Outside of major cities, China is still largely a cash-based economy. The Chinese are typically averse to debt and don’t be surprised if you find an overall air of negativity surrounding the use of credit cards.
If you’re limiting your visit to larger cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou, Tianjin or Chengdu, you’ll find no significant problems in using a credit card in China. Outside of big cities, however, you’ll have trouble finding ATMs and businesses that accept credit cards.
What credit cards can I use in China?
Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover, JCB, Diners Club, Federal and Million cards find acceptance in China, although to varying degrees. You may use your credit card at mid-sized to large hotels, restaurants and other businesses in most major cities, but you’ll find very few or no takers in rural areas.
An agreement between UnionPay and Discover ensures that you can use your Discover card at all UnionPay locations, which basically covers every credit card machine in the country. According to Discover, if a merchant accepts credit cards you can use your Discover card even if the business does not display the UnionPay or Discover sign.
Don’t depend on your card
Depending on where you’re going, using your credit card can present challenges. While this can happen in smaller towns and rural areas, the part of a city you’re living in can also have an effect. Even if you see a sign that says a business accepts cards, it’s best to confirm in advance. The sign may be old, the network might be down or the business might not accept credit cards at all. It’s not uncommon for the Chinese to carry up to 2,000 yuan in cash at all times. You might want to keep at least 500 yuan with you, unless you plan to make a purchase that costs more. (See yuan to US dollar conversions below.)
Magstripe and chip credit cards
China is moving from magnetic-stripe technology to safer chip-enabled cards. If you have a magnetic-stripe card, it might be the cause of some confusion because not all clerks have the required know-how to accept them. If you see a card reader and a clerk refuses to swipe your card, just request them to give it a go. If they insist that you need a PIN, ask them to hit the “Enter” button instead. The machine will, in all likelihood, spit out a receipt, which you’ll need to sign. The clerk might be genuinely surprised.
Can I use my chip-and-signature card in China?
If you have a chip-and-signature card, there’s a good chance the clerk you’re dealing with might insist for a PIN. In such a scenario, see if you can get the clerk to process the transaction by hitting the ‘Enter’ button at the point where you’re required to enter the PIN. Once the transaction is through, you’ll need to sign a receipt.
PINs in China
Chinese cards come with six-digit PINs. ATMs 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.
Potential credit card fees in China
You should always keep an eye on credit card fees, all the more so when you’re travelling overseas.
Foreign transaction fees
Most American credit cards will get you to pay foreign transaction fees that typically vary from 2% to 3% of each transaction. Luckily, you can find some cards that come with no foreign transaction fees, examples of which include the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Credit Card and the Marriott Rewards® Premier Visa Credit Card.
Currency conversion fees
When presented with the option of getting your card charged in yuan or US dollars, always opt for the former. You don’t want to go the dynamic currency conversion way, which comes into effect when you make payments in US dollars outside of the US. If you do, you’ll probably end up with an undesirable exchange rate and a currency conversion fee.
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.
Should I use my card to get cash?
Consider using your credit card to withdraw money from an ATM only if it’s an emergency. Interest will start accruing from the day of the transaction, the APR will be higher than the one that applies on purchases and you’ll also need to pay a cash advance fee. The table below serves as an example of how much an overseas cash advance might cost.
Is it safe to use my credit card in China?
Using your credit card in China is basically safe, although you’ll need to exercise at least the same levels of caution you would back home.
- Protect your PIN. Don’t write your PIN anywhere. When entering your PIN, use one hand to hide it from hidden cameras and snooping eyes.
- Select ATMs carefully. Use ATMs found in banks, shopping centers and otherwise busy areas. Avoid ones in isolated spots.
- Keep an eye for skimmers. If you feel that the card slot is not as smooth as it should be or if you think there’s a problem with the keypad, cancel your transaction. Someone might have installed a card skimmer in the machine.
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.
How to prepare before traveling to China
- Carry the right cards. Given the agreement between UnionPay and Discover, carrying a Discover card might hold you in good stead. Ideally, take at least two cards, with the other being a Visa or Mastercard.
- Think about foreign transaction fees. Paying foreign transaction fees does not make sense when you can find cards that come with no foreign transaction fees.
- Inform your bank. Banks keep monitoring accounts to minimize fraudulent transactions. If your bank sees an unexpected purchase made in China, it will have good reason to temporarily bock your card. As a result, let your bank know of travel plans in advance.
- Carry emergency numbers. If you end up losing your card, you should know which number to call. The number you’ll need to call for a replacement is probably a different one.
- Identify your source of cash. You can use your American debit card to withdraw cash from ATMs in China. You can exchange currency by visiting a bank or a currency exchange office, which you’ll find easily in bigger cities. The use of counterfeit bank notes, especially 100 yuan, is becoming increasingly common, so check notes carefully before accepting them.
You can avoid unexpected problems by asking yourself these simple questions before you leave for China.
- Which cards should I take? With China, you have good reason to carry a Discover card. Take a Mastercard or Visa card as backup.
- Did I inform my bank? Unless you want to deal with a possibility of a blocked card, inform your bank well in advance.
- Will I pay extra fees? Check if you’ll need to pay foreign transaction fees. You might also need to pay currency conversion fees in some cases.
- Where will I get money from? Heading to an ATM with your debit card is your best bet. You can also consider converting US dollars to yuan.
China, despite its advances in technology, still remains a largely cash-based society, especially when you move out of the larger cities and towns. While you may get to use your card in the cities easily, keep some cash around for good measure.