Foreign visitors to China can finally go cashless like locals

Great news for those traveling to China! You can finally enjoy the seamless, cashless payment experience that you may have heard about for years and avoid the awkward interaction of asking your local friends to pay and giving them paper money that they can't spend anywhere.

This week, China's two dominant mobile payment solutions, WeChat Pay and Alipay, announced that foreign users can now pay at Chinese retailers by linking their foreign credit cards, including Visa, Mastercard and Discover.

Previously, using WeChat Pay and Alipay in China required a local bank account, making it challenging for short-term visitors to use these payment methods. While paying has become breezier for those living in China, finding places that accept cash is now a headache for foreign visitors, as the two payments giants have largely replaced cash from metropoles to villages despite the government's efforts to warn merchants against rejecting cash.

The development is thus a huge improvement in foreign visitors' experience in China. Given Alipay and WeChat Pay are literally ubiquitous in both China's online and offline retail spheres, foreign visitors may now be able to hail a Didi car, ride the subway, rent a shared bike, buy fruit from a grocer, order food delivery and even shop online for myriad Chinese e-commerce goods.

WeChat's announcement provides useful details on what the setup looks like. To activate their WeChat wallets, foreign users will need to authenticate their identity by uploading their passports. Foreign phone numbers can be used for receiving verification codes.

Unfortunately, visitors won't be able to try out the digitized Chinese hongbao custom, which involves sending or receiving digital versions of auspicious red envelopes filled with money. This feature was originally what drove WeChat's early wave of mass adoption. Visitors also can't conduct money transfers, which is unsurprising given China's stringent control of capital flows across borders.

On WeChat, spending limits per transaction, month and year for foreign visitors are 6,000 yuan (around $835), 50,000 yuan and 60,000 yuan, respectively. Transaction fees are waived for payments under 200 yuan (around $28), and any amount above that charges a 3% fee. Exchange rates are based on the rates of the card organization and the issuing bank.

The payments giants previously had plans to integrate with international bank cards, but those didn't materialize. Hopefully, the regulatory approvals and infrastructure are ready this time. We will report back once we've tried it out on the ground.