China enhances payment accessibility for int’l visitors

“Shanghai Pass,” a multi-purpose prepaid card, has been launched this week. With around 800 cards sold so far, they have been used by foreigners at various locations in the metropolis.

This is Shanghai’s latest move to simplify small payments for inbound tourists, addressing the payment difficulties foreign visitors face due to differences in payment systems and habits.

In China, innovative payment products have emerged in major cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Guangzhou, offering diverse payment options for foreign visitors and improving their shopping experiences in China.

The “Shanghai Pass” features iconic Shanghai buildings on the front and a QR code on the back that provides access to a bilingual user guide. The card has a maximum storage limit of 1,000 yuan (about 138 U.S. dollars) and can be purchased at major transport hubs and subway stations in the city.

In Shanghai, the card can be accepted for payments on buses, subways, taxis, ferries, and at cultural and tourist spots, as well as supermarkets and convenience stores. It can also be used in public transportation in more than 330 cities across China.

Shanghai’s innovation reflects broader efforts to optimize payment services for foreign visitors in China. The move, along with a string of other measures — from steadily resuming international flights to implementing a visa-free policy for more countries and cruise travelers — aims to promote people-to-people exchanges between China and the rest of the world.

Mobile payments have become an essential part of daily life in China. Thanks to improved services, many foreigners have also started to enjoy the convenience of paying for goods and services with their phones.

In major payment service providers such as Alipay and WeChat Pay, foreign users can link their international credit cards, including Visa and Mastercard, to these platforms.

In early March, China’s State Council released a guideline in an effort to optimize payment services of bank cards, promoting cash use and facilitating mobile payment.

Over the following month, Chinese authorities have taken intensive steps to smooth payments for foreign travelers. Major payment service providers, including Alipay and WeChat Pay, have also enhanced payment operations and introduced foreigner-friendly functions.

At Yuyuan Station of the Shanghai Metro, Spanish tourists Miguel and Irena Rodriguez Jimenez used Alipay to purchase tickets to Jing’an Temple.

“During our travels in Beijing and Shanghai, all the scenic spots, shops, and metro stations we visited support mobile payments, which is very convenient,” Miguel said.

In Beijing’s Solana Blue Harbor shopping park, many stores feature Alipay+ payment guides and English signage. These instructions explain how to bind a Visa card or an international e-wallet for mobile payments.

“Even small vendors selling pigeon feed here are able to use QR codes for international transactions,” said Zhang Xiaofei, general manager of the Blue Harbor business circle, adding that enhancing the convenience of payments is crucial for creating a consumer-friendly environment.

Zhang Zhongqiang, the owner of a clay sculpture shop in Beijing, noted that since April this year the proportion of foreigners using Alipay has increased by 20 to 30 times.

Alipay reported that during the May Day holiday, the amount spent by foreign visitors using Alipay increased sevenfold year-on-year, and the number of Chinese merchants serving international customers via Alipay grew by 4.5 times.

WeChat Pay reported that in March 2024, the daily number of transactions by international visitors increased more than threefold, compared to the period before July last year when WeChat Pay upgraded its international card service.

The increasingly diverse consumption scenarios are supported by significant investments in payment services infrastructure.

By the end of June this year, Beijing plans to further expand the acceptance of international bank cards by adding more payment facilities in hotels and tourist attractions. Shanghai has added 45,000 new international card POS machines in the first quarter and plans to increase that number to 80,000 by the end of the year.

British tourist Jane Smith said that while she is willing to adapt to mobile payments, the card-binding process is still somewhat cumbersome.

To better assist foreigners with payment issues, many places are offering more personalized services. For instance, the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport has set up consultation desks where assistants can help inbound travelers set up electronic payment accounts in China.

Li Yongjian, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that improving payment convenience is crucial for optimizing the business environment and promoting high-level openness.

“In the future, concerted efforts will be needed from the government, financial institutions, platforms, and enterprises to effectively implement payment facilitation measures,” said Li.

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