On Money Matters

One of the things I had heard before coming to China but had trouble truly imagining was the monetary system. No, I’m not talking about which bills they use, but instead I want to describe the possibility of a cash free, wallet free, life in the cities. Though I had heard before that China had essentially skipped credit cards and gone straight to mobile payments, I never understood just how widespread it is.

China (I’m going to say China but I really can only speak to the city experience and not other areas of the country) never really got onto the credit and debit card band wagon. Yes they have them (though most are debit cards, credit cards are pretty rare as far as I can tell), but I have yet to see someone use one anywhere but in TV shows. Perhaps when making big purchases like a house or car down payment etc, but most things are paid for in cash or through mobile payment.

QR code’s for WeChat and Alipay at the local fruit stand.

WeChat is a messaging system kind of like if Facebook Messenger, Venmo (or PayPal), Instagram, and Apple Pay were all rolled into one (including some extra games), it’s one of the main mobile payment systems in China, with the other main competitor being Alipay, which is a platform essentially just for mobile payments. I personally use WeChat and so will be writing mostly about that. (Also, I’m planning a blog just on WeChat and all of its functions to come in the future.)

The white box next to the register is a scanner for WeChat and Alipay. Pull up your personal WeChat Money code and place it over the box to pay.

Pretty much every place you go and every person you meet will have WeChat. Each person or business has a unique QR code which can be used to make them a “friend” if they’re a person, or just to pay money if it’s a business. But I truly mean every place has it. From large businesses inside malls to the street food stalls outside of the school gate. I could leave to shop for the day and bring nothing but my phone. And if my WeChat were to run low on funds (as it is linked to a bank account but holds the money separately) I can top up my WeChat balance on my phone. I can also use WeChat to pay for my monthly phone service (text, calls and data) in app. Also, if my phone were to have no data, I can pull up my WeChat Money code and they can scan me to pull money from my WeChat balance.

The checkout at the school supermarket. You can use your cafeteria card or one of the payment systems signified by the icons at the top of the QR code.
The place to pay for school WiFi in dorm (far right), my dorms printer (middle) and the QR only bending machine (far left) on the first floor by the main entrance.

The abundance of QR codes doesn’t stop there, there also on things for other purposes, even on goods for more information about companies or a specific product you’ve bought. WeChat can scan them all. But they also are for other services, such as the washer in my dorm. I have the app U净 on my phone. I use it to scan a QR code on the washer I want to use. Each washers code tells the app which washer it is and where it is. In app I select the cycle I want and then use WeChat to pay (it leaves the app to go to WeChat to complete the transaction and then returns to U 净). Besides the washer, the schools printers have a similar system with the app 以为 and there’s even a vending machine in my dorm that only can be used my scanning a QR and selecting and paying for the item in WeChat. I have an app to view my phone plan usage and how much data I have left for the month (I have yet to use it up, though you can relatively cheaply buy more). There’s takeout, ticket and ride service apps similar to various American services, particularly Uber, though WeChat also has some selections in app as well. Then there’s TaoBao, the app/website that is essentially China’s response to Amazon.

These apps are all helpful in China, with upper right being for the washer, middle left for printing, middle right for shopping, far right for ride hailing, tickets, and takeout, and bottom left for checking my data usage. (Far left is a music app much like Spotify, I use the free version only, but you can also pay and it’s pretty good with a lot of american and other foreign artists available, as well as Chinese artists of course.)
QR code’s found around my dorm
A QR code inside a book I bought, with a link to the authors website.

The other money topic that must also be addressed is how to get WeChat funds. Unfortunately, WeChat will not work with foreign bank accounts. This means you need a chinese Bank account. However, to open a Chinese bank account you must have a Chinese phone number. So, if you want to come to China and use this magical system, you need to first find a phone service provider, get a SIM card for your phone (or a phone to use in China if you’d like to still have constant access to your american number), then open a bank account. For both of these things you’ll need at least a passport and possibly other documents. After that you can attach your debit card to your WeChat account (which you can download and use, just without the monetary aspect). You’ll also need a chinese Bank account if you’d like to change your App Store (I’m an apple person, I don’t know if android is different) geographic location to China to find apps we can’t get in America (like the laundry and printer apps). I personally think this is worth doing for students here for a semester or longer, but perhaps not so if you are only here for short term travel.

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  1. Interesting, Lily. It was similar for me in Sweden. I loved going to small stands- crafts or food or fundraisers- and quickly and easily paying without dealing with cash or fumbling with a credit card and signing. It was good for the vendor too since there wasn’t the risk of someone trying to take the cash. It is painful to navigate these new systems though- seemed to take three tries to set stuff up. The first to get an understanding of the system, the second to learn what all you didn’t have (like an in country phone number or bank account), then the third time working on it there was success. It takes a lot of patience and a sense of humor!!

    Liked by 1 person

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