Guide: Making Payments in China With Alipay

I just concluded a family trip to Suzhou and Shanghai over the past week and used Alipay extensively throughout my holiday. Cashless payment is accepted everywhere and it has been incredibly convenient using Alipay to pay for everything. Here’s a guide on how to use the app if you are travelling to China soon.

App

You need the international version of Alipay which you can download here for iOS and here for Android.

The app supports international cards from Visa, Mastercard, and even Diners Club. Discover, JCB and UnionPay cards also work. No American Express, however, so your Platinum cards won’t work here. Note that you also won’t be able to use Alipay for payments here in Singapore as the app is for payments in China.

Scanning

After adding your credit card, you can start using the app by scanning merchant’s QR codes. This works just like how you would use apps like PayLah! or XNAP to scan QR codes and make payments in Singapore. Scanning the business QR to make payment is quite typical for smaller shops like pushcarts or indie shops.

For more established retail shops or dining places you’d find at malls, the more common way to pay is by showing your QR code to the cashier who would then scan your code for payment.

At the point of transaction, it is common to clarify by asking 我扫你 (wo sao ni ”I scan you”) or 你扫我 (ni sao wo “you scan me”). It quickly becomes obvious which method to pay with depending whether the cashier displays a QR code (you scan their code) or if they have a hardware scanner (you display your code).

It is also very common for eateries to have QR menus and scanning them with the Alipay app works as expected. You can order and make payments from within the app without much trouble. Can’t read Chinese? The app even has a translation feature.

Seth
Seth

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Fees: free for transactions ¥200 and below

For payments made with a credit card, Alipay charges a transaction fee of 3%. This is thankfully waived for transactions ¥200 (around S$38) and under.

The vast majority of my transactions are below this amount and are hence without fee. I took my family to a massage parlour and was hit with the 3% fee as our total amount exceeded ¥200. On a subsequent visit, I asked if I could split the transaction and they had no issues with it at all. Splitting the transactions dodged the 3% fee entirely, though this workaround highly depends on whether your merchant minds this and it might be very cumbersome for much larger amounts.

There is also no way to split transactions in Didi (ride-hailing app in China) so I made payment with my credit card directly on the app for car rides that exceeded ¥200.

Merchant Category Codes (MCC)

Similar to wallet apps in Singapore, the MCC of transactions depends on the underlying merchant itself. The difference is that while MCCs are relatively predictable in Singapore, this is not really the case for transactions made via Alipay.

Using Instarem Amaze, I uncovered the MCCs of a few transactions I made in Shanghai. A Subway outlet I visited and a coffee vending machine were 5499 (Misc. Food Stores) while a bubble tea store had 5399 (Miscellaneous General Merchandise Stores). Another coffee joint was even tagged 7372 (Computer Programming, Data Processing and Integrated System Design Services).

Those using MCC-sensitive cards like UOB Lady’s would likely miss out on some bonus points here and there due to the pretty inconsistent MCCs.

Balance

Alipay has a Balance feature which is a prepaid wallet. You can only transfer money to non-business Alipay accounts (i.e. your friends in China) via amounts in your Balance. You cannot pay non-business Alipay users via the methods above since they charge to your credit card.

You can largely ignore this feature unless you want to pay your friends in China, or wish to refund transit cards. I bought a couple of transit cards for my parents and each card comes with refundable deposit of ¥20. The unused value and the deposit amount was refunded to my Alipay Balance.

To use the Balance feature, you need to scan your passport and enter some details. Verification seemed to be instant as I was able to use my Balance amount almost immediately.

Note that if you have ¥50 in your balance and you charge a transaction of say ¥52, your next payment method is automatically charged ¥52. I had hoped for ¥50 to be deducted from the Balance with a balance of ¥2 to be paid, but this was not the case.

Cards to use

Transactions are charged in Chinese yuan so should code as foreign currency transactions. As an in-app payment, it should also code as online.

I personally used the StanChart Journey due to its ongoing promo, but cards that give you bonus rewards for foreign currency transactions and/or online payments who thus work here. Note that these cards will charge you about 3.25% to 3.5% fee for foreign currency transactions.

CardEarn RateFee
DBS Woman’s World Mastercard4 miles per dollar for online transactions3.25%
Citi Rewards4 miles per dollar for online transactions3.5%
Instarem Amaze with Citi Rewards4 miles per dollar~2%
UOB Visa Signature4 miles per dollar for foreign currency transactions3.25%

Alternatively, you could also link your Alipay to YouTrip, Instarem Amaze (linked to wallet), or iChange’s card. Those cards don’t typically have rewards (aside from Instarem Amaze which does give 0.5% rebate), but also side-steps the foreign currency fee that credit cards charge.

Which card to use for foreign currency transactions is a big topic on its own, so subscribe for that upcoming piece on that.

Conclusion

Alipay makes payment amazingly convenient in China and even lets you have an overview of your expenses:

I suppose we have Dobin to track our spending habits in Singapore, but for an app that settles payments everywhere, QR menus and track your finances, using Alipay lets us live that future today… as long as you’re in China.

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2 thoughts on “Guide: Making Payments in China With Alipay

  1. Didn’t elaborate my previous comment, what I meant was will I still earn miles through WeChat Pay if I linked to the best/right credit cards? It will be processed as online and MCC will be the underlying merchant’s business?

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