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The best places to convert your dollars into yuan are at your hotel's front desk or a branch of a major bank, such as Bank of China, CITIC, or HSBC. All these operate with standardized government rates—anything cheaper is illegal, and thus risky. You need to present your passport to change money.

Although credit cards are widespread in China, for day-to-day transactions cash is definitely king. Getting change for larger notes can be a problem in small shops and taxis, so try to stock up on 10s and 20s when you change money.

ATMs and Banks

Your own bank will probably charge a fee for using ATMs abroad; the foreign bank you use may also charge a fee. Nevertheless, you'll usually get a better rate of exchange at an ATM than you will at a currency-exchange office or even when changing money in a bank. And extracting funds as you need them is a safer option than carrying around a large amount of cash.

Among the Chinese banks, your best bets for ATMs are Bank of China and ICBC. That said, machines frequently refuse to give cash for mysterious reasons. Move on and try another. Citibank and HSBC have lots of branches in Beijing, and accept all major cards. On-screen instructions appear automatically in English. Be sure to check all bills that you receive from the ATM; sometimes fake notes find their way into the system and it can be a nightmare to get the bank to exchange for real ones—especially if you leave the premises.

Credit Cards

It's a good idea to inform your credit-card company before you travel, especially if you're going abroad and don't travel internationally very often. Otherwise, the credit-card company might put a hold on your card owing to unusual activity—not a good thing halfway through your trip. Record all your credit-card numbers—as well as the phone numbers to call if your cards are lost or stolen—in a safe place, so you're prepared should something go wrong. Both MasterCard and Visa have general numbers you can call (collect if you're abroad) if your card is lost, but you're better off calling the number of your issuing bank, since MasterCard and Visa usually just transfer you to your bank; your bank's number is usually printed on your card.

If you plan to use your credit card for cash advances, you'll need to apply for a PIN at least two weeks before your trip. Although it's usually cheaper (and safer) to use a credit card abroad for large purchases (so you can cancel payments or be reimbursed if there's a problem), note that some credit-card companies and the banks that issue them add substantial percentages to all foreign transactions, whether they're in a foreign currency or not. Check on these fees before leaving home, so there won't be any surprises when you get the bill.

Before you charge something, ask the merchant whether or not he or she plans to do a dynamic currency conversion (DCC). In such a transaction the credit-card processor (shop, restaurant, or hotel, not Visa or MasterCard) converts the currency and charges you in dollars. In most cases you'll pay the merchant a 3% fee for this service in addition to any credit-card company and issuing-bank foreign-transaction surcharges.

Dynamic currency conversion programs are becoming increasingly widespread. Merchants who participate in them are supposed to ask whether you want to be charged in dollars or the local currency, but they don't always do so. And even if they do offer you a choice, they may well avoid mentioning the additional surcharges. The good news is that you do have a choice. And if this practice really gets your goat, you can avoid it entirely thanks to American Express; with its cards, DCC simply isn't an option.

In Beijing, American Express, MasterCard, and Visa are accepted at most major hotels and a growing number of upmarket stores and restaurants. Diners Club is accepted at many hotels and some restaurants.

Reporting Lost Cards

American Express (800/528–4800 in the U.S.; 336/393–1111 collect from abroad. www.americanexpress.com.)

Diners Club (800/234–6377 in the U.S.; 514/881–3735 collect from abroad. www.dinersclub.com.)

MasterCard (800/627–8372 in the U.S.; 636/722–7111 collect from abroad. www.mastercard.com.)

Visa (800/847–2911 in the U.S.; 410/581–9994 collect from abroad. www.visa.com.)

Currency and Exchange

The Chinese currency is officially called the yuan (Y), and is also known as renminbi (RMB), or "People's Money." You may also hear it called kuai, an informal expression like "buck." After being pegged to the dollar at around Y8 for years, it was allowed to float within a small range starting in 2005. It was held firm again until mid-2010 when it was allowed to float again. As of this writing, the conversion was Y6.24 to $1.

Both old and new styles of bills circulate simultaneously in China, and many denominations have both coins and bills. The Bank of China issues bills in denominations of 1 (green), 5 (purple), 10 (turquoise), 20 (brown), 50 (blue-green), and 100 (red) yuan. There are Y1 coins, too. The yuan subdivides into 10-cent units called jiao or mao; these come in bills and coins of 1, 2, and 5. The smallest denomination is the fen, which comes in coins (and occasionally tiny notes) of 1, 2, and 5; these are largely useless in day-to-day exchanges. Counterfeiting is rife here, and even small stores inspect notes with ultraviolet lamps. Change can also be a problem—don't expect much success paying for a Y3 purchase with a Y100 note, for example.

Exchange rates in China are fixed by the government daily, so they're the same in banks, department stores, and at your hotel's exchange desk, which often has the added advantage of being open 24 hours a day. A passport is required. Hold on to your exchange receipt, which you need to convert your extra yuan back into dollars.