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July 27, 2008

Paper or Plastic: Paying in Beijing

I’ve used my credit cards only twice since I arrived – the first time was at the Hard Rock Cafe (MasterCard), and the second was at the flagship Olympic store (American Express). Both times, I wish I had had enough cash to cover my expenses, rather than pay the foreign transaction fee (about 2%), but if you’re coming to Beijing on an expense account, you may have no choice but to use your plastic whenever possible.

As I’m sure you’ve gathered from the endless marketing, Visa is the official card of the 2008 Olympics, and will be the only card accepted at Olympic venues. In most situations, you’ll be using cash far more often than plastic, but if credit cards are accepted by a particular merchant, they’ll likely accept the big three -- Visa, MasterCard and American Express.

If you do plan on using your cards in Beijing, call the number on the back before you leave home to inform your bank that you’ll be using your card in China. If you don’t, it’s almost guaranteed that a representative will try to get in touch with you, and if you’re not using your U.S. cell phone, will likely fail.

Through a partnership with China Construction Bank, Bank of America cardholders can withdraw from CCB ATM machines without paying service fees. There are no currency conversion fees and no foreign transaction fees – I make withdrawals every few days, and with today’s exchange rate, $14.69 will be debited from your account for each 100 CNY withdrawn. I have not had a single problem withdrawing from an ATM in China with my BOA debit card, though colleagues have run into issues with cards issued by other banks. Be sure to inform your bank that you’ll be traveling as well and have a backup plan (a friend with a BOA account) in case you’re unable to make withdrawals when you arrive. Consider bringing several hundred dollars in cash as well -- cash exchange rates are comparable to those you’ll get from the ATM.

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Since you’ll be using cash for everything from taxis to dinner to market purchases, do your best to get a receipt whenever possible, especially for purchased goods. Taxis print receipts automatically when the driver turns off the meter (assuming the printer is working), but you may need to ask other merchants for a receipt. If you’re dining with a group and paying cash, request that orders be placed individually on separate tickets before your waiter begins to take your order. Restaurants are not used to doing this now, but I imagine they’ll catch on after a few days -- it may also help to have your hotel write instructions in Mandarin.

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