How to Buy Things in Taiwan

March 4 2019, 7:52pm

If you needed to buy a new shirt, you probably would know how to go about that process. Even if you shopped online, you would probably understand any deals and the number of articles of clothing you would be getting. In Taiwan, there are some slight differences when it comes to buying things. From purchasing food to getting a good deal on clothing, there are a variety of nuances that can make the buying process more difficult. As someone who is not a native Mandarin speaker, I wanted to create this guide to shed some light on buying things in Taiwan.

What’s the Difference Between 元, $, 塊, 圓, NT$, and NTD?

In Taiwan, you’ll see these acronyms and symbols thrown around everywhere. Generally, they are akin to the dollar sign used in United States pricing.

After Taiwan changed over their currency from an older form and valuation, under Japanese rule, to the existing one, the Taiwanese currency became known as Xintaibi (新臺幣 / xin tai bi) or new Taiwan money.

$1 = 1 元 (yuan) = 1 圓 (yuan) = 1 塊 (kuai) = 1 NT$ = 1 NTD

Formally, the character 圓 (yuan) is used. Colloquially, people will often use 元 (yuan) and 塊 (kuai). Most often, you’ll see the more western-facing $ though.

Though there are technically cents, they aren’t used in practice. As a result, a $1 coin is the smallest denomination that you will carry around.

Here are two examples of 元 and $ being used respectively:

Sandwiches at this shop range from 50 元 (50 NT$) to 75 元 (75 NT$) unless you want to add cheese (起司 / qi si).

This set of mini donuts will set you back $60 (60 元).

Size Matters

When it comes to food, there are particular considerations to make. One thing that might sound familiar but different is choosing meals or drinks based on size.

Whereas in the United States, we often differentiate drinks by size (small, medium, and large), this often applies to meals as well. Many times, it may be possible (or necessary even) to state what amount of food you want.

In this regard, you’ll often see 小 (xiao), 中 (zhong), 大 (da) or even just 小 and 大. 小 means “small” and is the equivalent of a smaller size or portion. 大 means “large” and can be expected to be bigger than a small size. 中 means “middle” and represents that middle ground.

Though a small size (小的) may be good for many people, I have sometimes found the portion to a little lacking compared to standard US portions—Just something to keep in mind.

Here are some instances of 小, 中, and 大 in use:

Metric Also Matters

Though this might not come as a surprise, you won’t find ounces or pounds here. In Taiwan, people work off of the metric system. Coincidentally, sometimes you won’t see the generic sizes listed above. Instead, you may find specific volumes or weights of whatever it is that you may be interested.

At this specific restaurant, juices and milks at the bottom are 500 cubic centimeters while Coca Cola is 250 cubic centimeters.

Check What You Want

If you didn’t already notice from the sheet of paper above, ordering in many eateries can be a little different too. Especially at hole-in-the-wall, or short staffed placed, you’ll find a menu in the form of a disposable piece of paper or a laminated card (where the marks can be cleaned off). Often times, you’ll also find a writing instrument nearby like a pencil.

In either case, you’re expected to check or write the quantities of items you want.

Want a fish ball soup (魚丸湯 / yu wan tang) and 2, 500 cc cups of watermelon juice (西瓜汁 / xi gua zhi)?

On the menu above, you would write a 1 or check the fish ball box and write a 2 in the corresponding watermelon juice box.

Don’t worry about messing this process up too much. When you are ready to order, the waiter or waitress will often look over your marks and confirm your order (as well as any quantity questions).

Speaking of marks, there’s a unique way to tally which you may also see. In Taiwan and many other places around Asian, the five consecutive strokes in the character 正 (zheng) will be used in the same way that bars and a slash are used in a western sense. Occasionally, I’ve seen some waiters and waitresses cross out bars and replaced them with the corresponding Asian tally.

This soy sauce has something to do with 12 because of the two 正 and additional two marks. Maybe it’s 12 years old?

All Things Quantified

Like so many other Asian languages, you can’t just say, “I want one corn” (我要一玉米).

Actually, I suppose you could but people would probably look confused at you as they parsed together your statement.

You would say, “I want one long, slender object of corn” (我要一支玉米 / wo yao yi zhi yu mi).

The term after the number is the counter term or a word used to define the unit of measure. If, for instance, you were to say “我要一粒玉米” (wo yao yi li yu mi), you might receive a single grain of corn instead of a stalk. This is because the term 粒 (li) is used as a counter word for small round objects.

Out in practice, you may see signs like those below:

1支10 or 3支50? Sound like a better deal to buy 3 long, slender objects (of corn) for 50 NT$.

This sign is written in a slightly different way, but it uses a counter to describe what you’re getting for 80元. That is 1盒 (he) or box of strawberries (草莓 / cao mei).

I wrote more about visiting traditional markets and buying groceries in Taiwan, here including an exploration of counter terms.

Instead of One, Buy Two or Three

Deals are a big deal in Taiwan. Not surprisingly, many businesses will try to get you to buy additional items. You’ll know that this is the case if you see more than one price on an item.

On the shirt above, 原價 (yuan jia) means “original price.” 件 (jian) means “single item.” In this example, the original price of this type of shirt is 799 NT$. The price for two items, however is 1290 NT$—a savings of 154 NT$ per shirt if you buy two.

Another format that is used, to essentially mean the same thing is the “Buy Number Price” format. Here, buy is represented by the character “買” (mai).

買 + Number of Items = Price

On this tag, which says “special offer” (特價 / te jia) at the top, the buy one price is 69 NT$. If you buy two, you only pay 119 NT$.

Here’s another example, though this sign could use a fresh inking.

Buy One, Get One (BOGO)

Another deal you may find in Taiwan is one where you buy an item and get another of the same kind for free. You may have noticed the character above, 送 (song). This character means to give as a present (essentially get for free). The format here is:

買 + Number of Items, 送 + Number of Items = Price

On the above sign, if you buy two Vodka Lime drinks, you’ll get one for free. It further goes on to stipulate that before 9 pm it’s buy one, get one free (but you can probably already discern that).

On a side note, doesn’t the offer of being able to do all you can drink for 600 NT$ seem intriguing?

Discount Off, Done Differently

One last way of getting a discount that I’ve found is as a percentage off.

Typically, in English speaking countries, we might say a certain item is 50% off. This can be written as 5折 or 五折 (wu zhe). The character 折 (zhe) serves a similar though slightly different purpose.

折 is used to mean “discount” or “rebate.” For some reason, the “0” is typically omitted after the first digit.

As a result 9折 isn’t as good as 1折 because the former means you would get a discount of 100-90=10% (or that you would have to pay 90% of the price). 1折 is a better deal because you would have to pay just 10% of the total price.

Going back to the example of 50% off, 5折 is the same as 50% because you would get a discount of 100-50=50% of the overall price.

On the Receipt

If you get a receipt, you may be interested in some of what it says. Here are a few quick words for reference:

  • 小計 (xiao ji) – sub total
  • 總計 (zong ji) – grand total
  • 現金支付 (xian jin zhi fu) – money paid
  • 找零 (zhao ling) – change

Extra Costs Here and There

Without really noticing, you might be paying for extra costs every now and then. One common cost is for to-go boxes or bags.

Here’s a sign that clearly states that a paper bag (紙袋 / zhi dai) is 2元 while a plastic bag (塑膠袋 / su jiao dai) is 1元.

These boxes are a little more expensive with every (每 / mei) paper box (紙盒 / zhi he) being 8元.

By keeping an eye on all of these things, you can make the most of a trip to Taiwan and ensure that your money goes to all the right things!

Hope you enjoyed these insights into buying things in Taiwan. If you found this useful, don’t forget to share it with others and if there are any notes you would add, let me know in the comments below.

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