It’s a move long overdue, and one that will make a huge difference to travelers in China. After years of trying, authorities have finally allowed Alibaba and Tencent to open up their mobile payment apps to visitors in China. For many foreigners who’ve traveled to the country before, the move is overdue.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba.)

Until now, travelers needed a Chinese bank account to load up their electronic wallets… which is a bit of a problem for anyone who doesn’t actually live in China. So instead of paying with their smartphones like locals do, tourists and business travelers had to whip out cash instead. And some say that in China, banknotes don’t always work.

“A lot of restaurants now in China now only accept Alipay or WeChat Pay, and so the problem is you can’t go and eat in a lot of restaurants you want to go to,” said Shaun Rein, founder of the China Market Research Group and author of “The War for China’s Wallet.”

“The other thing that foreigners complain about is that it’s very difficult for them to book taxis or to arrange for tickets, like at the Forbidden City and a lot of national attractions.”

QR codes for WeChat Pay and Alipay at a seafood stall in a market in Beijing. (Picture: How Hwee Young/EPA)

Unlike in the West, China’s consumers leapfrogged credit cards and have gone straight from cash to smartphones. One reason is that Chinese apps have embraced the QR code — a far simpler, cheaper and more accessible payment method compared to NFC, adopted by Western apps like Apple Pay.

As of June, China is home to about 621 million mobile payment users — nearly 45% of the country’s population. It’s a sizeable chunk of people, but it still means that there’s a huge group left behind by the cashless revolution, including senior citizens. Often, they fall into the same predicament as foreigners unaccustomed to Chinese technology.

“A lot of supermarkets might have one cash-only counter — very often they never even open it — or you might have a hundred people over the age of 70 standing in line trying to buy items because they don’t know how to use a mobile phone,” said Rein.

A customer scanning an Alipay payment code held by a flight attendant on a plane bound for Helsinki from Beijing. (Picture: Zhang Xuan/Xinhua)

Under the new change, Alipay and WeChat now allow foreigners to pay in China by linking up with an international credit card. It’s expected to make lives easier for regular travelers who previously had to resort to creative workarounds to use these apps.

“Nobody uses cash in the big metropolitan areas where I travelled,” said Urs Bolt, a Swiss-based wealth tech and digital assets advisor who visits China for work.

“I asked my local friends to send me some money to WeChat Pay so I could at least pay a local taxi in case I needed to. I had to give her physical cash as I wasn't able to link my foreign credit card.”

Ed Sander, a Dutch lecturer who leads study tours to China for business professionals, gave out "relative cards" to some tour participants for use on WeChat. These are supplementary cards intended for parents who want to give their kids an allowance.

“The disadvantage is that you can only hand out a maximum of four relative cards,” he said. “But between me, my wife and sometimes a local guide we were able to arrange this.”

A WeChat Pay QR code at a vegetable stand in a Beijing market. (Picture: Simon Song/SCMP)

Sander said this week’s changes should be a welcome update for regular visitors. But he also believes that tourists have less of an incentive to use these apps since plenty of merchants still accept paper money. Last year, China’s central bank ordered hundreds of shops to stop rejecting cash.

He also doubts if tourists will go through the trouble of downloading an unfamiliar app that requires users to surrender more than the usual amount of personal data. Alipay, for instance, requires tourists to submit their passport number and a picture of a valid Chinese visa, among other personal information.

Rein, though, thinks privacy concerns won’t stop foreigners from using these apps in China, where alternatives like Apple Pay are far less popular.

“When they’re in China, if they don’t have the apps, they can’t function,” he said. “So the convenience of it outweighs any privacy concerns. And that’s what you’re seeing with mainland Chinese consumers as well.”

“Alibaba and Tencent have way too much data on every individual mainlander. They know exactly where we’re traveling, what we’re buying, who we’re going with, what we’re watching… But mainlanders still use [the apps] because of the convenience. And I expect that foreigners are going to do the same once they’re in China.”