Is it possible for a foreign traveler or expat to use bike sharing in China? This is a question that I get a lot and the unfortunate answer is “maybe”. 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 on how to rent a bike using the China bike share programs like Ofo, Mobike and others.
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. You can use Chinese renminbi (cash) to pay to rent a bike in China. In many cases, a Chinese bank account is required in order to pay for these bike shares. Thankfully, there are alternative methods for international travelers that I’ll detail below.
Sadly, 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 China Bike Share: Traveler’s Guide
First things first: in order to rent a bike in China, you need 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 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 as an expat.
If you’re a student in China or you’re working in the country for a year or more, I definitely recommend opening a Chinese bank account.
In these cases, just attach the bank’s UnionPay debit 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.
As you can see in this example above, WeChat users can add the Chinese bank card to their Wallet and use that to pay for pretty much every Chinese bike sharing service.
2. Foreign Credit Cards on WeChat/Alipay
Starting in late 2019, some huge announcements were made by China’s mobile payment companies that would allow for foreign customers to use WeChat Pay and Alipay without a Chinese bank account.
Both platforms are solving the problem in different ways, with different pros and cons.
- Alipay: Alipay is giving international users a “prepaid card” that can be topped up with their foreign credit card. There is a minimum (100 RMB) and maximum limit (2,000 RMB), but the prepaid card can be used to pay for anything from a train ticket to a small pack of gum.
- WeChat Pay: WeChat is partnering with the international payment processors to integrate payment directly through the platform. This means that you just add your foreign credit card information to pay directly through WeChat Pay. There are no set limits, but the problem is that it only works for certain service partners such as DiDi (China’s Uber), Ctrip, 12306 (to buy China train tickets) and JD.com (online shopping).
The differences here are important to note. At this moment, Alipay is the best option for foreign travelers because WeChat Pay hasn’t yet partnered with a company that does bike sharing in China.
Before you jump on a plane to China, download the Alipay app, create an account (make sure to choose that you want the international version) and then top up your prepaid card.
When you download and open apps from Chinese bike share companies like Mobike or Ofo, you’ll be able to add Alipay as a payment method.
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.
Final Thoughts | China Bike Share
Now that you know how easy it is to set up and use bike sharing 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 sharing in China? What was your impression about the process?