If you ever have the need to travel to China on business or for a holiday, you will need to exchange your home currency for the Chinese yuan. The name is actually slightly misleading because you will also hear the currency referred to as the yuan renminbi. The yuan is actually a unit of the renminbi, and this is the name used to describe the currency used by the People’s Republic of China.

If all this sounds confusing, there is an easier way to understand how it works. In Britain people use the British pound, but this is also known as the pound sterling. Most British people don’t refer to the pound as sterling – it is only generally referred to in this way on the currency markets. If we take this example and apply it to the Chinese currency, it means the yuan is the equivalent of the pound, while the word renminbi is the equivalent of the word sterling. This makes things much clearer, especially since yuan is the word you will usually come across while exchanging your currency for the Chinese one.

What coins and notes are available for this currency?

There are several coins in usage across China, although it varies as to where they are used and how often depending on where you are in the country. The coins are known as yuan, jiao and fen coins. Ten fen coins is the equivalent of one jiao coin. Ten jiao coins are worth the equivalent of one yuan coin. The word yuan literally means round coin, so it is easy to see why this term was used for the currency.

The current set of banknotes for the currency numbers six in total. These are worth one, five, ten, twenty, fifty and one hundred yuan respectively. This is the fifth set of notes to have been issued since the first set came out back in 1948. They are referred to as renminbi banknotes.

From past to present – the history of the Chinese yuan

We need to go back to the time of the Chinese Civil War to find the beginnings of the Chinese currency as we know it today. At this point in history several currencies were being used in the Republic of China as it was named back then. The yuan renminbi as we know it now was launched when the Republic of China grew to a point where one currency was seen as being easier to manage than several different ones. This was the point of view of the Communist Party and the government decided to go ahead and issue a single currency.

To begin with the new currency was issued under a number of different names. You would see things like The People’s Bank of China or simply New Currency stamped on the bank notes. It would be another year – in 1949 to be exact – before the official term became the People’s Currency. This is the one we have in China today, although of course it is commonly known as the yuan renminbi.

How to get hold of the yuan

If you are travelling to China you are advised to get your currency prior to travelling to the country. It is not always easy to acquire more currency when you are in China; a lot depends on where you are located. You shouldn’t have any problems in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing for example. However the same may well not be true of smaller towns and villages.

One thing that is worth being cautious about is how you get hold of your yuan currency. Many major cities have counterfeiting scams going on; people try to offer you a good exchange rate for exchanging your currency for the yuan. They’ll do this on the street and it might seem too good to be true. It is – you’ll be offered 50 or 100 yuan banknotes and they are very likely to be fake. Ask yourself why someone would want to sell banknotes on the street. Don’t take anything anyone tries to hand to you either. Always avoid such people, don’t get into a conversation with them and make sure you head for the Bank of China to make any exchanges. The exchange rate may not seem as good but at least you know you will get official and genuine currency!

If you have traveller’s cheques to take with you into China, make sure you only ever exchange these at a proper bank too. Always make sure you exchange what you need and you have enough to tide you over until the banks open again (they are shut at the weekends).

How to find out the latest exchange rate between your home currency and the Chinese yuan

Since the Chinese yuan is quite well known around the world, it is usually included on the main list of the most popular currencies used on all kinds of online currency converters. Simply find your own currency, enter the amount you want to convert and then convert it into the yuan. Remember these figures will differ slightly from the ones given by bureaux de changes because they will not account for any fees you pay on the exchange.

If you wish to learn more about China and the yuan, not to mention what you need to know about travelling there, you can visit the Chinese Embassy website in London at http://www.chinese-embassy.org.uk.

Travelling safely with the yuan

China is a safer place to be than some other countries when it comes to pickpockets. Of course they are around so it makes sense to be as careful as you can when it comes to safeguarding your currency. Some experts recommend it can be a good idea to wear a money belt instead of carrying your cash in a bag or wallet, or having it loose in your pocket.

The most common places where there are higher chances of being robbed include some of the tourist hotspots. Wherever you go when in China, make sure you stay alert to your surroundings. Experienced pickpockets are so good at their ‘job’ you may not even realise your money is missing until much later.

Another area to be aware of is the uncertainty of travelling in a cab. It is not uncommon for people to be given fake banknotes as change, or for them to be taken the longest possible route to get to their destination. Both of these scams will result in you being out of pocket, so try to avoid putting yourself in the situation if at all possible.

Where to spend the yuan in China – and what to spend it on

One of the nicest ways to spend your yuan notes and coins is on the many delicious meals and snacks you’ll find available across the country. You’ll find lots of rice dishes here, not to mention plenty of noodles and other tasty dishes to enjoy. Some are available to eat as snacks while you walk along, or you could head into a restaurant to enjoy a longer and more leisurely meal. Either way, you cannot go hungry in China.

If you are travelling through more than one province in China you will notice subtle differences between the cuisines available in each one. You can literally take a cheap and tasty journey through the country, sampling something different everywhere you go. The bigger the city you go to the more options you will have to choose from.

Of course the country also has many famous structures and attractions to consider visiting as well. It would be a shame not to pass up the opportunity to see the Great Wall of China or the Forbidden City for example. You can also visit Tiananmen Square or see the Summer Palace. These are just a few suggestions – wherever you are going in China you are sure to find some amazing experiences and attractions to sample and see.


China may not be the first place that comes to mind when you are considering a holiday. However it provides a completely different way of life to sample for a week or two. You can see many natural sights such as the Jiuzhaigou Valley and Yellow Mountain, or opt for marvels such as the Terracotta Army and the Stone Forest. Whatever you decide to do while you are in the country, you can expect your Chinese yuan to go quite a way.

Some attractions are costlier than others, and you can expect to spend more if you want to visit all the main places and sights. However there are lots of free attractions to see as well and as we have seen it is also possible to eat fairly cheaply.

Whatever you decide to do in China make sure you are prepared financially and take an amount of yuan with you as well as some traveller’s cheques. Once you are there you will undoubtedly settle into your surroundings and enjoy spending some money on various things.

Chinese Yuan – CNY

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