[Updated: Not Anymore] Discover Card in China – Duel at the Cash Register

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!

“Come on, swipe it. Please, give it a try…”

Discover Card partner’s with China’s UnionPay, and their respective cards enjoy reciprocal acceptance. In China that means anyone who accepts cards can theoretically accept Discover, whereas typical foreign-issued cards are only accepted at a handful of merchants due to the hassle of additional POS machines and their attendant processing fees. I have posed the question, Is Discover the Best Credit Card for China, and given my answer that yes, Discover Really is the Best Credit Card for China.

That really should be a qualified answer because it can be a fierce battle to get cashiers to swipe the card. Without seeing the UnionPay logo, many utterly refuse to swipe. Interestingly, reader Chris F shared his extensive experience, noting that big cities with more foreigners are more of a problem that small cities:

…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…

Ironically, UNESCO-listed Pingyao is an ancient banking center of China.

Chris alluded to the print-out card which is of minimal utility. It could be better written, as the first two points obscure the key third point about using a UnionPay terminal. I have thought of trying to affix a UnionPay logo on the card though with the scrutiny it gets, the ruse would surely be detected.

It would be great for Discover to put a UnionPay logo on the card (and JCB for Japan), already there is a Diners Club logo. Until then, it is a test of wills that I have come to enjoy.

China is constant mental and verbal combat. Every transaction of daily life is a battle against crowds and negotiation of wits. When I lived in China full-time it would eventually wear me out to where I would occasionally spend a weekend in my apartment with DVDs and just not go out.

Now visiting every so often for business, I am excited by the duel in every purchase. Cashiers at restaurants are the most fierce. It is important to understand the militaristic, negative enforcement management style in China. Restaurants typically run their staff through military drills in the street each morning, the manager barking orders as the staff stand at attention. A mistake can be costly, as a restaurant manager noted tonight: if a payment is messed up, the amount comes out of the cashier’s meager salary.

Naturally with no UnionPay logo in sight, many cashiers utterly refuse to even try swiping the card. They assume I am a confused foreigner not understanding the mysteries vagaries of credit cards in China, haplessly trying to use a foreign card that won’t work.

Convincing them to swipe is quite the challenge and language practice. Added to the excitement is the possibility that the payment won’t go through and I will have egg on my face. Last week it took such cajoling to get a women to swipe the card and then it was blocked. She was ecstatic. It turned out my travel notification, limited to six month blocks, had expired and the amount was larger than my usual. I did not have time then to sort it out with Discover. Tonight I was back and drew the duel  even as she stared in disbelief that the payment succeeded.

I went on to dinner at Shanghai’s best Hangzhou restaurant, the People’s Square branch of Shun Feng, and had my hardest battle yet. The cashier would not budge, refusing to swipe any card without the UnionPay logo. She tried to explain their they payment system is different than others, typical poppycock of the ‘Chinese characteristics’ type used by everyone, including the government, to justify anything.

The young waiter for some reason took my side and got the assitant manager. He was more reasonable but also insisted the card had to have a UnionPay logo for them to try it.

On to the manager. And this was all in good spirits, by the way, we were all having fun, nothing mean from either side, just the fun of Chinese negotiation over the shouts of raffle draws from company annual banquets. The eventual compromise was I would give my contact info for them to reach me if somehow UnionPay denied payment later.

We then all looked at the UnionPay machine, now a crowd of a half dozen from the restaurant pressed in, and…


approved! 🙂

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  • Gwayrav

    I enjoyed reading this post thoroughly!

  • I just came back to China and am having a lot more problems than my last trip, which was January to June 2013. We’ve only been to my wife’s hometown, Zibo, but we’ve so far been declined three times (!) by the POS out of less than a dozen tries. All our cashiers have been willing to try, so I guess you can say we’ve been losing the duel…

    The three times have been at merchants we have had success at before, for a variety of reasons — all new to us. One merchant was using a Square-style card reader, the first I’d seen in China, and the software couldn’t comprehend that we had no PIN. Another was a UnionPay-partner POS that Discover had actually blocked due to concerns with refunds being refused for returns. (Discover maintained that it was the merchant, but this was just a small coffee stand in a Zibo mall; I doubt the merchant itself was the target of the block given Zibo’s foreign population and the merchant’s products.) I suspect the third was the result of cashier “cheating,” as this was the one where we had the most difficulty convincing the cashier to swipe, and Discover insists that they approved the transaction (twice!). Yet the cashier was very proud to show us that the transaction had been cancelled. We’re still waiting for those two charges to fall off our pending transactions…

    I’m afraid that with credit cards gaining in popularity in China, alternative POS machines and Square-type readers will also be used more. And at the moment, it doesn’t seem that Discover is suited to some of this new equipment. I brought that up with a few CSRs, but they didn’t have much to say except that there *shouldn’t* be any problems.

    Glad to hear you’re coming out on the winning side, though!

  • Phil

    I spend almost 50% of my time in China, mostly for business. And I travel extensively all over China, from big cities to little villages. I have been trying to use Discover card for over a year everywhere I can if they accept Union Pay only. So far 0% success! Zero! And I have tried maybe 100 times or more! Supermarkets (Walmart, Tesco, Carrefour, RT Mart, …), train stations (from big hubs such as Hongqiao to little towns), small stores, restaurants, etc.. Nobody wants to accept a card without Union Pay logo. And the print out from Discover to explain how to use Discover card on Union pay terminal doesn’t help, most of the time they don’t even wanna read it. I have an Union Pay card from a Chinese bank, so not a big deal for me, but Discover is losing a lot of business by not printing the Union pay logo on the card.

  • Greg

    I had the same experience where the cashiers at Shanghai Hongqoiao train station refused to swipe my card so I could buy a train ticket to Nanjing. I tried multiple cashier windows before giving up altogether. Never did make it to Nanjing or Hangzhou.

  • @Chris F – thanks for the detail again I have not yet encountered those new readers. Discover is so close to being a great tool for China that no other competitor can provide, but it is still not something anyone can rely on instead of cold, hard cash. I really wish they would just put the logo on the cards, but I understand it is a very small segment of their cardholder base that would ever make use of it in China. I am curious how well it works in the many countries where it is supposed to be accepted as Diners Club. It would make a decent no annual fee, no foreign transaction fee card.

    It is crushing to see the cashiers gloat when they win a battle!

  • Shannon

    Why did you bother spending those time to persuade or push those poor waiters or managers to use your discovery card instead of just throwing them one of your VISA, Master or Amex without foreign transaction fee? Or maybe cash minus credit card processing fee? It actually made me laugh to read this as I keep having this picture that your wife might just talk you ” no more Discovery card next time” to her very stubborn husband…

  • The time that I suspect the cashier meddled with the transaction, we were involved in a separate duel/race to see who would pay for dinner. Having the card refused gave our dinner partners the opportunity they were looking for to get in with cash. Double whammy.

    @Phil, that’s surprising that it’s never once worked for you. I usually tell the cashier that the card is a UnionPay partner and that we’ve swiped it at that location many times over. Hearing that it’s worked several times before often helps them to accept the card, but yes, a simple UnionPay logo would be incredibly beneficial.

    Has anyone ever had any luck using the card for Web purchases in China? I’ve tried, but never succeeded. It would be wonderful to be able to pay for flight tickets on Qunar or Groupon-style coupons on Meituan, etc.

  • I just read your other posts in this series. What do you think about this prepaid card?


    I am having trouble finding more info about it.

    Also, it seems you can get $150 now for a new ddiscover app.

  • Also, any thoughts on the Hang Seng card? It has a 800 $ priceline sign up bonus, offers 5x rewards in China, and has a Unionpay logo on it. I haven’t seen any reviews.


  • @Patrick McCann – interesting article about UnionPay. Prepaid cards are often loaded with fees, so that will be the big question of how this product works when it comes out. If it is anything like Travelex prepaid cards, run away! It is puzzling to me why Discover is not bothering to market this feature and get a UnionPay logo on the cards. There are quite a few overseas Chinese and frequent travelers to China in the US that could make this a big deal. I originally got it for my in-laws in Shanghai to have access to funds rather than bank transfers.

    That $150 offer is the best that I am aware of, and best that has been offered at least since the launch of the it card.

    That Hangseng card is a Hong Kong dollar 800 bonus, not US dollar and though I don’t see any specific requirement of Hong Kong residency, that probably will be necessary to open an account. If there is no residency requirement then it might be a good option, though will needs funds in Hong Kong to pay the bills.

  • I looked into this some more, I think the card is already available

    I could be wrong, but this company seems to sell prepaid Unionpay cards at their San Francisco branch

  • sorry for posting too soon, i called that san francisco bank and they said no

  • @Patrick McCann – no, thank you, this is a great find and thanks for doing the legwork. If the fees are reasonable, and they will need to be to get wide use among overseas Chinese, this could be the best solution available. A few fees in exchange for not needing to carry large amounts of cash is a reaonable trade. One nice thing about China is there is no issue with foreign debit/ATM cards at ATMs as long as they are tied to one of the major networks. Countries like Brazil, Japan and South Korea that only have limited global ATMs are a real pain. I was just in Jeju and needed a bit more cash for a taxi. Bank after bank had no global atm, we almost went back to the airport, then eventually he just accepted USD for the balance of the payment.

  • JS

    Living in China, I was thrilled when I finally got my Discover card. No more lugging around stacks of cash to Wal-mart, Metro or to pay my car insurance. After some of the haggling mentioned in the article, the cashier will usually swipe the card and it works nearly all the time. Sometimes, though, it just won’t work for whatever reason, even in surprising places like Pete’s Tex-Mex, 50% of whose customers are non-Chinese.
    @Shannon: Very few POS machines in China accept VISA/Mastercard/Amex. It’s common to even see the credit card machines with a Visa logo that will only accept Chinese-issued VISA cards.
    Still, if you’re living or traveling in China, the Discover card is indispensable. I just wish they’d add the UnionPay logo.

  • Just wanted to add a quick update: Today I was at a small grocery store and tried to swipe my Discover. The manager had to be called over, and at first didn’t want to allow it, but then agreed to try one time. She tried, I pressed “Enter” on the pin pad, and… rejection.

    But then she seemed to remember something, and said if I didn’t have a pin, I should just make up a 6-digit number. We tried again, entered a random number, and the transaction went through fine.

    I’d never seen this before, but it could be worth trying if your swipe + no pin attempt is declined — a Hail Mary of sorts.

  • @Chris F – that is quite funny, the least secure pin in the world. I do seem to recall people with some credit cards needing to do 000000 for the pin, never heard that any number might work.

  • Kevin

    Thanks for sharing this info. Will have to consider a Discover card. My wife and I live in China about 9 months of the year. Do you have any leads on decent airline rewards credit cards issued by Chinese banks? I’d love to earn some sort of airline rewards every time we go to the grocery store, but most of the Chinese cards don’t offer any sort of signup bonuses or only offer you something like one point every 15 RMB in spending. Better than nothing, perhaps, but not as lucrative as Discover sounds like it may be.

  • @Kevin – I am assuming you meet the requirements to get a credit card in China, though when I used to live in China, the banks would only issue me debit cards, not credit cards, even the corporate card was then a hassle to get for non-Chinese employees. I hope things have gotten better. I have not researched the cards in detail but there are a bunch out there, when I was checking in with Delta on Saturday I saw they now have a card with China Merchants Bank. I guess the main decision, since you spend so much time there, is if it makes sense to focus on one of the Chinese airlines if you are flying domestically in China a lot. Crediting China’s SkyTeam partners to Delta is almost pointless now. Not that the Chinese programs are particularly generous to their members.

  • Davisson

    I don’t recommend discover card due to this reason. Besides, more reputable merchants in China what you are comfortable giving a credit card to usually accepts visa.

    In addition, I use bank of america’s relationship with china construction bank where there are no atm fees or service fees to withdraw at their atm. cash is still king.

  • @Davisson

    I didn’t know about Bank of America, but I ended up getting an account with Schwab due to their no ATM fee policy. I use my Schwab debit card at most bank ATMs in China with no fees and no problems. The bonus is that it’s useful when we travel anywhere else in the world as well.

    Where I live, none of the merchants accept foreign-issued credit cards outside of Discover, and I’m very comfortable giving my credit card to them. Many accept Visa, but only Chinese-issued Visas.

    It’s also worth mentioning that Discover’s quarterly cashback bonuses do apply in China. It’s not much in RMB, but I still appreciate 5% cashback vs. nothing with cash.

  • @Davisson – recently I have heard reports that for BOA card holders using ATM Global Alliance ATMs the 3% foreign transaction fee that was always in the terms but generally not charged is now being charged. BOA-CCB is a separate arrangement, have you seen any 3% charges pop up in the last few months?

    I have the Schwab card as well and love it. Also, pre-Schwab I still have an HSBC Online Savings account that is fee-free at HSBC ATMs which helps in many countries.

  • Ken L

    I’m currently in China and have run into the same issue with cashiers that are unwilling to run the Discover Card at checkout evendors if Union Pay is accepted. A short tutorial on how it works and that they should treat it like Union Pay usually will persuade the cashier to accept it.

    The bigger issue now appears the EMV on the Discover Card does not work in China. The credit card machines require the card to be swiped, EMV fed into the card reader, and then swiped again for it to work. If this is NOT followed exactly your card will be declined. I hope others haven’t run into this issue but I’ve found that I have to explain this exact sequence to every merchant that I have run into.

    The lesson here, make sure you always have cash on hand just in case you get declined at the register.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Ken L – oh boy, I was worried that it was a mistake to request the EMV chip version, my wife will be in Shanghai next week and I expect to hear complaints.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Ken L – my wife has not had any success with old and new card, Discover says old should work, we will keep trying. Transaction in Seoul did go through. Discover not even seeing attempted transactions in China.

  • Brendan Mold

    Was just in China again and was not able to get my Discover card to work at all (Pizza Hut, ATMs, convenience stores, train station, etc.) Last year it worked everywhere without a hitch – I believe I have a new card and did not read Ken L’s advice about swiping/insert/swipe process… very strange. How did you figure that out? I called in twice to Discover to complain about not being able to use it and they were super un-helpful just telling me everything was fine with my card it must be that it wasn’t accepted at that particular merchant.

  • Brendan, I need to do an update post. My wife and I were both in China in Nov and my mother-in-law lives there and all of us have issues with chip Discover cards. My wife kept her non-chip and that still works. Only merchant I got my chip Discover to work was the McDonald’s at PVG that I tried after all others did not go through.