[Updated: Not Anymore] Discover Really is the Best Credit Card for China

Update March 2017: Discover has become nearly unusable in China. If you do not have the newer chip version you may experience success, however the chip cards are rejected at almost all merchants except those that otherwise accept many foreign credit cards. I have repeatedly sent feedback to Discover and gotten no helpful response. One representative said sometimes in her experience terminal require 3 failed attempts with a chip before accepting the magnetic strip swipe. Fat chance getting someone to swipe over and over in China!

In December I wrote Is Discover the best credit card for China? because of its link-up with China’s UnionPay which allows reciprocal access on each others’ payment networks.

I got around to acquiring a Discover card in June and have been testing in China. As with others’ experience, the card is indeed accepted at UnionPay locations, which is everywhere a card is accepted in China, however the challenge is getting incredulous clerks to swipe the card. They reflexively look for the UnionPay logo, and not seeing it, either return it or give a puzzled look, thinking it a regular foreign-issued card that is accepted at very limited locations.

Unless you speak Chinese, the best bet is to carry Discover’s printout card. If you don’t have that, try pointing to a UnionPay logo on the door or counter if there is one.

There is no foreign transaction fee.

If you are really in a bind and need a cash advance, that is possible with a pin, which you can obtain on the Discover website.

For more detail, see Discover’s Asia FAQ.

I had a much more mixed experience in Japan with Discover’s JCB partnership. Discover’s FAQ with regard to China says, “You can use your card anywhere you see the Discover acceptance mark or the China UnionPay acceptance mark throughout mainland China.” However for Japan, “You can use your card anywhere you see the Discover acceptance mark and at almost all locations you see the JCB acceptance mark throughout Japan. This includes: hotels, restaurants, airport limousine transportation service, airport shopping and dining and many more locations.” (emphasis added). Indeed.

The best current offer for Discover that I know of, thanks to reader Ted, is $75 off first purchase through Amazon.

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  • Al

    So are you staying at hotels in China? What are the most lucrative promotions currently available?

  • Chris F.

    I may have gotten a Discover card in part based off your December post, as I spend 6 months of each year over there. I can’t remember exactly what prompted me to apply, but the timing’s right.

    In my experience, using the card in smaller cities with few foreigners has a 99% success rate, but I usually do have to tell the cashier that it’s a UnionPay partner. Sometimes they expect it won’t work, but will try anyway. Only once did we have a very strict cashier insist that we use UnionPay or nothing at all, and this at a “high end” store in a small city.

    In more touristy areas and larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai, we’re at something more like 70% success. Several stores flat-out refuse non-UnionPay cards; Chinese explanations and Discover’s convenient paper won’t budge them. Sometimes we’ve been told it’s a fraud issue, like once at a Beijing H&M where they refused the Discover but took CSP. Once, in tiny Pingyao’s grocery story next to the train station, a cashier was so irritating in her insistence that it would not work that it still makes my blood boil. The woman seemed to be insulted we wanted to explain the card to her, and started tossing our produce away. We took our basket to the next aisle and had no issues checking out. I can still feel her glare as we walked away.

    But overall, yes, it’s awesome for China. For the rotating categories for It cashback, be aware that you may need to call customer service and check that everything reported correctly, as many merchants report incorrectly/Discover doesn’t consider some as in the category automatically.

    Using Mint to track spending can be frustrating, as 90% of stores will just report as “UnionPay Merchant”.

  • @Al – I did not investigate too many promotions as my options with my company in China are somewhat limited, I was able to take advatage of the Priority Club stay 10 nights, get 15,000 bonus points along with various other promotion codes with them that worked.

  • @Chris F – thanks for the excellent detail, the merchant category angle is interesting to know, and I love the story of the cashier in Pingyao, I feel like I have been there before!