If you have been to China in the last couple of years, you have surely noticed that everyone pays for everything with their cell phones. China has effectively jumped from an all cash economy, past credit cards, directly to what is effectively an all electronic payments system using Tencent’s WeChat Pay, and Alibaba’s Alipay.
If you already know about China's transition to all electronic payments, click here to head down to the how-to section, if not read on for a little history.
China’s Payment System:
You may not notice it the minute you enter China, or if you stay in areas that are heavily trafficked by foreigners, but the minute you move to just slightly off the beaten path you will notice that establishments definitely don’t take foreign credit cards, but more interestingly, many of them don’t even take cash. From street food vendors, to restaurants and even convenience stores, the number of merchants who only accept Chinese-specific electronic payments is astounding.
This is a relatively new phenomenon, but it has spread so fast that people who have visited China as little as 5 years ago would be completely surprised by the change. In 2015 around 35% of the Chinese population had made a mobile payment, by 2018 this number had reached 78.5 percent, as compared to 30.8% in the US and 22% in Germany.
After a couple of visits to China we have learned that setting up one of the mobile payment methods is absolutely essential to successfully navigating throughout the country without having to make trips to the ATM, finding vendors who take cash, or waiting in long lines to pay cash for train tickets or metro fares.
So, as a foreigner can you set up one of the mobile payment systems? And is it complicated? The answer to both is yes. It is not super complicated, but it does take a few too many annoying steps.
How to set it up:
Can you set up WeChat Pay as a foreigner?
Can you attach a US credit card to WeChat Pay?
NO, the answer is a little more complicated than that; you can actually attach US cards, but you can’t use them to pay for anything.
Do you need a Chinese bank account to use WeChat pay?
YES, this one is also a little complicated, you can actually create family cards for other accounts, but we will count that as a side case.
Can foreigners set up Chinese bank accounts?
If you found this article you likely searched for answers to the questions above, and came across a bunch of misinformation about the topic. Which is why I decided to write this blog.
If you came across other blogs that tell you it’s possible to set up WeChat with a foreign credit card, simply stop reading them. While you can attach the card, I have yet to find a practical use for the attached non-Chinese card.
Get WeChat Pay activated on your phone:
First things first: You will need to get the pay module enabled on your WeChat app. (The first step is actually downloading the WeChat app and setting up an account, which can also take an annoyingly long time if you are a foreigner). You can check and see if you have the pay module enabled by clicking the “me” button on the lower right of your screen. If you see a WeChat Pay option you are good to go.
If you don’t, the easiest way to fix this is to have someone who has it enabled send you 1 RMB. Cab drivers, hotel concierges, or anyone who speaks English will usually do this with no problem.
When you try to receive the money from them you will be prompted to set up a PIN and activate WeChat Pay, then you will be asked to go through the identity verification process. If you already have a Chinese bank account and debit card you can do that immediately. If not, you can just cancel out; WeChat Pay will still be active on your phone but not usable.
Set up a Chinese bank account:
Yes, you can and have to set up a Chinese bank account to set up WeChat Pay. You need a Chinese bank account because it is the only way to move money to your account, and it is the only way for them to confirm your identity. Both things are required to get WeChat Pay working correctly.
Requirements for a Chinese account:
Self-explanatory; yes you need an ID to open an account.
Multiple entry visa:
The only way you can open an account is with an M visa (see photo). If you have a single-entry tourist visa you are out of luck.
Your hotel where you are staying will work for this. Just make sure it is near the bank and that you get a hotel business card before you go there. The address on the card will make it easy for them to get everything going.
Chinese Phone Number:
Chinese bank accounts require a Chinese phone number during activation so that they can text you and confirm that they can get ahold of you.
For this you will need a Chinese SIM card to put in your phone or a Chinese burner phone. If you are staying at a Western hotel, the concierge will usually have a hookup to easily get you a SIM card. Otherwise you can simply go to a local phone shop and find someone who speaks English.
These are pretty cheap, I got a China Unicom SIM for 250 RMB ($35) which includes 100 RMB worth of credit on it. This gets you one gig of data a day for 1 RMB a day for every day you actually use it—basically $4 a month for data.
What Bank Should You Use?
I have read up about this a little, and it seems to me that people have had luck with Bank of China and China Construction Bank. I went to a Bank of China branch with all of the above information and was able to open the account in around 35 minutes.
The bank I chose had forms in English, but if they are helpful, they can just help you fill out the Chinese forms.
Make sure you have Google Translate on your phone, or hope that they have someone that speaks English at the bank. Again your hotel concierge might be helpful here, but I was able to do it by simply entering a random bank branch.
You only need 100 RMB ($12) to start the process, but it won’t hurt to deposit a little more with the first deposit so you don't have to do it again.
Putting it all together:
Once you have the account set up, they will give you a debit card that’s valid for around 5 year. You will need this card to deposit money into your account, and more importantly to attach and validate your WeChat Pay account.
Attaching the account to WeChat:
Now that you have your Chinese bank account, you are ready to attach it to your WeChat Pay. All you really need to do is head over to the wallet section of WeChat Pay (see above), and key in your new debit card number. From there you will be prompted to enter your passport number, phone number (with text verification), and US address.
Moving money around
It’s a smart idea to move a few hundred RMB from your bank account into your WeChat account, the process in the app is pretty simple.
Click on your wallet in WeChat, then balance, then top up from your bank account.
Having money in your WeChat account is a good idea. It makes processing payment at, say, a convenient store much faster (and more convenient) if the money is preloaded in your WeChat account since the app does not have to wait for a reply from the bank.
Paying for things
Now that you are set up, all you have to do is open the payments module. When you are in the chat screen (the main screen of WeChat) all you have to do is hit the little plus button on the upper right, then hit money in the dropdown menu. From there you will have a QR code and a barcode on your screen. Vendors can scan that directly at their cash register to pay for items.
Conversely many restaurants allow you to order directly from the table, all you have to do is scan the QR code and open the mini program in WeChat.
WeChat Pay has a great feature called “relative cards,” which allow you to give family members or friends an allowance directly out of your WeChat account. This makes it such that if you are traveling as a group only one person needs a full WeChat Pay account. Everyone else can just piggyback off the main account.
When using this feature, however, the relative cards won’t have access to some mini programs like subway scanning. But they will be able to pay at stores and restaurants.
While most stores accept both WeChat and Alipay, some may only accept one or the other, so having both setup and ready to use on your phone is a good idea.
The rules for setting up Alipay are very similar to those for WeChat. So if you already did one, you can just repeat the steps for the other. Much like WeChat, Alipay also allows you to attach a foreign credit card, and much like WeChat, we have yet to find a use for that feature.
Is it worth it?
You may be asking yourself if wasting an hour of your day to get all of this stuff set up is worth it. In short, yes, it is totally worth it. Especially if you are going to make multiple trips to China and if you regularly go to places that aren’t frequented by foreigners.
One hour today will save you hours on each subsequent trip. Just make the time to do it now; you won’t regret it.