WeChat, China’s number one messaging app is used by 700 million users; one of its most versatile functions is its virtual wallet in which users can use to pay in store and online. Will Ripley from CNN did an experiment and got by in the Chinese capital with just his mobile phone — no cash or cards needed.
At first glance, WeChat Pay does look quite dynamic— and it’s apparently doing so well, except for that it, in practice, is actually more a system that works inside a virtual walled garden. In other words, if you're inside the walled garden of the PRC — you're very much all set to go. International folks like yours truly, who do both Contactless, Apple Pay, and WeChat Pay, also have little to fear.
First, to make WeChat Pay to fully work, you need a bank account in mainland China. Specifically, it should be a mainland China-based bank. Opening one is a random mess at times: the Bank of China, as I've heard reports from the expats community requires a working visa or residence permit; others are slightly more lenient. Most expats report happier times with China Merchants Bank, and I was able to get one there simply by presenting my residence documentation (as I'm married to a mainland PRC citizen).
The next issue is in how they write your actual name. Chinese computers weren't obviously programmed with a space in mind, and to this date, I've seen cases of bank accounts to the name of, quite literally, DOEJOHN (no space)! Others will name your account John Doe or Doe John — you rarely get to pick, and if you have two accounts in China — one called John Doe, the other Doe John — you can't use both bank cards on the same WeChat account.
Quite a number of banks also require you activate at least phonebanking (and the system has been doing cross-checks on a few occasions). The trouble here is that not all systems (WeChat and bank phonebanking) support your passport as your identity document.
So basically, if you wanted a WeChat account with WeChat Pay enabled when you touch down for the first time in Beijing, you're out of luck. Apple Pay or Contactless, maybe…
THE CHALLENGE: EASE OF USE VERSUS E-RED TAPE
But fear is also the word when it comes to the sheer amount of red tape involved. Checking up on your ID is one thing (even outside the e-payments world, a number of banks in China, including the ubiquitous Industrial and Commercial Bank, require secondary checks for anyone who apparently doesn't use a Chinese ID card to sign up); imposing limits is another. The newest set of rules, which are due to take effect on 01 December 2016, restrict how many transfers you can make via WeChat Pay — yes, all it takes is a circular, without going into specifics. They do it in the name of keeping your money safe, but you do have to wonder if there were "other factors" being considered.
In the end, WeChat Pay is a great, functioning system — provided you can use it at all; and with a number of Chinese banks imposing a requirement to obtain a work visa, or other "hard-hitting" requirements, before they allow you to bank with them, it's increasingly not "the" solution if you can't arm yourself with a valid 18-digit Chinese citizen ID number.
WeChat Pay is a little like the British Standard power plug: great design, safety considered, somewhat bulky (not unlike the repeated ID checks), and not very compatible with the wider world out there. I'll continue using it — for the simple fact that I'm in China. But WeChat Pay has not made my wallet any bit thinner!
THE GOOD: WIDELY ACCEPTED ACROSS CHINA
Yes, Big Brother monitors you on WeChat as well, but let's be honest: where on a (relatively) inhabitable part of our "modern" planet can you get by without being monitored these days? For Chinese, it's the convenience that counts.
Some of the most "provincial" dealers accept WeChat pay even if they can't accept UnionPay cards or even standard credit cards. (They usually also do Alipay.) We're looking at people who work in kiosks that don't even have a bank card machine, or even street vendors with nothing more than a cycle and some food. Even taxi drivers accept them — generally. All you do is to ask if you're scanning them, or if you're waiting to be scanned. That's it: the amount is inputted (if it's not done already), confirmed, and the payment is made.
I've been able to pre-pay my parking fee (and use the fast track "paid" lane) with me entitled at times to a 50% discount — available solely via WeChat Pay. The new recent promotion — getting cash back, where you accumulate instant rewards every day from Sunday through to Thursday, then pile up those rewards to use them with a qualifying purchase on Friday or Saturday, — is extremely cool as well. (Most big-name local retailers participate in this, although a few big-name brands — including Apple and Starbucks — have opted out, even as Costa's in.)
UPSHOT: WHICH KIND OF CHINESE PAYMENT SOLUTION IS WECHAT FOR ALL?
This kind of begs the question for me. Sure, WeChat Pay is a China-made payment system that works incredibly well in China — provided you have what is seen as “the usual” for PRC mainland citizens, including a bank account and, ideally, an 18-digit Resident ID number. But that’s stretching it a little for expats, since getting an actual Chinese nationality is, for most expats, next to impossible, thus making life a little harder if you aren’t armed with an 18-digit “citizen passcode”, in essence.
One has to ask, then, which kind of a Chinese payment solution WeChat Pay is. Is it a China-made solution that wants the rest of the world to accept it as-is? If so, it’s doing quite well — there’s no need for a sea change here. But if it’s a new standard that it hopes the rest of the world can slowly accept — as in expecting the rest of us to dance to the WeChat drum beat — then it’s not working that great.
Until the day WeChat Pay is truly “global”, for maximum payment mileage, I’ll have to survive with my makeshift “solution”: Apple Pay and “good ol’ cash and coins”. Here’s hoping in future, I’ll really and truly “just” need one phone to rule ‘em all…