Prior to the emergence of mobile payment apps in China, the country was primarily a cash-based society. From meals, clothing, rent, bills, taxis, and almost everything else, paying cash was the norm.
However today, apps like Alipay and WeChat are transforming China into a cashless society where transactions are commonly carried out via the phone in your pocket.
Whether you are currently living in China, plan on moving, or traveling there, this guide covers ways that expats can pay for things in China with payment apps and old fashioned methods like cash and debit / credit cards.
Below is a quick summary of this article followed by a more in-depth analysis below.
- To use mobile payment apps, you must have a Chinese bank account, which means that this may not be a good option for travelers to China. UPDATE 2020: WeChat supposedly allows foreign credit cards to be used on their platform, but as I’ll talk more about below, this doesn’t seem to work well.
- If you’re moving to China, opening a Chinese bank account and setting up Alipay and WeChat pay are a MUST.
- Mobile payment apps allow you to pay for utilities, use China’s bike share programs, buy groceries…pretty much anything you need, all over China.
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Using WeChat or Alipay in China to Pay?
The largest benefit from paying with payment apps such as Alipay and WeChat is convenience. At your typical hole-in-the-wall restaurant, coffee shop and convenience store, paying for items is as easy as scanning a QR code in the store (if you’re not sure what a QR code is, it looks like this).
As recently as 5 years ago, everybody had to make sure they always had cash on them to pay for things. Now, a wallet isn’t even necessary to carry as long as you have your phone.
You can also use Alipay and WeChat to pay items for sale in apps that lack traditional payment functionalities. For example, with Ele.me or Meituan you can order takeout at local restaurants and pay using Alipay or WeChat.
In addition to standard transactions, these mobile payment apps have taken the convenience of mobile payment to a higher level by allowing you to pay for bills like cellphone service and Internet with the app.
Depending on your area and provider, you may even be able to pay for utilities like electricity and water too.
Even paying for rent is possible using the direct transfer function with Alipay and WeChat. Simply add your landlord’s contact info within the app and you can transfer the amount due.
You can also use this function to borrow or payback money from friends along with sending money, or hongbaos, as gifts (although I have a couple other recommendations for gifts to give to friends or family in China).
Questions about money in China?
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Lastly, for foreigners who cannot speak Chinese too well, using mobile payments can make your life in China much easier, allowing you to purchase things despite any language barrier.
While some apps are only in Chinese, after having someone walk you through how to use them you will be able to make purchases on your own.
Top 4 Payment Apps Every Expat in China Should Download
There are a number of payment apps that have become the most popular and most used throughout China.
Here’s a quick rundown of which you should know about.
Alipay is the dominant payment app in China and can be used for purchasing goods and services, direct transfer, paying bills, and other functions.
Alipay connects directly to your Chinese bank to make payments and transfers.
Most likely you have already heard of or are currently using WeChat for keeping in touch with friends in China.
Apart from messaging and sharing news and pictures, WeChat can also be used to purchase goods and services along with direct transfer to friends/family.
You will never have to worry about finding a taxi or have trouble explaining where to go with Didi Chuxing.
Simply type in your destination and wait for a driver to pick you up. Often easier than taking a taxi in China.
Meituan is the leading tuangou, or group-buy application in China.
This app is perfect for purchasing takeout (called “Meituan Waimai”), big meals like hotpot, movie tickets and much more for groups or for individuals
Do I need a Chinese Bank to Use Mobile Payment?
Mobile payment through apps like Alipay and WeChat has historically only available to people with a Chinese bank account.
Recently, however, you might have read news talking about the new option to add a foreign credit card to WeChat.
According to the reports, in order for this to work, you would need to meet the following criteria:
- You are adding a credit card, not a debit card.
- You have downloaded WeChat in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau
- Your credit card is a Visa, MasterCard or JCB
There’s only one very slight problem with this….adding a foreign credit card to WeChat doesn’t work. At least, if it does, it doesn’t work well.
At some point I’m sure they’ll get their act together, but for now you can’t rely on this option. Thankfully, even if you can’t get the credit card option to work, there are other ways to add money to WeChat without a Chinese bank account.
If you don’t want to download WeChat or Alipay in China (and I completely understand if you have security concerns), you can always withdraw Chinese RMB from any ATM and pay for items in cash.
Are Payment Apps Used all Over China?
If you live in or are traveling in 1st Tier Chinese cities, almost 95% of businesses accept payment apps like Alipay and WeChat (although you may end up just making a personal payment to the owner’s account, which is fine).
Amazingly, the same goes for smaller-tier cities in China – although cash is still the most common method of payment, you’ll likely see a QR code tapes to the front of every cash register in every story you enter.
This QR code is what you’ll use to scan and pay for your items.
Regardless, you can just ask the owner or workers if you can use WeChat or Alipay to pay, and they’ll immediately let you know.
Conclusion | Using WeChat or Alipay to Pay
As China continues to transition away from a cashed-based society toward mobile payments, using WeChat and Alipay in China to pay for things can make any foreigner’s life a great deal easier.
You may even be envious of this new cashless-based system after returning to your home country.