Now, the majority of payments in China are made via apps and online. Though traditional payment methods (cash and card) are still readily processed, they have waned in popularity among all but the older and more traditional members of society.
Contactless and wallet-less payment has become particularly suited to the do-everything-by-smartphone age and the pandemic period, when Internet sales and remote shopping have boomed.
Payment by Popular Apps: WeChat and Alipay
The two app payment giants in China are Tencent's WeChat and Alibaba's Alipay. So, basically, two companies (WeChat and Alipay) are the mainstay of e-payment in Chinese mainland. 64% of people in China use both. Getting WeChat Wallet and Alipay functioning on your smartphone on the other hand open up a vast world of payment convenience.WeChat and Alipay can both be used for most things in China: in-store and online shopping, Didi and taxis (with QR code), food delivery, transfers and red envelopes (i.e. sending contacts money), bills, train/plane tickets, and bike shares.
These apps come as standard on all China smartphones.
WeChat (Weixin 微信) is the more popular of the two, with 55% of the pay by phone app market, because it is also China's most popular communications, social media, and even entertainment app, with mini programs for everything from MacDonald's to health codes for travel. Over 90% of Chinese people use it and over 80% pay using it!
Alipay (known locally as Zhifubao: 支付宝),with 40% of the mobile payment market, comes with a bundle of other applications that use Alipay for payment: Didi for ride calling, Taobao — the No. 1 online retail platform, etc. Over 70% of China pays using it. Most retail outlets and taxi drivers display both WeChat and Alipay QR codes for payment, so if one isn't working for some reason, there is always the other. Small businesses may only have WeChat payment available.
How Do China Expats Set Up WeChat and Alipay Payment?
First, you need a smartphone that will take WeChat and Alipay, which is most modern smartphones. (WeChat is a memory hog, so if your phone has limited memory, this could mean regular cache cleansing etc.)
iPhones still offers both on the App Store. As over 95% of Chinese would give up on Apple phones if they stopped offering WeChat, despite rumors, iPhone's presence in the China market depends on offering WeChat (and also Alipay), so that should continue.
Then you'll need a China SIM card (so that you have a Chinese number for authentication purposes). If you're using a phone you brought in from abroad, it must be unlocked, i.e. able to use China phone companies' networks via one of their SIMs. Without a Chinese SIM, you'll find WeChat/Alipay payments are impossible to set up.
Once you've downloaded the apps (or already have them) and have a text message connection, it's time to connect your bank account. Linking your bank card is the key step before moving forward. Any Chinese bank account (anything using UnionPay) would be ideal.
How to Link Your Card with WeChat
- Step 1: Open WeChat on your phone, find the " Me" section on the bottom, and then tap " Wallet".
- Step 2: Select " Cards", then click to "+ Add a Card" to your WeChat Wallet.
- Step 3: Enter your card number and general information. This includes your name, passport ID info, phone number, and other details specific to the card.
- Step 4: Read the "Service Agreement" and click "agree and link".
- Step 5: Enter your phone number again, then fill in the verification code sent to your phone.
- Step 6: Set up your personal password to use when making purchases.
How to Link Your Card with Alipay
- Step 1: Open Alipay, go to "Me", and select "Bank Cards".
- Step 2: Click "+ Add new bank card" to add your card.
- Step 3: Enter your debit card number.
- Step 4: Enter your mobile phone number registered with your Chinese bank account.
- Step 5: Read the "Service Agreement" and click "agree and link".
- Step 6: Enter the verification code to verify your phone number. And your card is ready to go.
WeChat and Alipay accept some foreign banks' cards, like HSBC's, in a more limited way.
The Alipay International Version accepts foreign bank cards for top ups of up to 2,000 yuan a time, but only for 3 months with its Tour Pass. With this you can spend in China, but not receive money or transfer the money back to your overseas bank. For Alipay you used to need to set up a Chinese bank account first if you want to use all its features, so developments have been moving towards globalization, led by Alipay and followed closely by WeChat.
WeChat Wallet can also bind foreign cards, but only credit cards work (though debit cards can be entered in they fail to make transactions). Once again, you can just pay vendors, but you can't make/receive transfers between friends.
Confirming your identity: You will need to answer some questions, fill in your passport details and upload a photo of your passport and take a photo of yourself to confirm your identity for both WeChat Pay and Alipay usage. Your passport info must match the details held by your bank.
If you run into problems (as the author did after passport renewal), you should find contacting WeChat/Alipay customer service very helpful. It would help if your Chinese is good or you have someone who can help with communication.
How to Pay by QR Code in China
The standard way, used in shops, taxis, small businesses, etc., is as follows:
- Find the QR code: It will typically be on a postcard-size sticker/card; green logo for WeChat; blue logo for Alipay
- Scan the QR code: Make sure you're on data/Wi-Fi; open WeChat/Alipay, tap the top right menu, select 'scan code', point your phone camera at the code square, align it with the scan area, and hold it steady until scanning is complete, signified by (a beep and) a change to the authorize payment screen.
- Authorize payment: This is either by tapping in your WeChat/Alipay 6-digit passcode or, if you have it set up, fingerprint authorization.
- Wait for payment acceptance: This usually happens within a second or two, signified by a 'payment successful' message and a return to the 'home' screen. Records of all your payments can be found on WeChat/Alipay if you want to check them. Usually only the WeChat/Alipay username is given for small businesses, but something more official for larger enterprises, along with date, time, and amount paid.
If your network connection is weak and it is taking more than a few seconds, you could try walking your phone around or holding it up for a better signal. It will usually then go through. Some establishments will let you use their Wi-Fi if your data connection doesn't work.
The author has once or twice walked out of a shop before payment has gone through (totally unintentionally and due to a slow connection), necessitating the cashier to call him back! So do check completion before putting your phone away: it may fail putting you in the criminal position of being a non-paying customer!
How to Shop Online with Alipay or WeChat in China
Mostly online shopping in China is taking place on mobile devices now using the apps Alipay (for Taobao/Tmall) and WeChat (for Jingdong).
Alipay has the advantage that it is run by the same company (Alibaba) as the biggest online retail platforms — Taobao and Tmall — which don't accept WeChat. However, WeChat has brought out its own online shopping program — Jingdong, which has proved very popular, and which doesn't accept Alipay.
Making a purchase on a China online shopping platform by PC/laptop would also follow the same app payment authorization code etc. As you're probably already familiar with online shopping, and it's dead easy… Basically, once what you buy has been selected and added to your " cart", select empty the cart, fill in your delivery details, and pay via Alipay or WeChat Pay authorization, as described above. This works for everything from buying a bed to a burger delivered straight to your door.
How to Transfer Money by WeChat or Alipay in China?
Person-to-person transfers are far more commonly performed by WeChat users than by Alipay users. For Alipay, you'd need to tap 'transfer' at the bottom left of the home screen and enter in the Alipay account details of the payee.
For WeChat, you'd need to have the payee as a contact in your app. (Contacts can be added by searching account details, scanning the payee's " Me" page QR code, or via a WeChat group, etc.) Simply tap on the contact, select the transfer option from the bottom left " +" menu, enter the amount, and authorize as above.
Transfers are a great way to split bills and make more informal " payments". (Red Envelopes are very similar in function, but these are used for gifts rather than payments — a cultural distinction.) See more on the payment guides for Alipay and WeChat.
Other Payment Apps You Might Use
UnionPay, which is the umbrella organization for all China's card payment and ATM services, has skipped recent card developments (tap-to-pay) and offers tap-and-go payments with its phone app as well as the scan-and-pay options offered by WeChat/Alipay, but it hasn't caught on as much as the top two tech giants' apps, simply because it is a comparatively stand-alone, single-function app.
Other smartphone payment apps also suffer from having isolated functionality and lack of support in China. The likes of Apple Pay and Samsung Pay, which are popular in other countries have very few users in Chinese mainland, where there are relatively few iPhone users and Samsung has been squeezed out of the Android market. Chinese phone manufacturers have chosen, for obvious reasons, not to compete with the app payment giants.
Payment by Internet Banking
In this age of digital currency and numerous online middle-man transaction services, there are numerous other ways of paying that are mainly for the more technically-literate. Though they may serve a niche purpose for you, they would go beyond the mainstream remit of this article.
So, to finish with, we will stick to the three main types of Internet banking payment used in China: China bank platforms, foreign bank platforms, and PayPal.
China Bank Accounts
If you have a China Internet banking account, this would be another payment method you could use in China. It is more awkward and time consuming than app payment. You'll need to enter the payee's China bank account details and authorize the payment via a texted code from your bank. However, it is useful for formal repeat payments though, like paying rent or bills, etc., as you get a good legally sound record of transactions that can't be lost with your phone or app account, so it's safer. See Renting an Apartment in China: An Expat Guide.
Foreign Bank Accounts
You can probably transfer money to one of the larger China banks (Bank of China or Bank of Communications mainly) using your foreign account's Internet banking platform and SWIFT/IBAN code etc., but making direct payments to a business/individual with a bank account in China in this way won't work due to international banking restrictions.
Payments by PayPal
Some larger international companies in China (like China Highlights) accept payment by PayPal. This is one of the best ways to pay directly using your foreign bank funds.
Unfortunately, PayPal cannot be used on Taobao (as it would compete with Alipay). Of course, you can still use PayPal for your internationally shipped purchases from the likes of Amazon, but this is again straying from payment methods in China.
Traditional Payment Methods
For most expats, gone are the days when you might visit an ATM in China every couple of weeks or so to withdraw a bunch of 100-yuan notes from your salary to replenish your wallet's supply. Even when using your Chinese bank card for larger purchases, cash would be needed regularly for taxis, visits to the market, and countless other small transactions.
Foreign cards, though useful for travel and excellent for Visa/Mastercard/et al. withdrawals, never have been an expat favorite in China because of inter-bank and overseas fees, not to mention unfavorable exchange rates compared with using local currency. In fact, the use of plastic, foreign or domestic, never did really catch on in Chinese mainland.
China bank cards can be swiped for payment. Both passcode entry and a signature on carbon copy receipt are usually required. Tap-to-pay or pay by phone call and security strip isn't usually offered for Chinese (or foreign) cards on Chinese mainland. This is typical of China's bureaucratic banking, where a trip to the bank often entails lengthy queues and processes. China's banks have not been as free as the tech sector to make life easier for the customer.
Around the mid-2010s, most made the transition from mostly cash to mostly smartphone payments, whether by WeChat or Alipay, or even banking app for more formal payments. Now , offering cash or even a card is done almost apologetically, as even the humblest vegetable seller proudly displays his/her WeChat QR code.
Traditional payment methods now seem to be a mark of being a foreign tourist in China (a foreigner who pays by WeChat is seen as a local; one who pays by cash or foreign card comes across as transient), so for more on cash and cards (from a travelers' perspective), see our page on A Practical Guide to Chinese Money.
China Highlights Is Here to Help
We can cut all the hassle of paying for things in China with a one-stop payment for everything on your trip! (This may save you money as well as time and stress.) And we can often help you to use the payment methods mentioned above.
Are you having trouble with life in China or traveling around? You may want to seek help from a company who have been serving travelers/expats in China for over two decades. Contact us.
Want to discover more of China's highlights? See our tours designed for expats.