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Using Credit Cards in China: Do's and Don'ts


When I'm in America, I rarely have more than $50 cash in my wallet; I use credit cards for nearly everything.

I hope to eventually earn enough frequent flier miles to be able to fly first class from Beijing to Chicago. In the meantime, they're extremely convenient.

But when I'm in China, my credit cards, 信用卡 (xìn yòng kǎ) , stay tucked away in a drawer with important documents like my birth and marriage certificates. 

Why? Because as rapidly as the country is advancing and they want--in many ways--to be like Western countries, neither the banks nor the general public have really caught on to the idea of credit in daily life.

Debt Aversion

Chinese are very debt-averse and the media keeps the citizenry very well-informed of just how much debt American's have gotten themselves into! 

Thus there's an overall negative cloud surrounding credit cards. Even my Chinese husband wonders why I keep my credit cards.

I pay them off monthly and they make it convenient to buy gifts for family back in the States so I don't plan on giving them up anytime soon.  But, I don't use them here in China. I can't, actually. I've yet to find a place in our "small" town of a million people that accepts anything other . than the standard-issue bank cards or yín háng xìn yòng kǎ (银行信用卡)  which function as a debit card.

But I'm in the minority; plenty of foreigners who stick to the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Chengdu and Guangzhou are able to use credit cards on a daily basis with few troubles.

So while most Chinese are still stuffing pink 100 yuan notes in their wallets, foreigners in top-tier cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Wuhan and Chengdu are usually able to use credit cards with relative ease in medium- to large-sized shops, restaurants and hotels.

Use these tips when you need to pay with plastic on your next trip to China:

Ask if they accept credit cards

For those times when you've spent your last pink Mao on taxi fare and the acceptance of credit cards determines your menu plan for the week (instant noodles vs. gourmet burgers made with imported cheese and pickles), it's best to find out before you get to the checkout line and are spared the embarrassment of saying that you don't have cash to pay for a cart full of groceries.

I usually walk over to the cashier and either observe (if I see foreigners) to see if credit cards are being used, or politely ask the clerk, "kě yǐ yòng xìn yòng kǎ fù ma? (可以用信用卡付吗?)"  Her answer determines what goes in my shopping cart!

Insist on trying

The phrase 试试 (shì shi) , meaning 'try', will get you a long way when a well-meaning but financially uneducated store clerk tells you that you can't use your credit card in a large international chain like Wal-Mart or Carrefour or Ikea.

If there's a card reader but they refuse to swipe your card, just ask them to give it a try.

They may also insist that you enter a PIN number. Just say méi yǒu (没有) , hit the 'enter' key and watch their face in amazement as the machine spits out your receipt!

Don't rely on your credit card 

Probably not what you want to hear, but if you're in an area of the city, or even a smaller town like myself, it may not be possible to charge everything.

Get used to using cash and have plenty of cash on hand. Even though a sign in the window says they accept all major credit cards, the network could be down, or the sign could be old and they don't, in fact, accept credit at all!

My Chinese friends tend to carry large amounts of cash with them; it's not uncommon for them to have as much as 2000 yuan in their wallets at any given time.

Unless I'm making a specific purchase, I keep 500 or less with me, but when I'm traveling, I always have more than enough cash stored in various pockets on my clothes and bags just in case my credit card fails me.

And a few practical tips, as you prepare for your trip to China:

Beware of international transaction fees

Before you hop on the plane, contact your credit card company to find out whether or not they charge you international fees because a 3% fee is standard on a lot of credit cards.

If they do charge a fee, and you'll be hanging out in credit card-friendly places, you're better off getting a new fee-free credit card.

It's also a good idea to alert your credit card company to your travel plans

A week before you leave, contact your credit card company to let them know that you'll be traveling internationally.

The message that I send (via the company's message system on their website) goes something like this:

Hi! I'll be in Beijing, China from November 4-15, 2015. Please make a note of this on my account so that I can, if need be, use my credit card during this time. Thanks for your assistance.

Write down your credit card number

A friend had her wallet stolen in Beijing last week. Inside were more than a dozen cards: bank cards, credit cards, prepaid store cards and membership cards.

It took her several hours to track down contact information and call the banks and have them cancel the cards.

Jot down the phone number on the back of your card, plus your card number, expiration date and the three-digit security code on the back so that you have all the info at hand should you lose your card.

And, lest you think it might just be easier to get a Chinese credit card if you're planning on being in China long-term to work or study, you might want to rethink that. You have to go through a rigorous application process, after your bank invites you to apply.

Recently, we got the verbal invite, citing the fact that we've got a paid-for home and some cash in the bank to cover for us should we skip a payment.

Besides having to go through the hassle of finding a Chinese co-signer, the average person coming to China to study or work in a company for a couple of years isn't going to have that kind of cash on hand simply to put in the bank to get a glorified piece of plastic.

We're quite happy just using cash for our day-to-day needs so we declined.

What experiences have you had, or heard of, about using credit cards in China?