Mobile Wallets, or How Tourists Get Along in the Chinese Economy

In 2022, Parliament debated a petition demanding the acceptance of cash at all locations in the UK. It was unsuccessful. The Government said it has no plans to “mandate” paper money, as shopkeepers have every right to choose what payment methods they accept.

A year later, in August 2023, the UK Treasury announced that banks could find themselves in bother if householders can’t find an ATM within three miles. While this does seem to lend a hand to cash advocates, etching the dominance of paper in Westminster stone, the rule does little to protect physical money from extinction.

This is a problem for tourists.

Alipay and WeChat Pay

The most cashless society on earth – China – sees 86% of its payments go through mobile wallets, not cash. It’s the first batch of humans to go without physical currency since our ancestors traded beads and berries in the Stone Age.

Ironically, China is the source of modern money, using cowry shells (or metal representations of) as valuable items about 1300 years ago. The Bank of England notes that animals have also served as currency – and still do in parts of Africa.

Payments in China typically go through Alipay and WeChat Pay, two apps restricting payments to the Chinese and their bank accounts. Put another way, it can be difficult for tourists outside this ecosystem to get by in the Asian country.

Even major names like MasterCard and Visa have a limited presence in the country, as China tries to ensure that local businesses get the lion’s share of the country’s money. This isn’t unique to finance. The American video game World of Warcraft is published in the country by NetEase, a Chinese company.

Of course, tourism is a major part of any country’s income so China has recently begun increasing access to cash and adding new mobile wallets to its list of accepted payments. It doesn’t seem interested in letting foreign nationals into its economic heart just yet, however.

Apple Pay and Google Pay

Mobile wallets already have a significant presence in finance, especially online. While Amazon might be the obvious place to pay digitally (it offers Apple Pay, Masterpass, and Visa Checkout), e-wallets seem to have carved themselves a place in entertainment, too.

The CasinoStake website notes that Apple Pay and Google Pay join traditional plastic and the ultimate expression of digital currency, Bitcoin, within the casino industry. Its Fortune Tiger slot review adds that these payment methods ensure the user’s money is secure and easy to move around

China hasn’t added support for Apple Pay and Google Pay just yet, perhaps because the two companies are competitors to its tech industry. Instead, China is expanding support for East Asian travellers in particular with the following digital wallets:

  • Alipay (Hong Kong)
  • mPay (Macau)
  • Touch ‘n Go eWallet (Malaysia)
  • Hipay (Mongolia)
  • Changi Pay and OCBC (Singapore)
  • Kakao Pay, Naver Pay, and Toss Pay (South Korea)
  • TrueMoney (Thailand)

Western visitors have access to these options, too. If in doubt, it’s possible to open a bank account at the Commercial Bank of China with a passport.

Is the UK headed this way? It’s unlikely – at least for the moment. Early estimates for the arrival of a completely cashless Britain suggested 2028, while more recent ideas seem to favour the 2040s. Perhaps when the Bank of England has finished updating 4.7bn bank notes with the King’s image, the country will be ready for a change.


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