Travelers to China can finally experience its cashless economy like a local

How to pay for it.
How to pay for it.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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For foreigners visiting China, paying for things in the country’s increasingly cashless society has been a major frustration. Now, visitors will be able to shop like locals: with an app on their phone.

Short-term visitors to mainland China can download a version of the Alipay app to pay for things using QR codes, according to a statement today from parent company Ant Financial. Travelers are able to use Alipay’s “Tour Pass” program, which allows them to use a prepaid card service from the Bank of Shanghai. Visitors can top up the card in Chinese yuan via with their usual credit or debit card.

Digital payments in China are dominated by the Alipay and WeChat Pay mobile wallets. Until now, visitors were unable to use these systems, which typically require a local phone number and Chinese bank account. Alipay handled some $3.8 trillion of transactions in the fourth quarter of 2018, according to China Internet Watch, compared with $2.7 trillion for Tencent’s WeChat Pay (Quartz member exclusive).

Tencent is also working with card networks like Visa and Mastercard to connect them to WeChat Pay, enabling tourists in China better access to the country’s cashless systems. “This partnership means that we’ll be working towards an environment where Visa cardholders will be able to use their Visa card in China at the millions of places where WeChat Pay is accepted, instead of having to rely on cash,” Visa said in a statement.

More than 30 million international visitors went to China in 2018, a 4.7% increase from the year before, according to a statement from Ant Financial, citing government data. Tourists spent $73.1 billion in the country last year.

Ant Financial is an affiliate of Alibaba. The companies recently restructured their relationship, with Alibaba taking a 33% stake in Ant, according to the Financial Times (paywall). The move may clear the way for an Ant Financial IPO.

“The launch of this new service will improve the experience of foreign visitors to China, as the app could be used in so many scenarios,” said Shen Meng, director at Chanson & Co., a Beijing-based boutique investment bank.

The Alipay mobile app for international users comes with some restrictions. The minimum top-up for each pre-paid card is 100 yuan ($14), with a maximum of 2,000 yuan ($285). The card is valid for 90 days, after which any remaining funds are refunded.

Foreign access to Alipay and WeChat Pay, however limited, could shake up the competitive dynamic with Visa and Mastercard, the US card-network giants that have long been shunned by the Chinese government. If tourists and business travelers can access the ubiquitous Alipay terminals as if they were locals, it reduces the rationale for Visa and Mastercard to push for more widespread acceptance of international payment cards on behalf of their customers.

Nov. 6: This story was updated in the fourth paragraph to show that Tencent is also working with card networks to give visitors access to WeChat Pay.