling, it can be useful to carry small notes with you, so you don’t end up driving the vendor down to a low price just to ask them for lots of change.  

Don’t forget to consider travel insurance

When travelling to China you may also want to think about an insurance policy to cover you for things like:

  • Cancellation costs for flights, accommodation and tours
  • Overseas emergency medical expenses
  • Travel delays or changed travel plans
  • Cover for theft or lost luggage and personal items

Compare travel money cards for other destinations

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