‘Pay like a local’: WeChat, Alipay to accept foreign credit cards in China

What Happened: Good news for global tourists to China: Starting in July this year, consumers will be able to link their overseas credit cards issued by Visa to WeChat, said Tencent on Wednesday.

Ant Group also announced this week that Alipay, the world’s most popular payment platform, will support overseas bank cards issued by all major international card networks, including Visa, Mastercard, Diners Club International, and Discover.

Registration and verification processes will be streamlined, with no need to set up a prepaid account or acquire a Chinese phone number.

Previously, foreigners had to open a Chinese bank account in order to use local payment platforms, making transactions in China difficult since many stores don’t take cash.

It’s an issue visitors and foreigners have bemoaned for some time: “I’ve been refused cash before, more and more as the years have passed,” wrote one Reddit user “It’s not a foreigner/tourist thing. China has just been moving towards a cashless society recently. No one has the change, so they don’t want to accept.”

The Jing Take: As Mastercard said in a press release, the new service offers another safe and convenient way for international visitors to “pay like a local” in China, regardless of where in the world their card was issued. It will also give local businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, more opportunities to interact with global shoppers.

In a mobile-first nation like China — where the use of credit cards is sporadic at best — having a cashless option is critical for simplifying purchases when eating, shopping, and traveling. At the end of 2021, the number of online payment users in the country reached 904 million, accounting for nearly 90% of all internet users, reported China’s Payment & Clearing Association. 

The effort to make mobile payments even more ubiquitous comes as China reopens its borders to tourism and aims to stimulate economic growth. In 2019, overseas tourists including those from Hong Kong and Macau spent $131 billion in the mainland.

However, getting them to actually return is easier said than done. Despite all visa types now being welcomed, the mainland has yet to receive a flood of arrivals; between January and April 2023, international inbound flights to China reached just 34% of the levels seen in 2019, according to the International Air Travel Association.

Diplomatic relations are partly to blame here. Disagreements about flying over Russian airspace and other geopolitical tensions have limited US-China roundtrip flights to just 24 per week (compared to 350 flights a week pre-pandemic), while outbound flights from the US to China remain at less than 6% of their 2019 levels since the start of 2023. That said, flights between the mainland and Egypt, Italy, and Saudi Arabia are nearly back to pre-pandemic frequency.

Once air service between China and the rest of the world is fully restored, foreigners can look forward to exploring and shopping with just a scan of their phone.

The Jing Take reports on a piece of the leading news and presents our editorial team’s analysis of the key implications for the luxury industry. In the recurring column, we analyze everything from product drops and mergers to heated debate sprouting on Chinese social media.

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