Best way for travelers to pay for things in China

Generally speaking, China is still a cash economy in large parts of the country. If you intend to travel to smaller cities and rural areas, you shouldn’t rely on alternative methods of payment. A stack of banknotes is the easiest way of paying for food and accommodation. Obviously, things look rather different in the big coastal metropolises.

1. Credit and Debit Cards
You can apply for a Union Pay Card when you open your own bank account in China. Then you can be sure that your type of credit card will be readily accepted. However, this still doesn’t mean you can simply pay by credit or debit card anywhere. Cash remains a valid option – and sometimes the only one.

Though China has signaled some willingness to open the market to foreign companies, there is only one domestic bank card organization in mainland China. China Union Pay runs an interbank network that covers all Chinese cities. Union Pay issues credit cards, debit cards, stored-value cards, and ATM cards.

In tier-1 cities like Beijing or Shanghai, you can pay with foreign credit or debit cards more easily. Brands like Visa or Master Card are accepted at major hotels, upmarket restaurants and upscale bars, at shopping malls and department stores, at travel agencies, airlines and international transport hubs, etc.

Nonetheless, you should consider getting in touch with your card company before you leave. Just ask if they have any experience with international travel and credit card usage in mainland China. US expats with a Discover card can rejoice: They can pay by card everywhere they spot a China Union Pay sign.

2.Travellers’ Cheques
Some people might prefer carrying travellers’ cheques to large wads of cash. You normally can’t use them to pay for anything directly, but you can cash them at most major banks as long as you show a valid passport.

In smaller cities, though, it’s advisable to go to the main branch of the Bank of China right away. Other branch offices might simply end up sending you there anyway as they aren’t that familiar with the procedure.

3.Currency Exchange
Where to get all that cash from? As mentioned on the previous page, you can bring up to 20,000 CNY or 5,000 USD to China.

If you have imported a foreign currency, you can exchange it for yuan at a major bank or officially licensed moneylender. Not all foreign currencies will be up for exchange, though. However, US dollars, euros, British pounds, or Japanese yen should be a safe bet.

Don’t use the services of an unregistered moneylender, even if they promise you amazing exchange rates. The risk of getting counterfeit money in return is fairly high.

4.Online Payments and Mobile Payment Services
Last but not least, mobile payment services are getting more and more popular in China. Alipay is China’s answer to Paypal: Millions of users have accounts to pay for their online shopping purchases, utility bills, and credit card bills, to top up their smart phones, or even to invest spare cash. The mobile app Alipay Wallet is booming.

Foreign residents can also open an AliPay account and use China’s favorite payment provider. However, this requires a valid visa, a Chinese bank card, and some fluency in Mandarin (or a helpful friend, or even a Google Translate browser extension and plenty of patience). There’s no English version of the website yet, but you can find some detailed instructions online.

5.ATM Cash Withdrawal
Those machines that do accept international cards usually have an English-language option. You’ll be charged a small flat fee by the bank that the ATM. However, your bank may include a variable fee per transaction, too. Generally, it’s set at 3% of the amount you’re withdrawing: Be sure to check this beforehand, so you can avoid additional costs.

All kinds of Chinese ATMs take Union Pay cards, though. That’s one more reason for opening a bank account in China as soon as possible. But even then, there are some things to be aware of.

First of all, there’s a limit on how much you can withdraw during a single transaction. This limit is normally 2,500 CNY, though some ATMs may set it as low as 1,000 CNY.

If you need a larger amount of money, you’ll simply have to do several transactions in a row – until you get the desired sum, you hit the daily withdrawal limit, or the machine runs out of cash. Chances are that other people have the same problem, so the queues can get a bit long.

Please note, too, that ATMs in China aren’t necessarily available 24/7. Some may be located in shopping malls or office buildings, where the respective opening hours apply.