How to buy things in China

I think I am a typical American. I have a debit card from my bank. I have Visa and AmericanExpress credit cards. I don’t carry very much cash.

Before I discuss the challenges of buying stuff in Shanghai, China; let me lay out my understanding of the evolution of credit, etc. in the US, so we can compare.

I grew up in the 1970’s. My mom wrote checks and my dad mostly used cash. I am not sure Chinese people ever wrote checks. My translator had never seen a checkbook. I write 3-5 checks per year now, as I use automatic payments for most of my bills. But writing checks was the norm for a very long time.

In the 1980’s credit cards became mainstream. They had been around for decades before that, but your average person didn’t have a credit card in the 60’s or 70’s. And credit cards, for most people, started with a local store card. My first credit card was for Target. It eventually evolved into a Visa, but they started as a single-store card.

Also in the 80’s was when people stopped getting a check from their employer that they then had to deposit in their bank. Direct deposit is now the only payroll option available for most companies. It is cheaper and convenient. My paycheck is deposited automatically, in the middle of the night when I am sleeping.

As writing checks was starting to be phased out in the early 1990’s, banks began issuing debit cards. A debit card looks like a credit card, but the owner must have money in their account in order to make a purchase with a debit card. In theory, you needed to have money in your account in order to write a check; but there was typically a 2-3 processing delay before a check cleared. Debit cards deduct money from your account immediately (almost). And, if you didn’t have the funds; well, the bank might let the purchase go through anyway and then charge you a $35 overdraft fee. Banks in the US made billions of dollars charging fees to their customers.

The last big change to happen in the US with debit/credit cards started a few years ago when the banks started putting chips in our cards. Chip/pin has been the norm in Europe for many years. It has been deemed, by many, to be more secure than the swipe/signature method the US was using to process credit card charges. And really, did anyone ever check the signature on the receipt to make sure it matched the signature on the account. No! Traveling in Europe without a chip card was difficult.

Traveling in China with any US debit/credit card is difficult. Cash was the norm, but that is quickly changing.

The norm in Shanghai is paying via WeChat or Alipay, and to a lessen degree – Apple Pay. My interpreter told me she doesn’t need to carry a wallet. She uses apps on her mobile phone to buy what she needs – groceries, subway tickets, restaurant meals.

I don’t think this will catch on in the US. I’ve seen Apple Pay for a few years now, but Americans are worried and fearful of the security of using our phones to make purchases. There have been so many hacks in the US, and identity theft continues to be a big problem here.

I wanted to try WeChat, but I think I need a Chinese phone number and bank account in order to set up WeChat’s wallet. I also tried to link my US credit card with Alipay, but that didn’t work either. I think I successfully set up Apple Pay, but I haven’t tried it yet.

I was able to use cash to purchase subway/metro tickets, but not my US cards.

I like using the kiosks at McDonald’s to order, as they have an English option, but I can’t pay at the kiosk. If you wait a minute or so at the payment screen it will eventually give up and give you a piece of paper that you can take to the counter where you can pay cash.

I’ve eaten at a few restaurants that took a US card, but that seems to be the exception in Shanghai.

I don’t mind using cash, but I understand the speed and convenience of using an app on my phone to make purchases. It seems foreign right now, but I assume I will get used to it.

And maybe it does become the norm in the US….someday.



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