As you probably already know that China is leading the way for cashless society and paying for goods service in China are mostly done through mobile payments.
The two primary mobile payment systems here in China are WeChat Pay and Alipay which account for most of the daily transactions. Now, of course, depending on which city your planning to land and live in you may also be able to use VISA, Master, Apply Pay and even Samsung Pay.
These payment types are usually only supported by shops that have a consistent amount of tourists which are mostly located in tier-one cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, etc. But if you’re planning to be in China for a longer period for work or business then you’ll need WeChat Pay or Alipay.
There is also Union pay in China, which is the most used and most popular credit card in China. Union pay is accepted everywhere in China and it is used often, however you won’t be able to apply for one either unless you have a job in China.
As you can see, that if you are planning to live in China for anything more than a few weeks at a time, you’ll need to find a way to set up WeChat Pay and Alipay.
How to Register and Setup your WeChat Pay or Alipay
For Chinese citizens and residence getting WeChat Pay or Alipay is pretty easy, all you’ll need is to attach your bank account to either or both WeChat Pay or Alipay account then provide the same mobile phone number that you used to create the bank account as well as your Chinese Residence Card number.
But for foreigners who are planning to live in China for a longer period, the process is not so simple.
As I mention the key thing, you’ll need to have a fully activated WeChat Pay or Alipay account is to attached a Chinese bank account. However, to get a Chinese bank account, you’ll need to be able to provide either need to provide either a permanent or temporary residence card.
Which means if you’re coming to China with a work permit visa or student visa then it shouldn’t be a problem, you’ll just need to register your self as a landed foreigner and apply for the temporary residence card.
Once you have your temporary residence card, you’ll still need to register a China mobile number first which you can simply use your passport to get one. With both a mobile number, work or student visa, and your temporary residence card you can go and create a bank account.
By the way, I highly recommend doing all of these in a tier 1 city such as Shanghai, Beijing or Shenzhen because they are more accustom to foreigners and will be able to provide better assistance verse a tier 2 or smaller cities which has very, very few foreigners.
Once you’ve attached your bank account, you’ll still need to provide proof of identity, to prove that the bank account is yours. This can be done in a few different ways
- Chinese Residence Card
- Temporary Residence Card
- Hong Kong, Macau, or Taiwan Travel Card
With all the above steps done, you’ll now be able to use a fully activated WeChat Pay or Alipay account.
How to use WeChat and Alipay if you Cannot Get a Chinese Bank Account
Above I’ve talked about how to set up WeChat Pay or Alipay if you’re in China with either a work, student, or reunion visa which will allow you to create a Chinese bank account. But what if you’re simply traveling in China as a tourist and wanted to stay longer, or for whatever reason you choose not to work in China?
If you’re in any of the above situation and for whatever reason simply cannot obtain a Chinese bank account, don’t worry you can still use WeChat Pay and Alipay in China to pay for mostly everything while your living in China.
The Tour Pass is a new “Mini-Program” (function) only available on Alipay which allows foreign tourists to pre-paid a “Tour Pass” using you’re a foreign credit card or debit card. The downside to a Tour Pass is that there is a maximum fund of 2000 RMB which is about $285 (may vary depending on rates).
And if you’re living in a city like Shanghai 2000RMB can be gone in a day easily and if you’re looking to visit a high-end restaurant which can easily cost $100 to $150 per person then the Tour Card won’t be sufficient.
However, at the very least this Tour Pass will allow you to pay for metro tickets, Taxi, or ride-hailing and pay certain smaller street vendors for items you want to purchase with ease.
The other alternative to Tour Pass is Family Cards. Unlike Tour Card, Family Cards is available for both WeChat Pay and Alipay.
A Family Card works pretty much the same as a Tour Card except it is given by a “family” member to allow you to spend through their WeChat Pay or Alipay accounts. The nice thing about Family Card compare to the Tour Card is that it has a much higher limit as well. Your “family” can set a monthly limited from (1 to 30,000 RMB) which gives you a lot more room to purchase bigger and more expensive items or services.
The downside to Family Card is that it can only be issued by a family member that has their WeChat Pay or Alipay account with an attached to a Chinese bank card. So, if you don’t know anyone that already have their WeChat Pay or Alipay account fully set up, then you’re out of luck.
While the name of the card is called family card but if you have a Chinese friend whom you can trust and has their WeChat or Alipay setup and is in China then you can work out a deal to pay them in advance the monthly spending you’ll need and they will issue you a family card.
With a family card, you can pretty much do everything with your WeChat Pay and Alipay with some minor exception, for example, paying for bus (not subway) fairs. I also don’t think you can accept any transfer either as you don’t have a real bank account.
Attaching a Foreign Credit Card
Both WeChat Pay and Alipay allows you to add a foreign credit card to the account, you’ll have to verify your identity by taking a selfie and a picture of your passport. However, with this approach, you’re pretty much limited with purchasing online only which means you cannot pay for meals at restaurants or pay for Taxi rides.
Unfortunately, as of right now these are your only options to use WeChat Pay or Alipay if you don’t have or are unable to create a Chinese bank account. It is also imported to mention that whether you have a Family Card or Tour Pass, you can only pay and send money to people but cannot receive any payment.
The only way to receive payment on WeChat Pay or Alipay is to have a fully activated account which means you’ll need both a Chinese Bank Account and a Permanent or Temporary Residence Card in China.
Alternatives to Using WeChat or Alipay in China
Fortunately, as of today, even if you are just unable to or don’t want to use WeChat Pay or Alipay in China for whatever reason, it’s not the end of the world. There are still other ways to pay for goods and services in China, especially if you’re only visiting for a week or two.
Visa, Master, and Other Credit Cards
Depending on which city your landing or planning to live in, many of the vendors do accept most of the major international credit cards in China such as Visa, Master, American Express, etc…
This is especially true if you’re in tier cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, or Shenzhen which always has an influx of tourists from around the world.
Apple & Samsung Pay
Alternative to credit cards, some of the vendors in China will accept Apply Pay and a select few wills even accept Samsung Pay.
Finally, there is always the good old paper money. By law, the Chinese government does require all vendors in China to keep enough cash to operate daily in case someone does not want to use WeChat Pay or Alipay. This is especially true in lower-tier cities where internet and smartphone is still not used by everyone. Cash is still preferring a method to pay in those cities. In tier 1 cities, however, you’ll see a lot less cash and a lot more mobile payment.