You plan to travel to Shanghai, and you don’t know whether you should bring cash or just rely on your credit cards. I prefer exchanging foreign currency beforehand if possible, or I’ll withdraw money at my destination’s ATM. I would usually put away my credit card until I absolutely have to use it. However, managing money when travelling in Shanghai is a bit different from travelling in other countries.
I published this post more than a year ago, and of course, my opinion on this subject changes the longer I live in this city.
**Don’t worry, the post is not outdated. The most recent update of this article is on January 24, 2018.**
You want to have both cash AND credit card when travelling to Shanghai. For cash, try to get smaller bills if it’s possible.
Exchange your RMB preferably before your departure. If you are the I-withdraw-money-as-I-go kind of person, you should withdraw a decent amount of cash when you find a bank that accepts your ATM card. You can withdraw up to 2,000 RMB each time, and at most, 10,000 RMB per day. What happened to us before is why:
Jim came to visit me from Sweden for five days. What he sometimes does when travelling in a foreign country is to withdraw money from the local ATMs or to use his credit cards. However, we soon discovered that even finding an ATM that would take his MasterCard or VISA in Shanghai was hard. The most common ATM service you see in Shanghai is hosted by ICBC（中国工商银行）, which is at nearly every metro station, and they only accept UnionPay（银联） for withdrawing cash.
Of course, some other banks would take the standard credit cards, but they are usually international banks such as HSBC or Citi, and I don’t see them often. The only local bank that allowed Jim to withdraw cash using his VISA or MasterCard was China Construction Bank（中国建设银行）. At least that was the only one we found.
What about using standard credit cards when eating out at restaurants or make purchases in local stores?
While VISA and MasterCard are the widely used credit cards around the world, China has their own, which is UnionPay. Hence, many restaurants and local stores only accept UnionPay. I assume some touristy places and high-end restaurants in Shanghai would take standard credit cards, but you never know. Overall this is a communist country, and having only one payment method throughout the entire country is completely normal.
So, how the heck do Chinese pay for things? do Chinese carry lots of cash around all the time?
Yes and no. Maybe you’ve heard of it: There’s an app called Alipay (支付宝), and the concept is the same as ApplePay. Alipay is owned by the famous (or infamous) Alibaba Group of China. The other one Chinese use for all kinds of payments all the time is Wechat Pay (微信支付), which is a part of the message app. The use of both payment methods has integrated into Shanghai residents’ everyday life. You might be able to use ApplePay at some places since I’ve seen China Merchants Bank (招商银行) promoting ApplePay. However, I don’t think ApplePay is as common as Alipay and Wechat Pay.
You link your local bank account to AliPay or Wechat Pay, and you can almost do anything money related on the apps. That includes paying at restaurants, supermarkets, transferring money to friends, pay your bills, school tuition, buying funds, train and bus tickets, taxi rides, insurances, making charity donations, among dozens of other services.
These payment methods are so commonly used that some restaurants in Shanghai ONLY accept Alipay and Wechat Pay. They don’t even take cash. (Speaking of making things even more difficult for tourists.)
In fact, I haven’t seen a place that doesn’t accept Wechat Pay or Alipay. I can use it even for buying a few eggs at local supermarkets. I’ve run into situations such as you have enough cash to pay, but the merchant doesn’t have enough change for you.
If you are planning to work and live in Shanghai, you won’t be able to avoid downloading these apps, and you totally should. Trust me. It’s going to make your life in Shanghai so much easier.
Can I use Alipay or Wechat Pay as a traveller?
It’s not very convenient, but it’s doable. For Alipay, I’ve recently discovered that it is possible to link your Visa or MasterCard to it. However, I haven’t tested how well it works.
It seems easier to use Wechat Pay as a traveller, you can read how to add your credit cards to Wechat Pay here.
“Tencent’s WeChat Pay, one of China’s major mobile payment services, announced today that international credit cards are now allowed on the mobile payment platform. Expats living in China and residents of Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan—places where WeChat is ambitiously expanding its user base—can now bind and activate WeChat Pay accounts with credit card services provided by MasterCard, Visa, and JCB.” (WeChat Pay Now Allows Users to Bind Overseas Credit Cards –Technode, January 24, 2018.)
So, how much cash should you bring/withdraw for a five days trip to Shanghai?
I won’t break down the daily cost because I am lazy, and I am terrible at it, but since I used Alipay to pay for both of us most of the time, I have an estimate:
Unless you are looking for Michelin restaurants and luxury shopping, I’d say around 1200 RMB per person will be enough for eating out three meals a day plus fika (Swedish term for snack time), transportation, tourist attraction tickets, and souvenirs. Accommodation not included.
Finally, here is a list of money-related event that has happened to me throughout the year living in Shanghai:
- The store doesn’t accept Visas and Mastercards.
- The ATM doesn’t take Visas and Mastercards.
- The restaurants only take Alipay or Wechat Pay.
- I try to pay with my UnionPay debit card, but the machine is broken.
- I try to pay with Wechat Pay, but the store only accepts Alipay, cash, and credit card.
- I try to pay with Alipay, but the store only accepts Wechat Pay, cash, and credit card.
- I try to pay with cash, but the shop doesn’t have enough change for me.
Seriously, never have I ever ran into these many issues when trying to buy something in a country because usually, cash always works. Yet, as you can see, Shanghai is a different story.
My lessons here?
- Plan your money management wisely before travelling to Shanghai.
- Download Wechat and link your credit cards to it for convenient payment. (It seems more convenient for travellers than Alipay at the moment.)
- Exchange RMB in your country if it’s possible. You can bring up to 20,000 RMB into the country (although I doubt you’ll need that much.)
- Have cash, credit card, and your mobile smartphone at all time. Try to get many small bills (10, 20, and 50s) if it’s possible.
I’ll keep you all posted if anything changes while I still live here. Meanwhile, have a wonderful trip to Shanghai!
Planning on travelling or living in Shanghai? You may want to read these posts, too:
Or you might want to visit the nearby cities:
Also published on Medium.