Paying “by plastic” is more and more the trend even in Far Far Away China, where the presence of the average POS card-and-PIN machine was a rarity even a decade back. Increasingly, plastic is making a big-time appearance in China, coming in all forms: traditional magnetic stripe cards, chip-and-PIN cards, and even contactless payment cards.
However, there are things you need to know when paying “by plastic” in China.
International Cards Issued Overseas
Most international credit and debit cards issued overseas should work in China — in particular Visa and MasterCard, but also American Express (in some places). Diners Card and JCB are reserved for a few locations only. Maestro and Cirrus are only accepted at select cash points.
You cannot use international cards issued overseas in places that display only China’s UnionPay logo (however, China-issued cards, which always come with a dual UnionPay / international payment network system, will work there).
Little distinction is made in China between credit and debit cards issued overseas — it really is a case of as long as you’ve got money on it, it should be OK.
At this moment, international cards cannot in any way be used to purchase train tickets in China — especially not at the staffed counters in stations or anywhere on trains (cash only onboard!).
Chinese Local Cards
Local cards in China often work on a single network: the domestic UnionPay network, which is also, incredibly, available overseas (select shops and cash machines only). Cards that are often issued over-the-counter are generic UnionPay cards that might not even have your name on it. With these cards, a PIN code must be set. These are either “swipe-and-PIN” cards or work like “chip-and-PIN” cards. A select number might also be contactless cards, where you must pre-load a certain amount to use as a kind of e-wallet.
The use of these cards outside of mainland China is restricted to places accepting UnionPay cards only.
Chinese International Cards
The Chinese Renminbi is not yet a fully convertible currency on the world stage. This is why credit cards issued in China must have two accounts: a Renminbi account and another one in US dollars. Payment in either account often will work for the other, although at times you need to explain this to the bank so that your outstanding payments get through.
Within China, most applications for credit cards result in the issuance of Visa or MasterCard credit cards (or you can even have both if inclined). Some banks, notably ICBC and the Merchants Bank, also issue the American Express card.
To be eligible for a credit card in China (that can be used internationally) you have to have a bank account, a lot of money (five or six digits in Renminbi before the decimal point preferred), or have income (more than the minimum wage, obviously). But the good news is you can apply for one immediately upon starting work (or when you’ve your tonne of gold with you in the bank account). Foreigners are as qualified as Chinese if they meet the same set of rules. There might be restrictions if you are young (aged between 18 and 25).
Credit cards valid only in China still exist, but are a less valuable investment. Most tend to forego them.
Debit cards valid internationally are only given to those who have premium bank accounts with banks. They function like credit cards, but you are restricted to the actual amount you have with you in your bank.
The Most Foreigner-Friendly Cash Points
Whilst not as multicultural as, say, London, Beijing and Shanghai are still home to an increasingly large population of expats from the world over. This has also meant that English is a language that more and more locals will have to deal with. Helpfully, most cash points (especially those in the larger cities) come with at least two languages in the system (Chinese and English).
Where available, Citibank cash points are a real feast for the eyes of a foreigner — up to eight languages are available. Those operated by non-mainland banks also tend to have better on-screen instructions in English, or sometimes also in other languages (French, Spanish, Korean and Japanese appear quite often).
Local banks do have a bilingual option, but their English is riddled with errors (please keep avoiding peep?). Those by ICBC have the worst record of stoccato on-screen Chinglish. If it is too misleading for you, either learn the local language, or head to an expat-rich part of town, where your chances of using an international cash machine is much greater.
Remember that your bank can charge you extras for taking money out of your account. Whenever overseas, always check with your bank for any charges you might incur. Also inform banks with hyper-sensitive fraud detection systems (such as HSBC) your whereabouts, as their “money spies” will instantly flag a CNY 10,000.— payment from China as extremely suspect — unless you have told them where you are travelling to (or where you’ll be using your card).