How to Pay in China Like a Local: 2024 Guide for Foreigners and Tourists

wechat alipay mobile payments

It’s no secret that China is light-years ahead when it comes to digital payments. Gone are the days of paying with cash or with credit cards. In the land of super apps, your smartphone is your wallet, and QR codes are the gateway to most transactions.

Trust us, you don’t want to be the one holding up the line at a restaurant paying with cash while everyone is breezing through with a quick scan on their phone.

Don’t stress, we’ve got you covered. From setting up your e-wallets to linking your bank account for overseas payment, we’ll walk you through everything you need to experience China like a local.

In the news: Mastercard expands collaboration with Alipay

Mastercard recently announced Alipay will be joining its fold of integrated e-wallets for cross-border transactions, months after WeChat pay’s integration announcement last year. This comes hot on the heels of China’s latest push for WeChat and Alipay to be foreigner-friendly to revive its tourism industry, after being one of the last countries to open up post-pandemic.

For those unfamiliar; WeChat and Alipay aren’t just an e-wallet, it’s the super app that has permeated every facet of Chinese daily life.

In short, you can’t live without it.

With over a billion users, WeChat and Alipay are 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 and Alipay is pivotal for a seamless spending experience.

Here’s what you can expect:

WeChat Alipay
Spending Limits Per Transaction: 6,000 RMB (~ 1,140 SGD)

Monthly: 50,000 RMB (~  9,500 SGD)

Annually: 60,000 RMB (~ 11,400 SGD)

Per Transaction: 

14,400 RMB (~ 2,680 SGD) [Without ID]

36,000 RMB (~  6,700 SGD) [With ID]

Annually: 360,000 RMB (~  67,000 SGD) [With ID]

Transaction Fees Below 200 RMB (~38 SGD): 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.

What payment methods are accepted in China?

When looking for the major players in China’s digital payment scene, Tencent’s WeChat and Alibaba’s Alipay are the powerhouses dominating the world’s 2nd largest population and biggest eCommerce market. China boasts the highest mobile payment usage of any market worldwide, with an impressive 92% of consumers using QR-code-driven digital wallets as their primary payment method.

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

Both platforms 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 Singapore 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 183+ 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.

UnionPay supports two modes of payment: Push Mode and Pull Mode.

How to pay through the Push Mode:

  1. Download the UnionPay app and bind a UnionPay card.
  2. Activate the “Scan QR Code” function within the app.
  3. Scan the merchant’s QR code to initiate the payment.
  4. Confirm the transaction details, and the payment is complete.

How to pay through the Pull Mode:

  1. Download the UnionPay app and link it to a UnionPay card.
  2. Open the app and navigate to the QR code generation feature.
  3. Present the generated QR code to the merchant for scanning.
  4. The merchant scans the QR code, and the payment is processed.

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.

Apple Pay

For expats and tourists, Apple Pay offers a sense of familiarity and its trademark user-friendly convenience. Foreigners can use the e-wallet for in-store shopping and in-app purchases in China on Apple compatible devices ofcourse.

To set up Apple Pay in China:

  1. Change your Apple ID country/region to China in the “Settings” app.
  2. Add a new payment method for China (Alipay, WeChat Pay, or UnionPay bank card).
  3. Follow the prompts to complete the payment authorization setup.

By using tokenization, Apple Pay replaces card details with unique codes for each transaction, minimising risks associated with data breaches. Users can also integrate various loyalty and membership cards.

Note: Before updating your location to China, ensure you’ve spent any store credit or balance on your Apple ID, cancelled subscriptions, and completed memberships, preorders, rentals, or Season Passes to avoid any technical complications.

Samsung Pay

This android powerhouse offers another convenient option for its users in China. To make a payment with Samsung Pay, simply:

  1. Swipe up from the bottom of the home screen, regardless of whether the phone is locked or the screen is off.
  2. Scan your fingerprint to authenticate the payment.
  3. Place your phone near the card reader.
  4. Check to make sure payment is processed.

3. Changi Pay

In September 2023, Changi Pay in collaboration with Liquid Group joined the Alipay+ ecosystem, allowing Singaporeans to transact with millions of Chinese merchants via the app. To use Changi Pay, you’ll need the Changi App, which has amassed over 1 million downloads on iOS and Android devices.

Key features include:

  • Seamless QR code payments at Alipay+ enabled merchants across China
  • Competitive exchange rates without additional platform fees.
  • Up to S$25 e-vouchers when you use Changi Pay in China
  • Travel Insurance from just S$1.78 per day, including comprehensive coverage, instant issuance, COVID-19 and Monkeypox protection, and 24-hour helpline support.
  • Earn rewards with Changi Pay and exclusive weekly promotions worth S$60 on shopping and dining.

To use Changi Pay to pay locally in China:

Scan dynamic merchant QR

  1. Log onto Changi Pay
  2. Tap on “Pay” in the Changi App OR Tap on “Pay” in Changi Pay
  3. Scan the Alipay QR Code presented by the cashier
  4. Payment amount in Singapore Dollars will appear and tap ‘Continue’
  5. Tap ‘Pay’ to make payment (Do verify the payment amount before doing so)
  6. Payment completed

Scan static merchant QR

  1. Log onto Changi Pay
  2. Tap on “Pay” in the Changi App OR Tap on “Pay” in Changi Pay
  3. Scan the Alipay QR Code presented by the cashier
  4. Enter payment amount in CNY and tap ‘Confirm’
  5. Payment amount in Singapore Dollars will appear and tap ‘Continue’
  6. Tap “Pay” to make payment (Do verify the payment amount before doing so)
  7. Payment completed

4. DBS

The largest local bank is making headway by integrating its debit/credit cards and PayLah! App for transactions on WeChat and Alipay. Furthermore, PayLah! can tap on UnionPay’s QR code to purchase products and services. Conversely, Chinese merchants can scan the customer’s QR code as well, bringing added convenience to all Singaporeans travelling.

With the DBS PayLah! app, users can now:

  • Scan UnionPay QR codes to make payments at a wide range of Chinese merchants (retail and eCommerce)
  • Enjoy automatic currency conversion from SGD to RMB for hassle-free transactions
  • Experience a straightforward and secure way to pay like a local in China

To use Scan UnionPay QR with DBS PayLah!:

1. Scan to Pay

  1. Launch PayLah! app and tap Scan
  2. Scan the UnionPay QR Code and enter payment amount (if required)
  3. Review and confirm your transaction details

2. Generate a QR Code for the merchant to scan

  1. Launch PayLah! app and tap My QR
  2. Tap on UnionPay and select either Mainland China or SG & Others
  3. Present your QR Code to the merchant to scan
  4. Tap Begin Payment
  5. Review and confirm your transaction details

5. YouTrip

YouTrip is a popular payment app among Singaporean travellers, with one in five Singaporeans now using their service. It allows users to add their YouTrip Mastercard to Alipay and WeChat Pay without the need for a Chinese bank account. This makes it incredibly convenient for tourists to make cashless payments in China.

To link your YouTrip card to Alipay:

  1. Download the Alipay app, set up your account, and ensure it’s verified
  2. Click on ‘Me’, tap ‘Bank cards’, and select ‘+ Add Card’
  3. Set up your 6-digit payment password
  4. Enter your YouTrip Mastercard details
  5. To pay, tap on ‘Pay/Collect’ or the ‘Scan’ icon and scan the merchant’s QR code

To link your YouTrip card to WeChat Pay:

  1. Download WeChat and verify your account with your passport or ID number
  2. Click on ‘Services’ under ‘Me’, then go to ‘Wallet’
  3. Tap ‘Cards’ and click on ‘Add a card’
  4. Enter your WeChat PIN to verify your identity, then add your YouTrip Mastercard details
  5. To pay, go to ‘Me’, tap on the money icon, and scan the merchant’s QR code

6. 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. One such example is XOOM, a PayPal service that allows you to send money to China easily.

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

How to start sending money to China with XOOM:

  1. Log in with your PayPal credentials or create a Xoom account.
  2. Enter the amount of money to send, the recipient’s details, and where they’ll receive the money in China.
  3. Choose a payment method: PayPal, bank account, credit card, or debit card.
  4. Confirm and send the money.

How to send money to mobile wallets in China with XOOM:

  1. Enter the amount you wish to send.
  2. Select “Mobile Wallet” as the receiving option.
  3. Provide your recipient’s mobile wallet account information.
  4. Choose a payment method: PayPal account, bank account, credit card, or debit card.
  5. Confirm and send the money.

Frequently asked questions on digital payment methods in China

1. Can you use Revolut 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 Revolut can be linked 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.
  • BOC Travel Card: This Bank of China card waives annual fees for two years and doubles international spending rewards with access to UnionPay’s vast network of over 24 million merchants and 210,000+ ATMs.

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 there ATMs in China?

While the use of ATMs in China has significantly reduced due to the widespread adoption of mobile payments, teller machines can still be found in most populous places—particularly outside banks, shopping malls, transportation hubs, and convenience stores.

However, not all ATMs are foreigner-friendly. It’s essential to know which ones to use or risk getting your card eaten by the machine! It’s best to find ATMs from reputable banks that are known for being foreign cards friendly with added security:

  • Bank of China (BOC)
  • China Construction Bank (CCB)
  • Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC)

Most Chinese ATMs accept Visa (Plus), Cirrus, Mastercard, and Maestro. They support both chip-and-pin cards and cards with only a magnetic stripe on the back. To check whether an ATM accepts your card, look for your card’s logo on the machine. Alternatively, you can find the nearest compatible ATM using Visa’s online locator or MasterCard’s online locator.

Keep in mind that Chinese ATMs charge fees, usually between RMB 20 to RMB 30 per transaction. Additionally, your domestic bank may charge additional withdrawal and foreign transaction fees.

Love-hate relationship with international payment platforms and 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 integration is not just about marking a presence but ensuring that the services work harmoniously with China’s ecosystems, offering a user-friendly experience for consumers. The tie-up with Mastercard and Alipay not only shows China’s increasing openness to international financial collaborations, it hints at a future where global and local payment platforms may complement each other.

China’s gearing up for a global spotlight, hosting the 2024 Badminton World Tour and the 2025 World Games. These events aren’t just a showcase of athletic prowess. They’re an invitation to experience the nation’s advanced digital payment infrastructure.

Heading to China soon?

As China opens its doors to the world, it won’t be the Great Wall or the Terracotta Warriors that await you. You experience firsthand their cashless culture and advanced payment systems. Beyond convenience, it’s about immersing yourself in the very pulse and lifestyle of the nation. All these are made possible through a simple scan of a QR code.

Know a friend heading to China soon? Share this article to help them navigate the country’s payment ecosystem with ease.