Paying for things in China has become an increasingly frustrating experience for tourists in China, where mobile payments have become the norm. But Alipay and the Bank of Shanghai have now made it much easier.

As China has shifted to payment platforms like Alipay and WeChat Pay, cash has become an increasingly rare sight in the country. Many places no longer accept cash at all. The problem for foreigners is that these platforms require a Chinese bank account, and it’s become difficult for people on tourist visas to open bank accounts in China.

The new mini-program within Alipay changes that. Tour Pass lets you add funds from an international credit card or debit card. It’s already live, and it lets users shop online with Alipay or use the app to pay at shops and restaurants. This should help people look a little less touristy in China the next time they pay for a meal by reaching for their phones instead of their wallets.

(Abacus is a unit of the South China Morning Post, which is owned by Alibaba, whose affiliate Ant Financial operates Alipay.)

Alipay users can find the mini program just by searching for Tour Pass within the app. When they open it up, they have the option to top-up a digital prepaid card from the Bank of Shanghai.

Tour Pass lets you add funds to Alipay from an international bank card. (Picture: Alipay)

This may come as a relief to many people who travel to China, but setting up the account still isn’t seamless. As with normal Alipay accounts, users must submit their passport number and upload a picture of a valid Chinese visa.

Setting up an Alipay account also requires a phone number. Most overseas numbers should work, but Alipay said numbers from Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan aren’t eligible to use the feature. It appears foreigners can still use the app when they sign up with Chinese phone numbers, but Alipay hasn’t confirmed if this also works for other Greater China regions.

Once everything is set up, users can add money to Tour Pass using bank cards from Visa and Mastercard, among some other supported options. Users have to top-up a minimum of 100 yuan (US$14), and the balance is capped at 2,000 yuan (US$282).

Inside the Great Firewall, China’s homegrown services catering to domestic consumers have thrived. More than 621 million people now use mobile payments in China, with Alipay and WeChat Pay together making up more than 90% of the market.

But while these platforms have benefited many people, they’ve locked out some users like foreigners and China’s older, less tech-savvy population.

Before Tour Pass was launched, the best way for foreign visitors to use Alipay in China was by asking someone with a Chinese bank account to transfer money within the app, as explained in our China Survival Guide series. WeChat has allowed users to connect international credit cards to WeChat Pay for a while, but foreigners can’t use them to pay with WeChat in China.

“Technology is transforming China into a remarkably convenient and efficient society in many ways, but also making the country increasingly un-navigable for foreigners,” wrote Zara Zhang in December 2017, who was then an investment analyst at GGV Capital.

Like with any other Alipay account, tourists can now scan a QR code to pay using Alipay while shopping and ride-hailing, Alipay says. (Picture: Alipay)

Last week, the Shanghai bureau of China’s central bank said in a statement that it’s exploring ways to “break the barrier” and allow foreigners to use mobile payment tools in China. Some also point out that Alipay’s move comes after Paypal entered the Chinese market by buying a local firm.

While paying for things won’t be a problem for tourists anymore, Tour Pass doesn’t give foreign users access to all of Alipay’s functions. Alipay told us that Tour Pass users can’t transfer their Tour Pass money to other Alipay users. So splitting a dinner bill with friends could still be a hassle.