Variable air volume (VAV) systems and variable refrigerant flow (VRF) systems are popularly used in office buildings. This study investigated VAV and VRF systems in five typical office buildings in China, and compared their air conditioning energy use. Site survey and field measurements were conducted to collect data of building characteristics and operation. Measured cooling electricity use was collected from sub-metering in the five buildings. The sub-metering data, normalized by climate and operating hours, show that VRF systems consumed much less air conditioning energy by up to 70% than VAV systems. This is mainly due to the different operation modes of both system types leading to much fewer operating hours of the VRF systems. Building simulation was used to quantify the impact of operation modes of VRF and VAV systems on cooling loads using a prototype office building in China. Simulated results show the VRF operation mode leads to much less cooling loads than the VAV operation mode, by 42% in Hong Kong and 53% in Qingdao. The VRF systems operated in the part-time-part-space mode enabling occupants to turn on air-conditioning only when needed and when spaces were occupied, while the VAV systems operated in the full-time-full-space mode limiting occupants’ control of operation. The findings provide insights into VRF systems operation and controls as well as its energy performance, which can inform HVAC designers on system selection and building operators or facility managers on improving VRF system operations.