You plan to travel to Shanghai, and you don’t know whether you should bring cash or just rely on your credit cards. Well, most of the people would probably say credit cards and a little bit of cash. However, managing money when traveling in Shanghai is different in contrast to when traveling in other countries.
You want to have cash when traveling to Shanghai (or China in general). A good amount of it, too.
And you would want to exchange your RMB once you find a place to exchange your money. Otherwise, you should withdraw a decent amount of cash when you find a bank that accepts your ATM card. Why? Not that Chinese don’t use credit cards, but while VISA and MasterCard are the widely used credit cards around the world, China has their own payment method — UnionPay. I think so far only Chinese banks issue it.
Jim came to visit me from Sweden for five days. What he always does when traveling in a foreign country is to withdraw money from the local ATMs or to use his credit cards, probably just like everyone else. (He does not mind the transaction fee while I do. I like to compare different exchange rates from multiple foreign currency exchange counters. I am a cheap money saver like a real Chinese Taiwanese after all.)
However, we’ve soon discovered that even finding an ATM that would take his MasterCard or VISA in Shanghai was hard. The most common ATM service you see in Shanghai is hosted by ICBC（中国工商银行）, which is at nearly every metro station, and they only accept UnionPay（银联） for withdrawing cash.
Of course, some other banks would take the standard credit cards, but they are usually international banks such as HSBC or Citi, and I don’t often see them. The only local bank that allowed Jim to withdraw cash using his VISA or MasterCard was China Construction Bank（中国建设银行）. At least that was the only one we found.
What about using standard credit cards when eating out at restaurants or make purchases in local stores?
Again, many restaurants and local stores only accept UnionPay. I assume some touristy places in Shanghai would take standard credit cards, but you never know. Overall this is a communist country, and having only one payment method throughout the entire country is completely normal.
So, do Chinese carry lots of cash around all the time?
Yes and no. There’s an app called AliPay（支付宝）. Its concept is the same as ApplePay, but it can do so much more. AliPay is under the famous (or infamous) Alibaba Group of China, and the use of AliPay has integrated into Shanghai residents’ everyday life. You might be able to use ApplePay at some places since I’ve seen China Merchants Bank（招商银行,）promoting ApplePay. However, I don’t think ApplePay is as widely used as AliPay.
You link your local bank account to AliPay, and you can almost do anything money related on the app. That includes paying at restaurants, supermarkets, transferring money to friends, pay your bills, school tuition, buying funds, train and bus tickets, taxi rides, insurances, making charity donations, among dozens of other services.
AliPay is so commonly used that some restaurants in Shanghai accept AliPay as the only payment method. They don’t even take cash. (Speaking of making things even more difficult for tourists.)
Besides AliPay, WechatPay is another typical payment app that people use in Shanghai. These two apps serve the same purposes, but AliPay is just a payment app while WeChat is mainly a chat app that includes a payment method. AliPay does way more than WeChat Pay.
Here are some of the things you can do with AliPay:
Convenient? Yes. Not that any of these is relevant to you if you are only visiting Shanghai as a traveler because most likely you won’t open a bank account here. But if you are planning to become an expat in Shanghai, you must download at least AliPay. Trust me. It’s going to make your life in Shanghai so much easier.
So, how much cash should you bring/withdraw for a five days trip in Shanghai?
I won’t break down the daily cost because I am lazy, and I am terrible at it, but since I used AliPay to pay for both of us most of the time, I have an estimate:
I’d say around 1200 RMB per person will be enough for eating out three meals a day plus fika (Swedish term for snack time), transportation, tourist attraction tickets, and souvenirs (and that includes cheap electronics.) However, do notice that the largest RMB bill is 100 yen, so If you don’t want to carry a stack of cash around, and it’s not always convenient to pay with your credit cards, what’s your other bet? Make local friends and let them make your payment. Pay them back later.
I’d say because Shanghai is one of the first-grade cities in China, it relies on technology more than other smaller cities. Do plan your money management wisely before traveling to Shanghai.
Originally published at Notes of Jo.