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Moving money internationally is never easy. At this point you probably already know that. So as you research options to get money into China, it helps to know what has worked in the past and which methods are the cheapest for transferring money internationally.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a broke traveler who needs money quickly or you’re trying to pay for something in China using funds stored outside of China. In both cases, it is essential to understand the cheapest and fastest ways to send money to China (or perhaps get money to you in China).
The good news is that China is full of banks at almost every street corner. That means ATM’s, quick cash and convenience.
The bad news is that it comes at a price. Whether that’s time standing in line, time waiting for a wire transfer, or bank fees, you’re going to have to pay somehow.
So based on my years of experience, here’s a quick rundown of the 5 Cheapest Ways to get money into China.
Let’s dive in!
Note: Some links in this article are affiliate links, which means that at no extra cost to you, I may be compensated if you choose to use one of the services listed. I only recommend what I’ve personally used, and I appreciate your support!
The absolute cheapest way to get money to China is to walk it through. That means one of two things for you:
No doubt you should always have a little cash on hand (US dollars are still the easiest to convert), it’s just a matter of how much. I’ve walked through Chinese customs with a couple hundred dollars and I’ve also walked across with a couple thousand.
Both worked great, the latter was just harder on the nerves.
According to China’s customs office, a traveler can carry with them 20,000 RMB in cash or a foreign currency equivalent of US $5,000 without declaring it.
Anything over these amounts must be processed by China Customs.
A more secure, albeit antiquated option, is traveler’s checks. For decades this used to be the method of choice for international travelers. There’s no a limit to how much you can carry in traveler’s checks since they aren’t considered currency, but they’re not nearly as popular as they used to be.
Not only is it difficult to find a place to buy traveler’s checks nowadays, it’s cumbersome to cash them. In China, I’ve waiting in line for two hours just to get a check cashed!
The problem with both of these options is that although they are very cheap, getting the money converted to Chinese Renminbi is often a nightmare.
Exchange rates at the airport are horrendous and the effort to get a fair shake at a bank could cost you an entire half of your day.
Use cash walked across the border as a backup plan in case something goes wrong. Don’t use it as your primary way to get money.
A majority of the ATM’s all throughout China accept Visa and MasterCard as well as UnionPay, Diner’s Club and others.
It’s incredibly convenient to use the ATM in China, which is why so many people prefer this method, but there are two distinct disadvantages:
My advice: ATM’s are a great option but when you use one to pull cash, take out the max withdrawal limit so you don’t have to do it more than once.
Tip #2: Make sure you know your debit card PIN number! We don’t often use our debit cards back home, so it’s easy to forget our PIN numbers, and yet you can’t pull money from a Chinese ATM without it.
Wire transfers may not be the most efficient way for travelers to get their money to China, but it does allow for larger sums of money to be transfered.
There are three primary ways that I’ve wired money in and out of China:
My Advice: Check with your bank to see what they charge. If you need to make transfers regularly it’s just too convenient not to use something like Wise. If it’s a one-time deal consider a service like MoneyGram.
Believe it or not, writing yourself a check from your home bank is a perfectly viable way to get money into a China bank account. Your China bank will probably charge you an insignificant fee (around US$15) and your home bank will charge you nothing.
There is a BIG catch, though.
The check takes anywhere between 30-60 days to clear. YIKES! I don’t like waiting that long, so I’ve never personally used this method, but I have one friend who did.
My Advice: if you can plan far enough ahead, writing a check to yourself might not be a bad option.
This is a newer option that works well for purchases within China if you’re a high-end traveler (not an option for transferring money, though). In bigger Chinese cities you can use a credit card to pay for your hotel stays and some restaurants.
There are some credit cards that boast no fees for international purchases. You have to check how they calculate exchange rates, but usually this can be a pretty good deal.
The only down side is that anything less than a major department store or 5-star hotel will not accept Visa/MasterCard credit cards. It is possible to get a pre-paid UnionPay card like ECARD (free to use and top up with a US bank account).
UnionPay is accepted everywhere in China, unlike Visa and MasterCard, and can be used to avoid high fees when pulling cash at an ATM.
Online money transfer providers typically offer the strongest exchange rates and lowest fees on money transfers to China. Some offer transfers straight to Chinese bank accounts, while others allow the money to be picked up in Chinese yuan in person. Banks, PayPal and other options are available but come with high fees, weak rates and longer turnaround times.
Companies like InstaRem and CurrencyTransfer specialise in foreign currencies, making them some of the most cost-effective transfers. Most offer transfers directly to your recipient’s Chinese bank account, often in as little as a day or two.
Services like MoneyGram allow you to transfer cash for pickup at a local branch in China— often in 15 minutes. While it’s a fast way to send money, compare these options to digital services like WorldRemit or Wise when possible.
Every Hong Kong bank has CNY/RMB and might even has branches in China. Although your local bank can convert your HK dollars into Chinese yuan, beware of high fees and wide margins on the exchange rate compared to digital and other options. Some banks might offer fee free transfer if you send it to a bank account from the same bank in mainland China. However, for transfers to an account not from a different bank, it might be treated as an international transfer.
If you’re a resident in Hong Kong, most likely you know the most common payment tools: Alipay and WeChat Pay. They are somewhat the Chinese version of PayPal. You fund your account with bank transfer or card, and you can send money to another user. Fees are a lot lower than the bank and for some transactions, it is fee free. Alipay exists on both desktop and mobile app but WeChat Pay only has a mobile app.
Weigh costs and fees against convenience, and learn how to compare money transfer providers that send to China to meet your needs:
There are two things you need to consider when planning to transfer money into China:
For anything under US $5,000, the option that I use most often and has the lowest fees is to wire to a Chinese bank account using a service like Wise.
Anything above $5,000 and visiting your local bank is really your only option.
If speed is of importance, MoneyGram can get the money overseas within a couple hours. All other options take anywhere from a couple days to more than a week.