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Mobile payments in china

Mobile payments in China: How China became a cashless, mobile-first country

An unmistakable shift towards a cashless society can be observed in China with electronic payments becoming widely prevalent throughout the country. The influence of digital payments extends beyond urban centers to rural areas, where it has positively impacted the lives of residents and small businesses. With the integral role of mobile payments in China examining this trend closer could offer valuable insights into the country’s evolving financial landscape.

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Mobile payment adoption in China amidst COVID-19

Chinese individuals widely utilize mobile payment platforms for various purposes, including settling restaurant bills, ordering food delivery, making online and offline purchases, as well as paying bills and for various services. As of June 2023, approximately 943 million individuals in China were actively utilizing mobile payment services. While the rate of new user adoption had started to slow down post-2017, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a surge of new users. Nearly all mobile payment users (99.8%) engage with these platforms daily, with usage frequency ranging from one to three times daily (54.9%) to exceeding ten times per day.

mobile payment users in China
Data source: Statista, designed by Daxue Consulting, Number of mobile payment users in China from 2018 to H1 2023

China’s mobile payment: A global trendsetter with a 38.3% penetration rate

Leading the global trend with a penetration rate of 38.3% in 2023, the highest among 44 surveyed countries, China’s vibrant payment app market is widely embraced by retailers, restaurants, and e-commerce platforms. The distinct business landscape, featuring numerous small enterprises, has fostered a notable leapfrog effect, skipping widespread credit card adoption and directly transitioning from cash to payment apps. Despite this remarkable mobile payment adoption, the overall annual transaction value per customer remains higher in the United States and various European countries, including the UK, Portugal, and Scandinavian nations.

User penetration rates and transaction values in the mobile point-of-sale segment in 2023
Data source: Statista, designed by Daxue Consulting, User penetration rates and transaction values in the mobile point-of-sale segment in 2023

China’s mobile payment landscape: The dominance of Alipay and WeChat Pay

Alipay and WeChat Pay have emerged as the clear favorites for mobile payments in China over the past year with an overwhelming 92% and 85% preference, respectively. UnionPay, associated with a significant state-owned card payment network, secures the third position, with 45% of respondents opting for its services.

Mobile payments in china
Data source: Statista, designed by Daxue Consulting, China’s top 5 digital payment options in 2023


Alipay, launched by Alibaba Group in 2004, is a prominent online payment platform with 1.3 billion users worldwide as of 2022. It integrates online and offline services, offering features like instant credit, installment payments, and cash back. Many major websites use Alipay as an e-commerce payment method, such as Taobao, Amazon,, and AirAsia

Furthermore, leveraging advanced biometric technology, Alipay has gained popularity for its facial recognition payment option, particularly among consumers who prefer offline transactions. This innovation enables consumers to shop without the need for a mobile phone, offering added convenience.


WeChat Pay is a popular digital wallet in China introduced by Tencent’s WeChat in 2011. WeChat’s success is attributed to its versatile interface, integrating social media and mobile payment services, along with compatibility with various in-app applications such as WeChat Mini Programs. WeChat Pay extends its services in China to include a range of financial products, from investment funds to insurance, enabling users to make payments directly within the app. In 2022, around USD 400 billion transactions were done through WeChat.


China UnionPay (UnionPay) ranks among the top three payment methods in China. As the exclusive domestic bank card issuer in China, UnionPay links ATMs of major and smaller banks across mainland China, functioning as an Electronic Funds Transfer at Point of Sale (EFTPOS). Unlike Alipay and WeChat Pay, UnionPay is not a digital wallet; it is the sole issuer authorized for card payments in China.

Scan, pay, go: The ubiquity of QR codes in China’s mobile payment landscape

In China, QR Codes are widely used for making and receiving payments. Even street musicians provide their QR codes to receive money. There are two simple ways to pay using QR Codes:

  1. Customers scan the seller’s QR code, usually visible at the checkout, on restaurant tables, or on products in stores. After choosing the amount, they can send the money directly to the seller and show the confirmation to the seller.
  2. Customers display their own QR codes on their smartphones. The seller selects the amount, scans the QR code, and the transaction is done. This method is faster, as it skips the extra step of transaction confirmation.

Unlike Apple Pay, which needs special equipment for sellers to receive payments, in China, a basic piece of paper with a QR code is sufficient. This simplicity and accessibility have fueled the widespread adoption of mobile payments in China, making it easy and fast for anyone with a mobile device.

How safe are mobile payments in China? Navigating mobile payment risks

China UnionPay’s report released in early 2023, reveals a reduction in unsafe user habits, dropping from an average of around 2 per user in 2021 to 1.2 in 2022. Declines are seen in behaviors like using identical passwords and scanning promotional QR codes.

Respondents demonstrate high awareness of personal information security, with less than 10% engaging in potentially unsafe bank card-related actions. Almost 50% express a willingness to report issues through the National Anti-Fraud Center app.

However, telecom fraud remains a significant concern, affecting two-thirds of respondents. Profit-return fraud, especially “part-time brushing fraud,” is prominent. Emotional fraud, targeting those under 25, persists, with both this group and those over 55 identified as high-risk demographics. The younger demographic shows lower awareness of smartphone and bank card protection, while the older group is vulnerable to scams involving false medicine and health products.

Frequently asked questions for foreigners regarding payments in China

Can foreigners use WeChat Pay?

Foreign residents in China and tourists alike can easily open WeChat Pay accounts, facilitating seamless transactions. For residents, the process involves linking a Chinese bank card and a mobile phone number to the account through the “Wallet” option in WeChat. Approval typically takes around one day, enhancing accessibility.

Tourists visiting China can also enjoy the convenience of WeChat Pay by linking their international credit cards since 2019. Tencent collaborates with major international card organizations such as Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover Global Network, and JCB. A nominal service fee is charged for every international credit card linked to the account.

Can foreigners use Alipay?

Foreign residents in China can easily open Alipay accounts by linking a Chinese credit card and phone number through the Alipay app, requiring real name authentication with details like name, date of birth, and a passport picture. For tourists, Alipay offers the “Tour Pass” option on the international app, enabling depositing money with international credit cards.

e-CNY aiming to shift the global financial landscape

China’s digital yuan, the e-CNY, initiated in 2019, aims to centralize payment systems dominated by Alibaba and Tencent. The e-CNY project, led by the People’s Bank of China, focuses on improving payment system efficiency, providing a backup for retail payments, and enhancing financial inclusion. In January 2022, Meituan, the leading delivery platform in China started to allow 200 of its offline merchants to accept payments in e-CNY. The merchants include restaurants, grocery tores, cinemas, and hotels.

However, after almost three years of testing, domestic adoption has been limited, leading China to explore international applications, potentially challenging the US dollar’s dominance in global finance. Project mBridge, a wholesale Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) pilot for cross-border transfers, aims to offer an alternative to the correspondent banking system, potentially challenging the US dollar’s geopolitical advantage.

While the e-CNY’s impact on the global financial order is uncertain, it underscores China’s efforts to internationalize its currency. The US Federal Reserve is also researching CBDC systems for large-value cross-border transactions, reflecting a broader trend in exploring digital currencies for international trade. The potential disruption to the US dollar’s power by the e-CNY is seen as a long-term and complex process, involving technological, legal, and governance challenges.

Cashless revolution: Exploring China’s mobile payment landscape

  • Over 943 million individuals actively use mobile payments in China as of June 2023 and the country leads the global trend with a 38.3% mobile payments penetration rate.
  • Alipay and WeChat Pay are preferred by 92% and 85% of Chinese respondents, respectively. UnionPay secures the third position with a 45% preference.
  • QR Codes are widely used for payments in China. Two methods are used: scanning the seller’s QR code or displaying the buyer’s QR code.
  • China UnionPay’s 2022 report shows a significant decrease in unsafe habits, averaging 1.2 per user in 2022.
  • Instances of risky behaviors like using identical passwords have notably declined yet telecom fraud remains a challenge, with profit-return fraud at a high occurrence rate of 17.7%.
  • Foreign credit cards like Visa and MasterCard have limited acceptance in China. WeChat Pay and Alipay are accessible to foreigners by linking Chinese or international credit cards.