China’s digital landscape is a dynamic realm where technology seamlessly integrates into daily life. At the forefront of this digital revolution is Alipay, a mobile payment platform that has become an integral part of transactions in the country. For everyone in China, visitors and residents alike, mastering the use of Alipay is not just convenient but essential, as many places have moved to exclusively accepting mobile payments – no cards or cash. More than 80% of the nation’s daily transactions and payments are made through mobile apps, everything from groceries and taxi fares to food deliveries, train tickets, and even plane tickets. The best news is, Alipay is making its features increasingly more accessible to international travelers exploring China, providing them with a window into the vast digital landscape of Chinese applications and technology.
In this article, we will guide you through the process of setting up and using Alipay in 2023.
Installing the Alipay app
Alipay app is available from both the Apple App Store and Google Play Store. We recommend installing and setting up the app on your phone before you enter China, so you are set to go once you land.
The Alipay app is currently only available in Chinese and English. If you are installing the app outside of China, the app automatically switches to the international version, with English as the default language.
To create and register a new account on Alipay, you will need a valid phone number. Follow the prompts to enter your phone number and enter the verification code you receive on your phone as a message or as a brief phone call where an electronic recording recites the verification codes for you. You will then need to follow the prompts to set up a password.
Note that you may be required to provide an ID to verify your Alipay account, so please have your passport or ID card handy. This may also happen at a later point, so don’t be surprised if, after a few uses, the app asks you to verify your identity.
Topping up / Linking your bank account
There are two main options to link your bank card with Alipay. One is a direct method, i.e., pay-as-you-go, that charges your card directly via the app. The second is a prepayment system called TourCard which is specifically designed for short-time visitors. This allows you to place funds in your Alipay account. Both options are available to international visitors with non-Chinese bank accounts. Read on to find out which suits your needs best.
Option 1: Directly linking a bank card
Starting in 2023, Alipay has made it possible for users to add international payment cards. Click on “Add now” to add a bank card. You will be asked to set a 6-digit payment password first. Remember your password, as you will need this to make payments! Once the password is set, you can proceed to either scan your card by clicking on the camera icon or simply enter your card details. The app accepts Visa, Mastercard, Diner’s Club, Discover, JCB, and UnionPay cards.
It is worth noting that some cards may not work, and if that happens to you, your best shot is to try another card.
Once you have successfully registered a card, you may proceed to make payments, which will be charged directly to your card. Each time you make a payment you will be required to input your 6-digit payment password.
Option 2: Prepaid Alipay account via TourCard
Alipay has another mini-app called TourCard. The advantage of this feature is that it allows you to open a temporary virtual local bank account valid for 180 days on Alipay, with a maximum top-up limit of 10,000CNY during the entire period. (Note: there is a service charge of 5% for each top-up.)
To activate TourCard, go to the search bar at the top of the app screen, and type in “TourCard”. You will see a “mini app” icon for TourCard. Click on the icon and follow the instructions to register. You will need your ID/passport handy as the TourCard mini-app will require verification.
Put simply, TourCard is a prepaid feature that allows you to place funds of up to 10,000 CNY in your Alipay account during your stay (10,000 CNY is the maximum amount possible during the initial 180 days). TourCard currently supports VISA, Mastercard, Diners Club International and JCB. American Express support is said to be coming soon but as of now, is not yet available.
With the above steps completed, you can then proceed to make payments to merchants using Alipay.
With TourCard, as with overseas cards linked using the method in Option 1, you cannot send to or receive money from individuals, it’s strictly for purchases from businesses, both online and brick-and-mortar.
Using Alipay for Payments
Now that you are all set, the next part is fast and smooth. When making payments to merchants, you will have two options:
- Merchants scan your QR code: Whenever you need to pay for something, click on the “Pay/Receive” icon at the top of the screen. This will display your QR code that merchants can scan to charge the right amount from your card. All you need to do is hold out the phone with the QR code visible and they will scan it.
- You scan the merchants’ QR Code: For this case, click on the “Scan” icon located first on the top row right next to “Pay/Receive” icon, and scan the merchants’ QR code. Sometimes you may need to ask the merchant for their QR code. From here on, it’s a smooth sailing experience.
If you are shopping online, choose Alipay as the payment method at check-out and you will be redirected to the Alipay app to complete the transaction. If shopping from a desktop, the check-out will usually display a QR code that you can scan from your Alipay app to finalize payment.
While Alipay lets you pay for purchases to merchants, note that not all features of Alipay are available to international visitors. For example, as mentioned earlier, peer-to-peer transactions are not available for international users.
Please also note that, depending on your bank’s security policy in your home country, you may need to provide your card’s CVC code and other security verification for some transactions.
Frequently asked questions
Is Alipay safe?
Yes. Alipay is regarded as a secure & safe payment platform. By following best practices for digital security on your end, you can enjoy a safe and secure experience while using Alipay for your payment needs.
Can’t I just use my bank cards or cash?
China’s rapid shift towards a cashless and cardless transaction society is truly remarkable. You may find that many stores do not have card readers and do not accept card payments issued by VISA, Mastercard Apple Pay, and other international payment networks/methods.
While some merchants may still accept cash if you pay the exact amount, many may not have change and thus, will politely decline to accept cash payments.
Can I link a foreign card to Alipay?
Yes, you can. Follow the steps detailed in this article and link your card. The app currently accepts Visa, Mastercard, Diner’s Club, Discover, JCB and UnionPay cards.
How long does Alipay’s ID verification process take?
While the app says to allow up to 72 hours for verification, often this process is much quicker, with some ID verifications completed within the hour of the request being sent.
What is the transaction limit?
The minimum transaction amount is 10CNY. The daily limit (maximum you can transfer) is 50,000CNY per recipient.
What is the top-up cap for TourCard?
TourCard has a top-up limit of 10,000 CNY for 180 days. If your funds are depleted during this time, your TourCard account will be closed, and you’ll need to wait until the conclusion of the 180 days to open a new account. In the meantime, you can simply link your card directly to Alipay and use it for payments as described in Option 1 of this article.
What other app can I use for payments in China?
WeChat Pay (Weixin Pay in China) is another popular payment platform widely used throughout China. However, its payment settings may not be available while you are outside of China and may only become available once you are in China.
How do I close my account?
If you want to close your account on Alipay, you can simply go to “Settings” (gear icon on top right of your screen), click on “Account and Security” and choose “Account Cancel” to erase your account along with your personal details.