Money in China

Paying for Things in China? Here’s a New Solution! (U.S.-only)

Getting caught traveling in any foreign country without access to money is my worst nightmare. Over the past few months, I’ve been testing out a new global payment solution that has not only saved me money, it’s also been more reliable than my debit card. Best of all? Because it’s based on UnionPay, it has a 100% acceptance rate at all ATMs and stores throughout China and pretty much all of Asia. Let me explain.

There’s a fundamental problem that every traveler faces when it comes to payments in China. It goes like this:

  1. China is rapidly moving toward a cashless society. Mobile payment systems like WeChat and Alipay have replaced cash as king.
  2. Tourists can’t use mobile payments because it now requires registration via a Chinese bank account (which tourists can’t open).
  3. Fewer and fewer shops are accepting cash and most don’t accept Visa® or MasterCard®.

Even many expats in China are finding themselves between this proverbial rock and a hard place. China is moving toward mobile payments without providing a global payment solution for foreigners.

Fortunately, I’ve come across a fix for the problem that might end up being a life-saver for any tourist and expat coming to China.

Allow me to share with you my experience with this a prepaid global payment solution for payments in China.

Note: Some of the links below are affiliate links, which means that at no extra cost to you, I may be compensated if you choose to apply for ECARD. I only recommend what I use personally, and I appreciate your support to make this website content free!

My Experience with ECARD (and how it fixes the problem)

Earlier this year, I applied for and received a UnionPay-branded ECARD.

This ECARD is a prepaid card, not a credit card, but it has quickly become the go-to card in my wallet while in Asia (and specifically China). I’m going to give you a quick ECARD review as well as share what I like and don’t like about it.

You see, if you’ve traveled anywhere in Asia, you might have noticed that while Visa® and MasterCard® are unreliable, UnionPay is different. You’ll find the logo everywhere you go.

And in case you don’t believe me, here’s an interesting fact you may not have known: UnionPay is bigger in terms of total transaction value than any other major credit or debit card network. Crazy, right?!

What’s more important to know, however, is that UnionPay is accepted in 100% of the ATMs in China, in any store that accepts card payments, and it’s also accepted everywhere else in Asia and eastern Europe.

In Asia, a UnionPay card is like gold.

The only way I’ve found to get a UnionPay card for foreigners outside of China is with the ECARD.

The process to obtain and use an ECARD was simple:

  • Apply for the Card: I applied for the ECARD on their website. The application process by law required my social security number (so you have to be a legal US resident) and a copy of a government-issued ID, but since it’s not a credit card, there is no credit check that is done.
Application required me to upload a photo ID as well.
  • Receive the Physical Card: Less than a week later, I received the physical card in the mail. It’s a sleek-looking gold card with both a magnetic strip and a chip. It’s the only UnionPay card for foreigners that’s in my wallet.
  • Activate the Card: I activated my account online (they also have a mobile app) and added funds to the card. This can be done in multiple ways, but I chose to do direct transfer from my US bank account.
  • Use the Card: I use the card by swiping it anywhere that UnionPay is accepted. In the United States, I can even use it through the Discover network.

It’s a simple enough process, but if you’re like me, you’re still a bit skeptical. Does having a UnionPay card for foreigners really make things better/easier when you’re in China?

Pros and Cons of Using ECARD in China

I’ve been using my debit or credit card at ATMs in China for years to pull out cash and it’s worked fine. Why change?

As I stated in the beginning, only a fraction of the ATMs in China accept Visa® or MasterCard® and even when they do, the exchange rate is terrible when pulling cash.

Also, many travelers want to use WeChat or Alipay, but the problem is that foreign travelers can’t use mobile payment platforms even though they advertise the use of foreign credit cards (spoiler: it doesn’t work).

Benefits of Using ECARD in China

This is where the ECARD tends to shine. I’m going to break down the pros of a global payment system like ECARD into three parts:

  1. Universal Acceptance at Asia ATMs: When you’re walking around any part of Asia, including China, Thailand, Vietnam, etc., every single ATM will accept the UnionPay ECARD. You may not realize it now, but that’s a huge obstacle that you no longer have to worry about.
  2. Better ATM Conversion Rates: Not only can you use any ATM you find, but you’ll also get the UnionPay conversion rates, which are much better than what you’ll get from your bank at home.
  3. Better Foreign Transaction Fees: While there are some travel credit cards that waive foreign transaction fees, most pre-paid cards I’m aware of have 3% foreign transaction fees. With ECARD, those fees are cut in half to only 1.49%.
  4. Online & App Tracking / Management: I really like this: I can log into my ECARD account on either my computer or on my phone to track my spending, top up the card, put a temporary hold on the card or even change my PIN number.
I used ECARD at Starbucks and was able to instantly check my balance on the app.

As an expat living abroad (both in China and Thailand), I have saved literally hundreds of dollars in ATM fees or bank wire fees. It’s awesome.

Apply for the UnionPay-branded ECARD

For travelers, it’s a way to mitigate risk (you don’t have to use your credit card overseas) and because it’s a UnionPay card for foreigners, you can be sure that you’ll be able to pay for things no matter where you travel in Asia.

Challenges of Using ECARD

There are a few cons to using the ECARD that I’ve realized the more I use it. These are pretty trivial, but I think they are worth mentioning.

First of all, I think I need to clearly state for the record that getting this UnionPay card does not mean you’ll be able to use it to open a WeChat Wallet. WeChat and Alipay require cards directly connected to a Chinese bank, which ECARD isn’t. Bummer.

My biggest gripe, though, has been the amount of time it takes to top up the ECARD. After connecting my bank, the transfer took a full 4 business days to complete. In the future, I’ll be able to take this into account as I plan my spending, but it does present problems if you’re in a bind and you need to add money fast.

While doing research for this ECARD review, I was told by company representatives that they’re working to get the transfer time down to 1-2 business days. This would be much better, but in a world that revolves around “instant”, a couple days still feels like a long time.

Is a Global Payment Solution Right for You? ECARD Review

I travel a lot all around Asia. I also live here. For this reason, as you can tell in this ECARD review, this solution makes a lot of sense for me.

Obviously, ECARD is not a solution for everybody, but considering the money challenges China presents, it’s definitely a good option worth exploring.

One thing is for sure: getting the card costs you nothing and it might end up saving you money (conversion rates) and headache (trying to pay for things). Go ahead and apply for your own ECARD to give it a try.

Apply for the Free ECARD

And once you’ve got this new UnionPay card for foreigners, email me or leave a comment below to let me know what you think. Have you enjoyed using the card?

The ECARD prepaid card is issued by Global Bank of New York (Member FDIC) pursuant to a license by UnionPay International Company, Ltd.

Further Reading & Resources

Josh Summers

Josh is the founder of TravelChinaCheaper.com who has been living in China with his family since 2006. Over that period of time he has traveled by plane, train, car, motorcycle and even camel to explore almost every corner of the country.

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