Imagine taking the subway during rush hour in a major metropolitan area. After making your way through the crowd, fighting your way to the turnstile, you’re stopped by a single person fumbling with a phone and holding up other disgruntled commuters.

The holdup has become a common scene in many of China’s cities because of an important piece of technology central to mobile payments in the country: QR codes.

The ubiquity of mobile payments in China means that when it comes time to pay, most people are tapping through their phones to get to the right app and pull up the QR code. Companies have even found workarounds to allow refreshing the codes when users are offline, like during a flight without Wi-Fi.

But typically, generating and scanning a QR code is quick, and it was a cheap technology to implement. Once it became the default payment system, it was only a matter of time before it started invading public transportation. This is in spite of the fact that that NFC (near field communication), which is used by Apple Pay and Google Pay (among many others), is considered faster and more secure and has even proliferated in China over the years as costs have come down.

Rush hour in China is not the place to be fumbling with your phone. (Picture: Shutterstock)

Paying with QR codes is deeply ingrained in China, where people have been happy to use them on subways and buses in lieu of transit cards. Tencent announced this week that since its launch two years ago, the WeChat mini program Ride Code has grown to 100 million users, all paying for public transportation with the app’s QR codes.

Ride Code is just one solution among many that enables commuters to pay with QR codes. Alibaba’s Alipay and JD Finance also have their own options.

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

“QR codes exploded in China because people had a QR reader by default thanks to WeChat,” said Philip Wiggenraad, head of research at Tofugear. “Now the entire infrastructure is in place, so if it ain't broke, don’t fix it.”

But while QR codes have proven remarkably effective at meeting most people’s mobile payment needs, it seems ill-suited for public transit compared with NFC. Since NFC relies on radio waves, payment requires only a tap of the phone. There’s no need to wake it up or turn the screen on, making it as convenient as traditional transit cards.

The limitations of the technology are apparent even as cities race to install QR code scanners in turnstiles across the country. Over time, though, the inconvenience might be enough to nudge China away from its reliance on QR codes.

“QR codes do have some problems in the field of transportation, especially in rush hour, when it is easy to cause congestion,“ said Jiang Feng, founder of online research magazine Mobile Payment Network.

The technology is already having an impact in unexpected ways. In April, the transportation payment app Tianfu Tong caused many tech-savvy commuters to be late for work in Chengdu when it stopped generating new QR codes. Commuters were forced to line up at ticketing machines to buy tickets like it was the 20th Century.

Turnstiles with multiple payment options are becoming common in China. (Picture: Shutterstock)

Many of China’s subway turnstiles have multiple payment options, including NFC. Even so, it doesn’t seem to have helped NFC adoption in the country. 

In some ways, QR codes are a holdover of days gone by when NFC-equipped phones were pricey and NFC terminals were nowhere to be found. There was also the matter of competition.

Early on, NFC was championed by state-owned financial services company UnionPay, which contributed to slow progress of the technology, Feng said. Alibaba and Tencent went with QR codes, and their respective payment services Alipay and WeChat Pay quickly became popular, she added.

There are signs things are starting to change. Both Alipay and WeChat Pay already offer an NFC option for public transportation. And the number of NFC-equipped smartphones has been steadily rising in recent years, with about 45% of phones costing more than 1,500 yuan (US$217) having the feature, according to iResearch. Many domestic brands like Huawei, Xiaomi and Oppo have been putting out NFC-equipped phones for years.

Even if NFC use grows among commuters, though, the tech may have missed its chance in China. Many Chinese consumers have already moved on to the next evolution in payment tech: Facial recognition. It’s even showing up in subways in some parts of the country. Some cities have started trialing facial recognition systems that automatically deduct fares from a linked account with just a glance at a screen.