China has transitioned to a cashless society and everyday payments are now all digital. Everyone uses either WeChat Pay or AliPay to make send and receive money.
If you're from the United States, the closest comparison we can make is Venmo or Zelle. Imagine going to the grocery store or your local bar and paying with your Venmo account.
Every restaurant has a QR code at the table, you can simply scan it to view their menu. This has become common in the US as well since COVID, but take it a step further. The QR codes in China not only opens up the restaurant menu, but you can order directly from the mini app that pops up. It's like combining Venmo and DoorDash. You order and pay directly from the QR code at your table, the restaurant gets the order, and the food comes to your table.
If you are a foreigner who relies on pictures to order (like me), this makes things so much easier. To get such conveniences in your life, you'll need to set up either WeChat Pay or AliPay. After trying and failing to set up WeChat Payments, I found that AliPay was much easier to use and was successful at adding a Visa credit card to my account.
Step 1 - Download the AliPay App
If you are an Android user, be sure to download the AliPay app before coming to China, because the Google App store is blocked by the Great Firewall. Otherwise, you'll need a VPN on your phone before coming to China, so that you can access the Google App store.
Apple users should be fine, since the Apple App store is not blocked in China.
Step 2 - Create Your Account
Using your mobile phone number, you can create a new AliPay account. I used a Chinese phone number when doing my setup, but a US number should work the same.
Step 3 - Add a Bank Card
Once your account is set up, you can add a credit card. Click on the "Me" tab to view your profile and click on "Bank Cards".
Select Credit Card and you can enter a Visa or Mastercard. I added a Chase Preferred Visa card so that I don't get dinged by any foreign transaction fees.
Step 4 - Upload Your Passport Information
While setting up your profile or bank card, you may trigger the "Real ID" notification. It will ask you to input some personal information. When this happens, be sure to select "Region" in the upper top right and choose "United States" or whichever country your passport if from.
You can then proceed to input your passport number and expiration date.
After your make a payment with your Bank Card, you will probably get another notification more verification.
You'll have to take a selfie with your phone if/when this happens. After that, you may also need to verify your phone number via a text message code.
Step 5 - Making Everyday Payments
Once everything is set up, you can open up the AliPay App and click on the "Scan" icon up at the top to scan QR codes. If you see a QR code at a restaurant or boba shop, simply scan it and their mini app will pop up for ordering. You'll need to allow location detection so the app can tell which store you are at.
The menu is going to be all in Chinese, but at least there is usually a picture for all the items on there. For additional translation, I'll take a screenshot and upload it to a translation app such as Bing Translate.
Submitting the order will show a progress screen and an order number, much like DoorDash.
Sometimes a vendor will want to scan your phone for payments, so you can just click on the "Pay/Collect" icon from the home screen to display your payment QR code.
If you plan to take the bus, or other types of public transportation, click on the "Transport" icon from the home screen.
Note: We discovered that you cannot use a Visa card to pay for the bus fare, you'll get a payment error. You'll need some money in your "Balance", otherwise the "Transport" QR code will stop showing up. We are assuming this is because the bus fare is so cheap (2 yuan) and the payment processors won't go through with an international credit card transaction.
While AliPay is super convenient, there's very little English translation available. Your transaction history will mostly be in Chinese, and the menus you go to will also be in Chinese. If you're unable to read the language (like me), it will still be a struggle at times. You can always ask for help when ordering, and someone will make the clicks for you.
On your credit card statement, everything will just show up under "AliPay" as the vendor name. It doesn't seem like the actual vendor information makes it through to the bank, so you'll need to rely on your AliPay transaction history to see what you've been buying.
Some places will charge an additional credit card fee, which will show up when you go to make your payment. This seems to be dependant on the store and most places do not charge a credit card fee.
Cash and normal credit cards will still be accepted, but you should ask beforehand. I was able to pay with my credit card at large chain stores, such as Starbucks. The cashiers will be confused and will probably struggle with a credit card, not knowing how to swipe or insert the chip properly.