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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…