Is it possible for a foreign traveler or expat to use bike share in China? This is a question that I get a lot and thankfully the short answer is “yes”. However, as with most things in China, it’s not always that easy. For this reason, I’d like to offer a complete traveler’s guide to using bike share programs like Ofo, Mobike and others in China.
Once you start walking around most major Chinese cities, it will be hard to ignore the thousands of colorful bicycles that line the streets on either side. People have thoroughly embraced the idea of bike sharing in China, and despite recent troubles these cheap but convenient bikes are everywhere.
As somebody who has lived many years in China, I can tell you that these bikes can be extremely convenient. A simple bike can turn a long 30-minute walk from the subway station into a quick five-minute ride (often for only a few pennies!).
Best of all, there’s no need to worry about anybody stealing your bike. You just scan the bike to unlock it and then lock it up whenever you reach your destination.
*Note* This article is one of many taken from the book Travel to China | Everything You Need to Know Before You Go. Be sure to check out this indispensable “how to” guide for China travel before your trip! Available on Amazon as both a Kindle download and a paperback.
The Problem: Restrictions for China Travelers & Expats
There’s been one (relatively big) problem with foreigners using the bike share in China: they’ve historically been difficult for tourists to use.
Why is that? Well, let’s take a deeper look into what it takes to unlock one of these China bike share bicycles. There has usually been two important requirements:
- A Mobile Phone: In order to unlock and use the bike share in China, you need a phone that has network access to the internet. This isn’t hard, but it does take a bit of work. You can use your own phone with an international roaming plan, you can purchase a China SIM card for your phone (it must be unlocked for this to work) or you can just rent a phone to use in China.
- A Method of Payment: This is the one that trips up most tourists and expats. It used to be that a Chinese bank account was required in order to pay for these bike shares. Thankfully, there are alternative methods for international travelers that I’ll detail below.
Unfortunately, there is no program where you can purchase temporary credits or use cash to buy time on one of these bikes (unless you pay a nearby Chinese person to unlock a bike for you – which they probably wouldn’t/shouldn’t do).
It has to be on a smart phone with network access. And it must be paid online through either a bike share app or WeChat.
End of story. Or is it?
How to Use Bike Sharing in China (without a China bank account)
First things first: you can’t get around the need for a smart phone with network access. This is a non-starter. If you don’t plan to use your mobile phone while you travel or live in China, you won’t be able to make use of bike share in China.
However, if your only hangup is the method of payment, I’m happy to share with you that there are a couple ways to do this.
1. The China Bank Account/WeChat Method
Obviously, you could try to open a Chinese bank account, but that’s very hard – if not impossible – to do on a tourist visa. It’s a hassle and there’s really not much value unless you’re living in China for a longer period of time. If you’re a student or you’re working in China for a year, this is something to consider.
For those who are living in China for a long time, it’s best to open a Chinese bank account and then attach that UnionPay bank card to your WeChat account. This will allow you to pay for almost anything using WeChat, which at this point is more popular than credit cards in China.
You may see reports that WeChat now allows you to add a foreign credit card to your WeChat wallet. Unfortunately, I’ve tried to add my credit card to WeChat and it didn’t work well for me.
Even for those who have been able to add their foreign credit card to WeChat, it only allows you to pay for certain items using the credit card and a bike sharing app, unfortunately, isn’t one of them.
2. The Tourist-Friendly Alternative – Mobike
Thankfully there are a few companies that do bike share in China in addition to the rest of the world. They allow you to open up an account in your home country, add your own payment to that account and then use that account internationally in a place like China.
Mobike is an excellent example. You can download the Mobike app in your own country (iOS and Android) and attach it to your own bank account before you leave for China. You can use the app while in China and the charges will be made in the currency of the country where the account is registered. Mobike converts the payment automatically.
In order to do this, you’ll need to:
- Download Mobike to your Mobile Phone: Using your phone in your home country, search for “Mobike” in the App/Play store and click to download.
- Create an Account & Add Payment: You’ll be required to create an account with your phone number and asked to add a method of payment.
- Use the App in China: Once you land in China, you’ll need to make sure you have internet access and then you can open the English app to use in China.
The obvious downside to this method is that you’re restricting yourself to only one option for bike share in China: Mobike. There are many, many more to choose from.
The good news is that Mobike is ubiquitous throughout China so you shouldn’t have a problem finding the orange bicycles scattered on sidewalks and around subway stops everywhere.
*Update 2019* It used to be that Ofo was another great option, but ever since they started to scale back their international in December of 2018, even the Chinese have been abandoning the service in droves.
How to Unlock and Use a China Bike Sharing Bike
One quick lesson for those who have never used China’s bike sharing apps like Mobike or Ofo before.
Unlocking and using a shared bike is crazy easy. The app can help you find a bike if you don’t see one immediately, but chances are you’ll see one of the bikes you’re looking to rent without any help.
Once you’ve found a bike that fits you well and isn’t broken (look carefully, these bikes get beat up easily), open the app on your phone and scan the QR code on the bike.
On some bikes, such as the Ofo you see above, you will be given a code that you can use to unlock the device. On other (better) bikes, the Bluetooth on your phone will automatically unlock the bike. That’s the way it is with Mobike in China.
During your ride, keep the app running on your phone – at least in the background. It will track your distance and time.
When you’re finished, park the bike near other bikes and click the lock on the back. It will take a couple seconds for the lock to register with your phone, but once you hear the “beep” you know you’re set. Leave the bike and go about your business.
Conclusion | Bike Sharing in China
Now that you know how easy it is to set up and use bike share in China, there’s no reason not to jump in and enjoy it! Download the Mobike app on your Apple phone or Android device and then make sure that you have network access when you get to China (I also recommend a VPN – here’s a list of the best VPNs for China).
Using the bicycles is extremely cheap and although the bikes aren’t always that comfortable, they do make the long walk to your hotel a lot faster.
Have you used the bike share in China? What was your impression about the process?