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WeChat Pay or AliPay for visitors to China?

A photograph of skyscrapers lit up at night.
The Lujiazui District in Shanghai

The difficulty in using cash in China has been widely reported. However what I did not realise before my visit to Shanghai last year is that QR-code based payments were now so prevalent that cafés and restaurants have removed conventional bank card terminals. Where they did exist, I found they were often no longer functional—including contactless methods and Apple Pay: Chinese society is cashless, but the QR code is the replacement here, not the NFC methods found in Europe and Australia.

Before Leaving Home #

Both of the popular Chinese payment processors, WeChat Pay and AliPay, are available in app stores outside of China. They work by registering a bank card to which payments are re-charged by the processor, essentially the same system as when you use Curve or PayPal.1

In the hope of having a less stressful trip this time, prior to departure I downloaded the WeChat app. In addition to an SMS-verified phone number, a credit or debit card is required to sign up for a WeChat account (even to chat, I assume for age or identity verification purposes) and then adding this to my WeChat wallet was straightforward. Since the app is primarily for chat, actually finding the QR code in the application to show to a merchant was not obvious—there’s a little ⊕ icon in the top right corner that looks like it might be for starting a new chat but is in fact a menu.

WeChat Pay accepted both a corporate American Express card and a Visa credit card. This was in contrast to AliPay which does not accept AMEX cards at all, and my Visa card would not validate, despite successfully verifying the transaction via 2FA. WeChat also seemed to ask for fewer iOS permissions (such as location) to use basic functions than AliPay, although I did spend more time exploring the AliPay interface while trying to get it to work, and may have thus inadvertently tried to use more features.

In-Use Experience #

Having returned from China I can report that WeChat Pay was easy to use, and worked well. It was initially a bit confusing as there are two ways to use these systems: the first where the vendor scans your code and charges you an amount like a conventional card payment, and the second is where you scan a QR code and then type in the amount of money to pay like a bank transfer. The former only needs a connection the first time you use WeChat Pay, or when you want to switch payment methods between stored cards. In contrast, the latter always requires a data connection and was common in taxis (where wifi is definitely not an option!) but also some brick-and-mortar businesses. Wifi hotspots in China require registration so a data connection for your phone is in practice a necessity. Check your roaming options carefully prior to departure as not every UK provider even offers a fixed-price per-day option in China, you might be looking at £6-7 per-megabyte.

The lack of data connection caught me out the first time I tried to pay for something but unlike my last visit the barista offered to allow me to pay with cash. The government recently declared that it is mandatory for businesses to accept cash which gave me peace of mind in case there was a technology failure.

The one other issue I experienced was because the credit card company sees these transactions as an online payment, when making a larger payment at a restaurant, I had to use 2FA to enter a code received via SMS or derived from an online banking PIN entry pad. SMS-based alerts or confirmations are not uncommon when travelling abroad so any traveller thinking of replacing their primary SIM card with an alternative one needs a spare phone to receive those important messages.

Conclusion #

WeChat Pay was straightforward to setup and seamless to use once I had enabled data roaming. WeChat is also a major communication channel in China so having a WeChat account also allows you to interact with local people and businesses.

Paying via QR code seemed to be no more or less efficient for me as payer than using NFC-based methods in the UK or Australia. The main difference seemed to be for the payee, no special hardware is required to generate a QR code to receive payments, whereas NFC requires a terminal. Companies like Stripe and Zettle have now made these cheaply available to UK businesses, but it remains an impediment to accepting card payments for many smaller organisations such as clubs and societies.


  1. For UK consumers it does mean that (as when using other intermediaries) Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act would not apply because there is no direct transaction between card holder and supplier. ↩︎