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Update: the cap for the card has been increased to 5,000 RMB. Some users have been able to spend beyond cumulative 5,000 RMB. See the comments for reports.
I’m in Shanghai for our annual fall visit (join us on 11/11/19 for our meetup). I’ve spent several days updating bank accounts with my new passport and getting key China mobile apps working again.
This sounds like it should be trivial. It is anything but, even though I speak and read Chinese and have local bank accounts (though no longer a work visa).
Mobile Payments in China
Alipay (from Ant Financial, part of Alibaba) and WeChat Pay (from Tencent) have been embraced by Chinese to an incredible extent. Many small retailers no longer accept card payments of any kind, some not even cash. Large retailers usually maintain token cash and card lines, while reserving huge areas of self-checkout for Alipay and WeChat Pay.
Users of these apps love the quick payment by QR code scan, frequently with various bank and merchant payment discounts.
The problem for international visitors is these are tied to Chinese IDs and Chinese bank accounts and Chinese mobile phone numbers. Government policy is to have total information and total control in the financial system and in building the social credit system, which runs counter to having the door open for easy commerce by international visitors that lack requisite local credentials.
Complicated workarounds come and go. Such attempts usually end in despair. Think you’ve successfully added an international credit card? Wait for the transaction failed message written only in Chinese.
Realistically, you have needed a Chinese bank account and a Chinese mobile phone number to reliably use either service (a non-Chinese passport has been ok).
Alipay Tour Pass
Alipay announced an international visitor service called Tour Pass.
I was skeptical that it would be usable, yet in crowd-sourcing with a frequent traveler group on WeChat, we have three people who have successfully set up and loaded a Travel Pass, while one has gotten an error that he is not eligible. Thank you to sparkzone, HasteFlier, and others for sharing their experiments with me.
Here’s how it works:
- Download the international Alipay app from Google Play or Apple Appstore (not the AlipayHK ap and not the Chinese local Alipay app).
- Register your info and load with a minimum of 100 RMB / maximum of 2,000 RMB (credit card or debit card accepted).
- Warning: there is a 5,000 RMB cumulative hard cap for the card for the 90-day duration. Once spent, you cannot load more (though there are conflicting reports) and cannot as yet get a new card. Maybe you can get one after 90 days.
- You’ll see a trial transaction of 1 RMB followed by the main load.
- Exchange rate is close to interbank rate (a 500 RMB load today shows as US$71.15, XE’s rate list $71.42).
- No transaction fee to December 31, 2019, BUT the terms say the fee going forward will be a steep 5%.
- Load transaction appears to be a purchase, not cash advance, though have not posted yet (cards tested include the US BofA Premium Rewards, a UK Visa, and an EU Revolut).
- You’ll need to submit a copy of your passport.
- You’ll be asked to submit a copy of your visa, yet some travelers do not need a visa (like visa-free transit); early data points are that submitting passport only or again has worked in lieu of visa.
Once successful you will have a virtual prepaid card from Bank of Shanghai in your account that:
- Is good for 90 days.
- You can use for various in-person payments via QR code.
- You can use in-app miniprograms such as Didi for car service, rather than needing to separately download those apps and set up accounts with them (poke around the “More” screen).
- Unused funds at the end of 90 days will be refunded back to the original purchase card.
How to Set up Alipay Tour Pass
Follow along in screenshots. If this is your first exposure to the info overload busyness of Chinese apps, finding things is a Where’s Waldo experience. For your first install of the app, steps may differ and the Tour Pass might pop up as an initial option.
Home screen look for “More.”
“More” screen look for “TourPass”:
At the “Tour Pass” screen select an amount to load:
If you don’t see Tour Pass you can try to find it by in-app search, though you may get this result, like James (and we don’t know how to fix it):
At the load screen, provide your info and follow the rest of the steps.
If you’ve succeeded, you’ll see this:
Readers, Give it a Try
Let us know what works and doesn’t for you.
The Fine Print
- How often can you get new accounts?
- What is the real limit? The app says each load is a maximum of 2,000 RMB. The terms* say the cumulative load value is capped at 2,000 RMB, which would be a real pain to keep getting new cards (see notes below). Update: the cap for the card has been increased to 5,000 RMB. Some users have been able to spend beyond cumulative 5,000 RMB. See the comments for reports.
For those who want to dig into the details, here are all the terms and conditions:
- “Prepaid Card” User Service Agreement of Bank of Shanghai
- “Tour Pass” User Service Agreement
- Online ServiceAgreement for the Debit Card Quick Payment Service of Bank of Shanghai
- Quick Payment Service Agreement
Bank of Shanghai shall limit the Prepaid Card purchase and recharge, with the minimum recharging limit of RMB 100 and the accumulative recharge amount shall not exceed RMB 2000. The details shall be subject to the prompt on the service page. When you purchase the card or recharge, Bank of Shanghai will deduct the corresponding amount from your bank card issued by International Card Organization on the basis of real-time exchange rate provided by the international card organization and deposit it in your Prepaid Card in the form of RMB. According to the adjustment of business, Bank of Shanghai may limit the recharge amount and frequency at its own discretion.