After living in China for five years, I’d like to think I’ve become an expert on how to convert RMB to USD and vice versa. I’ve literally tried every trick in the book, to find affordable ways to get my USD into China, and my RMB out of China.
I switched American banks for free ATM withdrawals while I studied abroad. I brought stacks of cash with me on the airplane. I tried and failed with Alipay, had Chinese friends send money for me, and requested so many tax sheets, my old company probably hates me.
I looked into making two Paypal accounts, Transferwise, and anything else that would save me money on transfers. But China works REALLY hard to make sure that expats can’t send money out of China without proving they’ve paid tax.
How I Used to Get Money Into China
Before I studied abroad in China, I switched banks from Wells Fargo to Bank of America, only because Bank of America has a partnership with China Construction Bank, that gives you free ATM withdrawals. But let’s be honest, opening up a new bank account is never fun, especially when you have a really good deal on your old one.
The entire time I studied abroad, I’d transfer money from one bank account to another, then withdraw it from the ATM for no fees. However, I know I was paying a bit on every ATM withdrawal, due to poor ATM currency conversions.
Just be aware that while this partnership works one way, it DOES NOT work the other way. Do not expect to withdraw USD out of a Bank of America ATM with your China Construction Bankcard. I learned this one the hard way. Apparently, only special gold member accounts are given this deal.
Free Guide: 10 Steps to Landing a High Paying Job in China
How I Used to Get Money OUT of China
Getting money out of China is extremely difficult. Western Union is super expensive, Transferwise and Paypal don’t have RMB, and Alipay doesn’t allow foreign transfers if you’re not Chinese.
After years of trial and error, I eventually discovered three ways to send money out of China.
International Bank Transfer
My go-to method of choice, international bank transfers offer the least fees for those of us who want to legally transfer money. In order to send more than just a few hundred dollars, you’ll need to get your company or school to provide you with a form proving that you’ve paid taxes on your income. Then you can bring this form to the bank, and transfer as much as you want! (As long as it matches up with your tax payments)
This whole process costs around $15 from the Chinese bank’s side (plus probably another $10 from your own bank), however, the exchange rates they give you are actually accurate.
Bringing a Fat Stack of Cash Home
When I went home for Christmas, I brought a giant stack of RMB home with me, hoping to exchange it to RMB. However, US banks DO NOT give favorable rates for RMB, and I was set to lose almost $100 on the exchange! So… I brought the money back with me.
If you do want to bring cash home with you, transfer the RMB to USD while you’re in China, and then bring it with you on the plane. Just be sure you’re not bringing more than $10,000 USD on the plane.
Get a Chinese Friend to Help You
Chinese people have a much higher limit on foreign transactions, so if you’re not working legally or can’t get a tax form, many of my friends have asked a Chinese friend to transfer money for them. What they do is give their Chinese friend cash, and then the Chinese friend transfers it internationally using Alipay.
However, this is technically not legal, so my friends always had to be a bit careful. They would use cash to be less obvious and typically use a few different friends so it wasn’t always the same person. A Chinese person can legally send $2,000 per day or $50,000 per year, but obviously, they’re not supposed to do it for people other than themselves.
Get Your 10 Steps Teach Abroad Guide
Why So Complicated?
I’m sure most of you are a bit overwhelmed at this point. Why is remitting money home so hard? Do we have to pay so many fees? Why can’t we just use Transferwise or Paypal???
Trust me, I was a bit fed up with it too. After five years, I had just resigned myself to fees and hassle forever. That’s until I heard about Swapsy.
Swapsy is a brand new secure and simple platform for exchanging USD to RMB and RMB to USD using e-Wallets! Transfer money from Paypal to Wechat, or Alipay to Zelle with no fees- it’s that simple!
Swapsy is a true P2P platform (peer to peer), meaning that unlike Venmo, the money is never stored on Swapsy’s platform. It’s simply transferred from one account to another.
A Microfinance startup based in Southern Californa, Swapsy was created by “foreign exchange fee victims” that were sick and tired of paying giant fees every time they wanted to transfer money. A group of expats and former exchange students, the creators of Swapsy are just like us: travelers, expats, and students who are sick and tired of the current exchange system.
Convert RMB to USD or USD to RMB whenever you want!
UPDATE August 2019:
Swapsy now allows you to transfer GDP and CAD! This is amazing news for anyone from the UK and Canada!!
How Does Swapsy Work?
First, all users must verify their account, and then upload their e-wallets. You’ll need at least one US e-wallet (either Paypal or Zelle), and one Chinese e-wallet (Wechat or Alipay).
For those of you who don’t know what Zelle is (cough me cough), they’re actually partnered with every major US bank as an online wallet! This is a great way to get money straight into your bank account rather than going through Paypal.
Next, you’ll select how much of a particular currency you need. Swapsy will give you the current exchange rate, so you’re fully aware of how much money you’ll be sending and receiving.
Once you send out a request, you’ll need to wait for a match. Swapsy will match you with someone else who has the opposite currency need. For example, if you need RMB and they need USD, you’d be matched together!
If for some reason the match is taking too long, or you decide to go another route, you can cancel your swap and receive your money back at any time.
How is This Safe and Verified?
Once you’ve been matched, you are able to send the money to the other user’s verified account. You have 24 hours to initiate the transaction, and once the money has been sent, the other user will receive a code that they can use to verify they have received your money
Once you receive your money, you will also get a code. In order for the transaction to be completed, you both need to enter in the money received codes, otherwise, the transaction won’t go through and you’ll get your money back. This makes it impossible for anyone to take off with your money without sending money in return!
Still confused? Swapsy has an entire walkthrough here!
How Much Does This Cost Me?
I was shocked to discover how cheap Swapsy actually is! Unlike banks which charge $10-20 per foreign transaction (on BOTH sides), or systems like Paypal that take a huge cut, Swapsy is virtually free because they don’t actually move the money out of the country. This means there are no issues with taxes and limits.
As of now, Swapsy will let you make currency swaps of either $100 or $500 USD. In order to cover some of their costs, Swapsy has a points system. Every new user gets 100 points to spend, and if you refer a friend, you get another 500 points. 100 points = $100 transfer, 200 points = $500 transfer.
If you want to keep transferring money but you run out of points, you can purchase 500 points for $5. That means, for just $5 you can transfer over $1,000. THAT’S IT.
If you want 2,000 points, it’ll cost you $17. That’s $5,000 you can transfer for just $17!
Let’s be real. Swapsy is basically free. You can transfer $1,000 for free to start, and another $1,000 for every friend you refer? If you run out of points it’s only FIVE DOLLARS. I can’t think of anything else that’s this cheap.
*If both parties are using Paypal, the points are a bit higher due to Paypal fees
The More Swapsy Users, the Better!
Obviously, a platform like Swapsy needs a ton of users in order to work effectively. The last thing you want is for your money to be in limbo! There are already tons of Chinese international students using the platform, and I think it’s time for us expats and travelers to get on board too!
The more people using Swapsy, the easier it will be to transfer large (or small) sums of money without any major fees. It’s a win-win for all of us!
Seriously… I have a solid $6,000 USD in my Chinese bank account right now that I would really like to exchange for USD……..
Grab your FREE Teach Abroad Guide
What Do You Think?
Are you hopping on the Swapsy train, because I sure am! Be sure to let me know what you think about Swapsy in a comment below. If you have any major questions or concerns about remitting money or using Swapsy, definitely leave me a comment and I’ll be sure to get back to you ASAP!
No matter how old the post is, I’m always checking back for new comments, so be sure to let me know what you think!
Quick thanks to Swapsy for bringing you this post. I’m so excited to use their platform and finally get all that money out of China without paying hundreds of dollars in fees!
38 comments on “The CHEAPEST Way to Convert RMB to USD (and Vice Versa)”
This looks like a super helpful app!
I agree. I’m super excited to start using this
Sounds interesting. Both your post & App are helpful..
Thanks! I’m glad you liked it :)
Thanks for your suggestions. I have quite an amount of money in China, maybe from your post, I can find a way to bring it back.
Cool blog, and great post :)
hahaha me too! I need to get all my money out of China
I paid 300 credit to swap from CNY to 100 USD….so is your post wrong? It’s doesn’t cost 100 credit
That’s strange. I’ll get in touch with them and see if they decided to change something.
Paysend.com works for sending money into China! Its cheaper than Transferwise too. If you have questions just email us or hit up our wechat account, our id is PAYSEND. Disclaimer: I work there.
Hey Will- thanks for letting us know about your service. I’ll be sure to check it out!
Hi Richelle, I am a fellow expat just like you living an experience in China. These days the government is making a point of trying to control the flow of money especially those with accounts that are attached with foreign names. After hearing about swapsy through many wechat platforms I finally took the plunge and tried it. I will say that it is basically free and the mid market rates are the best around. My only issue so far is that when I accept a swap and I do my part in less then 2 minutes I dont receive my end of the funds in a timely manner. I find it rather annoying. Besides that everything else was on the up and up. I do believe with more users the platform will definitely take off.
Thanks so much for sharing your experience! How long does it take you to get the funds? I know bank transfer takes a few days. Does it take you longer than that?
Hi Richelle, I’m going to give this a try, thanks for the post.
Awesome! Let me know how it goes!
Hi Richelle! Thanks for sharing your experience with Swapsy! Just wondering, in order to use Wechat pay, we need to add a bank card to our profile. Whenever I try to add a bank card, it does not save. Just wondering how the funds transferred from Swapsy will actually stay in your Wechat account for me to use?
Hi Tiffany. Wow that’s strange. Are you in China right now? You’ll really want to get your wechat wallet set up before you do Swapsy for Wecaht. Do you have a Chinese bank account? I think you need to use a Chinese card to make the account. In the past you didn’t need to, but they might have changed the rules.
If you go on to the Swapsy site right now, you will see dozens of offers to convert USD to RMB, and zero offers to convert RMB to USD. In theory Swapsy works both ways, but in practice it appears to be a one way deal
Wow that’s very interesting! I think it might be because Chinese students are coming home for the summer soon? If that’s the case, we definitely need more expats in China to pick up the demand and exchange RMB to USD. Which reminds me… I should probably convert some money now! :)
After spending another day on Swapsy, I can tell you that offers to convert RMB->USD do come up from time to time, but it’s sparse.
Good to know! I’ll keep getting the word out to everyone in China that wants to send money home to the US so we can even it out
Thanks! That would be great.
I really hope this works. I just made an account and am waiting to be verified. How long after verification does it take to make a USD to RMB swap? I’d like to pay for my Chinese apartment before I leave for China again in a few days. I just found out about this today after unsuccessfully trying to transfer money to a friend via Alipay using my visa debit (which doesn’t work for person to person transfer, only for TaoBao and online shopping) because I don’t have enough funds in my Chinese bank.
Hi Kitty! It should be immediate once you’re verified. If you have any questions, you can definitely contact Swapsy and see what they can do :)
I have been using Swapsy three times so far. The idea is great but it really depends on who is the swapper on the other end. The first two times (USD to RMB) it worked great, within an hour. The third time (RMB to USD), it proved to be a disaster. I am still trying to get the last part to be paid. I had about five different people sending little chunks of money and, after 48 hours, it is not over yet. Swapsy says that they “guarantee” the money but they never followed through with their promise. Beware, especially if you are sending more than USD 500.
Wow really?? I thought a transaction wouldn’t go through unless both parties were set up and ready to send money? Is it now allowing mini transactions on one side and bigger transactions on the other? I’ll need to look into this. Thanks for letting me know.
Hi, new to the game so to speak. I just started working in China and currently researching ways to get my income (RMB) to my US accounts with minimal fees(legally of course). Hence me finding this blog post. I’m cautiously excited about this because i can help spread the word to expats in getting on board, who are living in China. However, my concern is coming from reading comments that US customers to exchange RMB to US are few are far between. When I get my bank account here in China set up, I’m going to test this myself and see how it goes. Don’t worry, i will report back as the experiment occurs. I’m a new blogger too, and really feel this could help travelers immensly. Cheers.
yes please let me know how it goes! I’ve heard complaints both ways so I think it comes in waves. Sometimes a lot of people want USD, other times a lot of people want RMB. As long as your flexible and keep checking back in it should work. Worst case if you’re teaching legally you can just get your tax form from work and do a bank transfer :)
ok cool. will keep in touch. if you have wechat, im there too.
I did sign up, but only got 100 points. How could I get the 1000 points you mentioned in your article?
Hey Danny, I had a look and it seems like they’ve changed it from 500 to 100 for new signups, but they did add GBP and CAD!!
“If you want 2,000 points, it’ll cost you $17. That’s $5,000 you can transfer for just $17!”
2000 points has increased slightly to $18.90 since this was originally written. But the thing that I really wanted to point out is that 2,000 points actually only allows you to swap around $1334, which is obviously nowhere near $5000. By the time I’m finished teaching in China, I expect to have transferred around $50,000, which will result in around $615 in fees. That’s around 1.2%, which is still lower than any other method and infinitely more convenient than constantly obtaining tax documents and waiting in long queues at the bank. It typically only takes around 3 hours for the swap to be complete, although I’ve received my dollars in as little as 30 minutes.
I’ve been using Swapsy for about a month now and have been sending RMB back to Canada. The RMB to CAD swaps are not very plentiful so I just have to check the website a few times a day and then when I see a swap available, I jump on it. The swaps are usually between 100-500 CAD. There have been a couple times when I accidentally confirmed that I had received the money when in fact I hadn’t. I contacted their customer service and they were very helpful and everything got sorted out quickly. One problem that I’ve been having is with Paypal. My account was locked for a while and as I type this, Paypal is reviewing a transaction. I’m not sure if it’s because they don’t like Swapsy or just because the activity in my account is unusual. Hopefully they stop bothering me because I plan to keep using Swapsy for as long as I can.
Hey, I’m really curious where do exchanged money go if I give RMB and want to receive USD?
Swapsy fees are much higher than bank wire. At least this week every day I look on top of the point fee, also a 3+ percent service fee.
I couldn’t find where this fee was on their website. Can you point me to it? Or is it only disclosed when making a transaction. I’m speculating that the pandemic causing reduced number of people traveling to/from China has hit their business model.
It’s strange they don’t have that information publically right now… I just sent them a message on their site to ask them about how many “points” it costs and how much points cost to buy right now.
Hi. Why does it take almost a week for a match to fulfill his own part of the deal after confirming payment? It’s frustrating.
Wow that is very annoying! Have you talked to Swapsy about this?