How To Pay in China For Foreigners—WeChat, Alipay, etc.

How To Pay in China For Foreigners—WeChat, Alipay, etc.

In the past year alone, there were more than 158 billion mobile payment transactions in China, totalling an astounding RM$500 trillion. With nearly 1 billion residents regularly relying on mobile payments, it has unquestionably become the standard way of conducting financial transactions.

For travellers in China, embracing these digital payment methods is not just convenient but essential. It not only streamlines transactions but also provides a genuine experience of China’s rapidly evolving digital landscape.

We know how many of you have set your sights on travelling to China. judging by the way flight ticket prices soared immediately after the country’s relaxation of travel restrictions in August 2023. If you’re heading to China soon for the first time, don’t worry, we’ve got your back. Here’s a guide to payment methods in China to make sure you have a smooth, fuss-free trip.


Mastercard and WeChat Pay Integration: A Game Changer?

Mastercard recently announced that its cardholders can now link their cards to WeChat Pay. For those unfamiliar; WeChat isn’t just a payment system, it’s the super app that has permeated every facet of their daily life. 

With over a billion users, WeChat is now used for everything – from simple chats to booking flights, from shopping to banking. Its prominence also meant that cash was becoming obsolete. WeChat’s QR-code payments are accepted everywhere, from your local beggars and roadside stalls to luxurious retail boutiques. 

For businessmen and tourists, navigating WeChat is pivotal for a seamless spending experience. Here’s what you can expect:

Spending Limits on WeChat:

  • Per Transaction: 6,000 RMB (about $835)
  • Monthly: 50,000 RMB
  • Annually: 60,000 RMB 

Transaction Fees

  • Below 200 RMB (approximately $28): No charges.
  • Above 200 RMB: A fee of 3% applies.

Exchange Rates: Set jointly by the card entity and your bank, ensuring clarity and some level of consistency for users.


Love-Hate Relationship With International Payment Platforms & China

The evolving relationship between global financial giants and China’s payment landscape is a captivating saga. For years, Visa, Mastercard, and American Express have navigated a maze of regulatory barriers, with the omnipresent UnionPay often overshadowing their efforts. 

This seamless integration, often termed “full-scale implementation,” is not just about marking a presence, but ensuring that the services from these international giants work harmoniously with China’s established systems, offering a hassle-free experience for users. 

However, the recent tie-up between Mastercard and WeChat Pay indicates a significant change. It not only shows China’s increasing openness to international financial collaborations but also hints at a future where global and local payment platforms may complement each other.

As China gears up to host international sporting events like the Asian Games, the nation welcomes a surge in international travellers. With the Mastercard-WeChat Pay integration, this could translate into a more convenient, hassle-free payment experience for visitors.


What payment methods are accepted in China?

Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s Alipay are the powerhouses in the digital payment scene. A significant 64% of the Chinese population uses both apps. Having these 2 apps on your smartphone opens a world of convenience as they cover almost every payment need in China, from shopping and transport to bill payments and sending money to friends.

  1. WeChat: Also known locally as Weixin, occupies 55% of the phone payment market. Its popularity heightened with its dual function as a social media, communication, and entertainment platform. It’s used by over 90% of the Chinese populace, and more than 80% use it for peer-to-peer and retail transactions.
  2. Alipay: A.k.a. Zhifubao, accounts for 40% of mobile payments. Integrated within Alipay are various other apps like Didi for rides and Taobao for shopping. More than 70% of China’s population makes payments via Alipay. While many establishments display QR codes for both payment systems, do note that some smaller entities might only offer WeChat payment.
Payment Coverage WeChat Pay Alipay
In-store purchase Yes Yes
Online purchase Yes Yes
Didi (taxi service) Yes Yes
Food delivery order Yes Yes
Taobao (online purchase) No Yes
TMall (online purchase) No Yes
Jingdong (online purchase) Yes No
Peer transfers Yes Yes
Red Envelopes Yes Yes
Utility Bills Yes Yes
Train/plane tickets purchase Yes Yes
Bike sharing apps payment Yes Yes


Setting Up WeChat and Alipay Payment

From July 2023, both WeChat and Alipay allowed foreign credit cards to be linked. Once you’ve done this, these apps will be your main payment gateway while in China. It’s much more convenient. Here are some easy-to-follow steps for setting up. 

  1. Download The App: Simply download the app at your Apple or Google Play store. 
  2. Register An Account: Click “Sign Up” or “Register” and provide your mobile number (even a foreign one)
  3. Verify Your Identity: Follow through with the verification process.
  4. Linking Your Foreign Credit Card: 
    • Alipay: Open the app, click on “Me”, then “Bank Cards”, and finally “+” to add your card. 
    • WeChat: Go to “Me”, then “Services”, “Wallet”, “Cards”, and “+ Add a Card”.

Thankfully, both apps do not charge transaction fees for amounts below 200 RMB. For transactions over 200 RMB, a 3% fee is applied. Refunds are processed proportionately to transaction fees.

For those intending to stay in China for an extended period, you should consider getting a local phone and bank card to access the full range of Alipay or WeChat payment services.

Paying by QR Code

Payments using WeChat or Alipay can be done in 2 ways:

  1. Scan the merchant’s QR code using your app, input the payment amount, and your password.
  2. Let the merchant scan your payment QR code.

Finding your payment QR code is simple. On Alipay, it’s under the homepage’s search box. On WeChat, it’s under “Me”, then “Wallet”, and “Money”.

If faced with a slow network connection, adjust your phone’s positioning or connect to the establishment’s Wi-Fi.


What Other Payment Apps and Methods are available in China?

While the limelight often goes to Alipay and WeChat due to their vast user base and extensive features, there are other key players which bring their own unique merits:

1. UnionPay

Founded in 2002, UnionPay has quickly expanded its services beyond China. It is now recognized in 170+ countries and regions, surpassing Visa and MasterCard in the number of cards issued. The platform uniquely blends domestic dominance with international reach, offering a seamless payment experience in China while ensuring convenience abroad.

  • Integrated Digital Solutions: UnionPay offers QR code payment, online payment, and contactless payment features, making it versatile in both brick-and-mortar and online settings.
  • International Acceptance: Over 25 million merchants outside mainland China accepted UnionPay, making it invaluable for travellers.
  • Competitive Exchange Rates: UnionPay provides competitive currency conversion rates, especially when used in countries along the Belt and Road Initiative routes.


2. International Mobile Payment Systems

Apple Pay and Samsung Pay have ventured into China. While their adoption in China might be modest, their high-security standards and user-friendly interfaces make them reliable for the international community.

  • Familiarity: For international tourists or expatriates, using these services offers a semblance of familiarity.
  • Enhanced Security: With tokenization, these systems replace card details with a unique code for each transaction, minimising risks associated with data breaches.
  • Loyalty Integration: Users can integrate various loyalty and membership cards, making it more than just a payment solution.


3. Online Transaction Facilitators

Tailored to the requirements of both local and international transactions, these facilitators are indispensable for those engaged in global eCommerce or those needing to transfer money frequently.

  • Ease of International Transfers: With a vast network across countries, platforms like PayPal simplify cross-border transactions.
  • Buyer and Seller Protection: Many of these platforms offer protection against fraudulent transactions, ensuring peace of mind for both parties.
  • Currency Flexibility: These facilitators support multiple currencies, providing competitive conversion rates and reducing the need for multiple accounts.


Frequently asked questions on digital payment methods in China

1. Can you use YouTrip, Revolut, etc. in China? 

Based on recent travellers’ experiences, some users have been able to connect their Wise card directly to Alipay without using the TourCard. It appears both Revolut and YouTrip can be linked in a similar way via Alipay’s main interface. However, network errors can occur, especially when using a VPN to ensure a stable connection.

If you’re exploring local payment alternatives, consider WeBank by Tencent for its streamlined digital banking. On the other hand, Alibaba’s MYbank emphasises a user-first approach, prioritising user needs and offering 24/7 service.


2. How about paying with regular credit cards in China? 

For Singaporeans keen on maximising financial benefits from their credit cards, the Bank of China offers significant advantages. Notably, Bank of China credit cards provide more transparent and favourable exchange rates, giving cardholders an edge with the Yuan currency exchange. Furthermore, these cards often come with lower transaction fees when compared to popular services such as Wise, OFX or Paypal.

Alternatively, we recommend bringing these international bank credit cards along for better perks in China:

  • DBS UnionPay Debit Card: Offers widespread acceptance and exclusive discounts at Chinese retailers.
  • Citi PremierMiles Visa Card: Affiliated with Chinese banks, providing air mile accruals and more.
  • HSBC Premier Mastercard: Grants access to HSBC’s vast network and exclusive privileges at various Chinese outlets.


3. Is it true that you’re going to get an attitude from Chinese store owners if you use cash? 

In developed cities, all transactions are synonymous with WeChat Pay and Alipay. Offering to pay cash can instantly expose your identity as a foreigner. This might be disadvantageous especially if you’re hoping to get the local rates when haggling for products you have your eye on. 

However, in rural provinces, cash is still welcomed. Here, using banknotes may even resonate with a touch of nostalgia. Our ultimate advice? Carry both cash and a local e-payment option. You never know when they will come in handy. 


4. Are ATMs still available?

ATMs in China have seen a shift in usage dynamics due to the rapid adoption of mobile payments. However, these tellers are still found outside banks and common nexus points like shopping malls, transportation hubs, and convenience stores.


Heading to China soon?

Navigating payment options in China can seem daunting. From the ubiquity of QR-code-driven platforms like Alipay and WeChat Pay to the less prevalent use of cash and cards, the nation’s payment ecosystem is distinctly different from other parts of the world. 

For first-timers, we encourage you to adopt their mainstream payment options for a seamless, quick transaction experience. Well, you don’t need to involve yourself in all the options, just one or two will suffice for you to get around. 


Do you know someone who’s travelling to China soon? Share this article with them!