Credit card usage and acceptance in China have greatly increased over the past decade, particularly in large metropolitan areas such as Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai. That’s good news for many tourists who prefer the convenience of credit cards over carrying large amounts of cash. While many major hotels, department stores and nicer restaurants accept credit cards, it’s helpful to know which cards are widely accepted, and which ones don’t charge a foreign transaction fee.
An agreement between Discover Financial Services (DFS) and China UnionPay, currently China’s only national bankcard payment network, makes Discover the credit card of choice when traveling to China. Under the agreement, Discover cards are accepted at all UnionPay locations, which is everywhere in China that a credit card is accepted.
Discover’s website states that if a decal displaying the Discover or UnionPay acceptance mark isn’t visible, you can still hand over your card for payment if the merchant accepts credit cards, noting that some merchants (especially hotels) don’t always display the acceptance decals.
Discover also notes that, while Discover cards have been accepted in China since 2006, some merchants may still be unfamiliar with the Discover brand. To help cardholders, you can download from Discover’s website a wallet-sized instruction card (written in both English and Chinese) that can be presented to merchants to facilitate transactions.
Added perks with Discover cards: You can use your card at any UnionPay ATM machine for a cash advance, and there are no foreign transaction fees on purchases. Note that Discover specifies that you can use the card in "Mainland China." Some online forums report that Discover cards may not always be accepted in Hong Kong; check ahead with your hotel if you're headed there.
Many hotels, chain stores and tourist attractions accept other international credit cards, including Visa, MasterCard, Diners Club and American Express. A number of cards don’t charge foreign transaction fees and may offer other incentives that benefit frequent travelers. (Decide whether your card's travel benefits make the grade, and read about top credit cards with no foreign transaction fee.) The BankAmericard Travel Rewards credit card, for example, has no annual fee, charges no foreign transaction fees and offers 1.5 points for every dollar you spend. The points can be redeemed as a statement credit for any travel purchase including airfare, baggage fees and hotels.
Other cards that currently don’t charge foreign transaction fees include CapitalOne Venture Rewards, Chase Sapphire Preferred, American Express Platinum, and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Master Card. (Compare Chase Sapphire Preferred with AmEx Platinum.)
The Bottom Line
Even though more businesses throughout China now accept credit cards, you’ll still need cash to pay for goods and services at smaller businesses in major cities and whenever you’re in a rural area.
ATM machines in larger cities typically accept foreign bank cards (look for signs that show which cards are accepted). Be aware that you might pay hefty ATM fees for any amount you withdraw, so limit the number of withdrawals you make. You’ll receive RMB (renminbi, Chinese currency notes, the basic unit being the yuan). It’s a good idea to hang on to your receipt – you might have to show it if you want to exchange your RMB back to your home currency on your way out of China.
It’s not uncommon for businesses in China to add a surcharge to the total cost of your purchase if you use a credit card instead of cash. In some cases, surcharges are a result of how the processing bank handles the transaction. When using some credit cards, the bank that processes the transaction converts the transaction into your home currency at an unfavorable exchange rate, essentially adding 4% to 6% to your bill.
If possible, make sure the transaction is done in the local currency (RMB) with the Chinese bank charging your bank the RMB amount. Your bank will then convert this to your home currency at a fair exchange rate. When in doubt, ask about a surcharge before you hand over your credit card so you can decide if it makes more sense to pay in cash. (For related insight, explore a few key money-saving travel tips for China.)