Use our guide to help choose the best credit cards for your trip to China.
China has the highest population in the world, and hosts an abundance of diverse landscapes: from the skyscrapers of Shanghai to the Great Wall of China in the north – you certainly won’t run out of things to see or do. If you’re planning to use your plastic on your travels, or withdraw cash while you’re there, here’s what you need to know.
You can use your UK credit card in most popular tourist destinations and major cities without a problem. Outside of major cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Tianjin or Chengdu, however, China is still largely a cash-based economy. The apps AliPay and WeChat are also popular payment methods.
Compare cards with fee-free currency conversion in China
Cash machines in China
If you plan on visiting larger cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Tianjin or Chengdu, you’ll find no significant problems when using a credit card. You can use your credit card at mid-sized and large hotels, restaurants and other businesses in most major cities. Outside of big cities, however, you’ll have trouble finding businesses that accept credit cards – and cash machines are scarce, too. It’s worth bearing in mind that if you use your credit card to get a cash advance, you’re likely to start paying interest immediately.
Cash in China
“Renminbi” is the official name for China’s currency, and “yuan” is the the name of a unit within the renminbi currency. It can be helpful to understand this by drawing an analogy with British currency, in which “pound sterling” is the official name, but “pound” is the main unit of the currency.
Since China is mostly a cash-based economy, paying by cash is often easier and more convenient. While hotels and large businesses in the major cities may allow you to pay using your card, if you decide to visit smaller stores, markets or stalls, then you will have to pay using cash. For these reasons it is advisable to always carry some cash, just in case you decide to purchase souvenirs or food from smaller vendors. Plus, carrying cash gives you a back-up option in case anything goes wrong with your card.
Chip and PIN
Visa and Mastercard credit cards are widely accepted in China.
China is moving from magnetic-stripe technology to safer chip-enabled cards, meaning that chip and PIN is now the most common method of payment when using your card – just as it is in the UK.
Chinese cards come with a six-digit PIN. Cash machines of some banks accept four-digit PINs, and in some cases you can override the system by keying in two zeros before your PIN. However, this does not work at all ATMs so it is best that you check with your bank before you depart. Don’t forget that three incorrect attempts at entering the PIN will lead to a blocked card.
Is it safe to use my card in China?
By exercising some caution when using your credit card in China, you’ll have a relatively trouble-free experience.
- Keep your PIN safe. Use one hand to enter the PIN and the other to shield it from prying eyes and hidden cameras.
- Select ATMs with care. Try and stick to ATMs in banks and avoid using ones in the street.
- Watch out for “skimmers”. When installed in an ATM, a card skimmer works by stealing information from credit and debit cards. If you feel the card slot is not as smooth as it should be or if there’s a problem with the keypad, cancel your transaction and look for another ATM.
Keeping your credit card (physically) safe
Instances of pickpocketing and theft are common at popular tourist destinations and in areas frequented by foreigners. Take extra care when venturing out after dark. There have been reports of thefts at airports, so remain vigilant when you arrive and depart. Don’t leave your purse or wallet in a parked car. Instances of petty crime tend to increase leading up to the Chinese New Year.
Potential credit card fees
Some shops discourage credit and debit card payments because they have to pay transaction fees to their banks for the convenience. Others tend to charge their customers 1% or 2% extra to cover for the fee.
Credit card fees can leave a noticeable dent in your pocket when you’re travelling overseas, so know what you’re up against well in advance and choose a card with no or low fees.
Foreign transaction fees. British credit card issuers typically charge a fee equivalent to 1% to 3% of your transaction, so carefully review your card’s smallprint to avoid statement surprises. Some credit cards designed for travel come with no foreign transaction fees, so this could be a good time to switch.
The table below serves as an example of how much extra you may pay to use your credit card for in China.
- Dynamic currency conversion fees. If a retailer offers to bill your credit card in sterling, “dynamic currency conversion” comes into play. While this might sound kind of the merchant, you’ll often end up getting a worse exchange rate, and you might also end up paying currency conversion fees. If you have a travel credit card and you’re presented with an option, choose to pay in local currency.
- Surcharges. Businesses in China commonly add a surcharge to the total cost of a purchase when a customer pays with a credit card. In some instances, this cost is a result of fees imposed by processing banks. If you’re not sure, ask about the surcharge before handing over your card.
- Cash advance fees. Using your credit card to withdraw money from an ATM may not make sense unless it’s a bona fide emergency. Each time you withdraw funds from an ATM, you’re likely to pay a cash advance fee. Your APR for cash advances is typically higher than your purchase APR, and you’ll typically get no grace period on interest — instead, you start paying interest immediately. Again, some cards designed for overseas spending will waive the cash advance fee.
What is a cash advance fee?A cash advance fee is calculated (and charged) when you withdraw cash from your credit card. It’s usually the greater of a flat fee or a percentage of the transaction. For example, “2.5% of the transaction, minimum £3.00”.
How to prepare before travelling to China
- Go with Visa or Mastercard. Visa and Mastercard are the most commonly accepted cards in China. However you should always double check with your credit card provider before you depart.
- Think no foreign transaction fees. When there are cards that come with no foreign transaction fees, using ones that charge 2% or 3% of each overseas transaction does not make sense. Some of these cards don’t charge an annual fee, either.
- Keep your bank posted. Banks are likely to block credit cards if they detect suspicious activity such as unexpected overseas transactions. To make sure this does not happen to your card, let your bank know about your travel plans before you leave the UK.
- Keep the emergency number handy. Know which numbers you’ll need to call if you end up losing your card or if you need an emergency replacement.
- Know where you’ll get cash from. Try to avoid exchanging money at airports and popular tourist destinations because of typically poor exchange rates. Plan on getting cash soon after your arrival, since it’s likely you’ll need it early on.
Ask yourself these simple questions before you leave so your spending in China does not hit any roadblocks.
- Which cards will I take? Visa and Mastercard are the favourites. If you’re planning a trip, check out cards which give you complimentary airport lounge access. If you’re planning well in advance, consider earning air miles for your trip with a frequent flyer credit card.
- Have I let my bank know? If you don’t inform your bank about your travel plans, you may end up with a temporarily suspended card.
- What fees do I need to pay? If your existing cards come with foreign transaction fees, look for one that does not. Paying in sterling outside of the UK might come with currency conversion fees.
- How will I get cash? Using your debit card at an ATM is the simplest way to access your own money. You can carry cash and traveler’s cheques with you.
When you’re in China, remember to always keep cash handy on you, or be aware of where the nearest ATM machine is.
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