You’re finally going to China! You’ve packed your bags, you’ve selected which sights you’re going to visit, but how are you going to pay for your meals, hotels, and incidentals while you’re there?
Luckily, in the past few years, it has become even easier to pay for things if you’re a tourist in China.
The 3 Easiest Ways to Pay in China
The 3 easiest ways to pay during your trip to China are:
- Credit Card
- Mobile Pay
Seems pretty straightforward, but before you go there are some things you should know about each option — we also suggest reading this from the China Guide.
Paying with Cash in China
Considering how modern and technologically advanced China is, it may surprise you that cash is still more widely used than credit cards. Cash is accepted almost universally in China, so whether you’re buying food from a street vendor, paying for a cab, or buying souvenirs you won’t be left stranded with no way to pay.
Paying with cash in China is recommended if you are going to any small cities. In smaller cities, it will be more difficult to find an ATM and some of the mom-and-pop businesses aren’t set up to accept foreign credit cards or mobile payments.
How Do I Withdraw Chinese Currency?
China’s currency is called yuan or renminbi (RMB). You can exchange your foreign currency for RMB either in your home country before you leave or in China after you arrive.
While it may be more expensive to exchange currency at home, you may find it easier because there won’t be the language barrier to overcome. You can do this at your bank or the airport with your debit card before you leave. You will want about 500 RMB per person per day, and it is recommended that you avoid larger 100 RMB notes if possible.
Sometimes fraudsters will exchange the larger notes for fake ones, and they can be hard to detect!
This happens in situations like paying for cabs. The driver can swap your legitimate note for a counterfeit bill and then claim you gave them the fake note and demand “real” money. The 10 RMB and 50 RMB notes are less commonly forged, so try to use these smaller denominations whenever possible.
While you can withdraw cash from ATMs at major Chinese banks or Chinese airports, keep in mind your bank back home may charge a transaction fee and a currency exchange fee on top of your withdrawal.
Also, if you exchange at a Chinese bank, you may face a long wait and need to provide extra paperwork, which may not be worth navigating if you don’t speak the local language.
Paying with a Foreign Credit Card
Using a foreign credit card is convenient, but may be limited. In larger cities like Shanghai or Beijing foreign credit cards such as Visa and MasterCard are accepted primarily at hotels, upscale or international chain restaurants, and foreign chain stores.
Much like withdrawing from a Chinese ATM, you may find that your bank will charge you transaction fees on top of the currency exchange fee. If you plan on using your credit card in China, you should inform your bank of your travel plans to avoid having your card frozen.
Use your credit card to pay for large purchases like your hotel or fancy souvenirs like jewelry, especially if you collect rewards or miles, but keep the card in your wallet day-to-day to avoid extra fees.
Paying with a Mobile Pay App
Until recently, you needed a Chinese bank account to use Chinese mobile payment apps such as WeChat and AliPay. Luckily, these companies have broadened their business and now provide English versions of their apps that are compatible with various foreign cards.
Mobile pay is the #1 most used method of payment in major Chinese cities, so it would definitely be the most convenient option while visiting major metropolitan areas.
In rural cities and smaller, cash-oriented businesses like street vendors, mobile pay is rarely accepted.
How do Mobile Pay Apps Work?
Payment platforms such as AliPay and WeChat are apps that you can install on your phone. They use QR codes (a kind of barcode) on your phone screen and essentially become a credit card that pops up on your phone.
Simply download the app of choice to your mobile phone and register for the international version of the app. Then, you will be prompted to connect your credit card to the app for easy purchasing.
WeChat vs AliPay
The two most popular apps for tourists have some important differences to consider:
- AliPay requires you to prepay, so you load the app with up to 2000 RMB at a time and then replenish it as needed.
- WeChat links directly to your credit card, so you pay as you go in real-time. Apparently, this app can be a little bit buggy and will stall occasionally, but many have been able to use it with their foreign credit cards.
- AliPay accepts Visa, MasterCard, JCB (Japan) and Singapore Diner’s Club
- WeChat accepts all of these cards PLUS American Express
So…How Should You Pay as a Tourist in China?
The answer- use a combination of all three ways!
When traveling in a different country in general, you want to have all of your bases covered in case of robbery, lost wallets, or frozen cards.
- Withdraw cash for your day-to-day spending: use 10 RMB and 50 RMB notes for meals, taxis, and small souvenirs, especially if you are planning trips to more rural parts of China. Bring your debit card in case you run out of cash before your trip is over.
- Notify your bank that you’re traveling, and bring your credit card for large purchases: pay for your hotels, fancy restaurant meals, tickets to live shows and airport incidentals with your credit card.
- Download a mobile payment app for shopping: use your app of choice to pay for souvenirs and quick bites in the city, and to have a backup payment if your card freezes or you lose your cash.
A trip to China is a fun adventure with many cities to explore, foods to eat, live entertainment to see, and great shopping. Be prepared and you won’t have to worry about how to pay in China as a tourist!
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