The World of Chinese Apps (Kevin Knight, 2018-07-28)
Cash and credit cards are lame. Nobody uses those things in China! Example: You need to pay 5 yuan ($1) entry to an art gallery. Someone at the gallery door processes you. There's no need for a cash register or credit-card machine. You simply point your phone at their phone, and five seconds later, you're inside the gallery.
This cashless system works for restaurants, stores, galleries, museums, plus everything else. You can scan the QR code of a bike on the street, start riding it, and drop it anywhere. You can call the Uber-like car service DiDi. You can order food delivery. You can order Amazon-like anything-delivery.
If you're not a Chinese citizen, it's hard to enter the system... but possible! (It's strangely harder for Chinese citizens returning from abroad, maybe a good topic for a different post :))
Here's what I did, thanks to Prof. Yan Liu generously spending a Sunday afternoon with me to get this going!
You need a Chinese friend who has 3 hours to spare. (Thanks, Yan!)
Download the WeChat app. Verify yourself with whatever they ask. Link your "WeChat Wallet" to your foreign credit card*. Now you can pay for stuff! But you have no money. Get your friend to send you a "red envelope" gift of 5 yuan ($1). Open the red envelope. Now you have 5 yuan, and you can pay for stuff! But how to get more then $1 into your WeChat Wallet?
* If this doesn't work for you, then maybe open the bank account first (see next bullet), then come back to this step.
Bring your passport to any open bank. Get your friend to say that you work in China. Produce some pseudo-evidence of this. They will open an account for you. There will be 90 minutes of hemming and hawing. Bank officers will look at your passport like they've never seen a passport before. When asked for your phone number, write down your friend's Chinese (+86) phone number. It might cost you 5 yuan ($1) to open the account. They will write down your name in a funny way, like "SMITHJANEMADISON". When you refer to your bank in any app, be sure to use that exact name. You'll also get a PIN, which apps will ask for.
Go to an ATM inside the bank and retrieve physical cash from your foreign bank account. Immediately deposit the same physical cash in your new bank account, using the same ATM.
In the WeChat app, link your bank card. Then go to your WeChat Wallet and click on "Money", then "Top up" your WeChat balance with the cash you just deposited. Send your friend a red envelope for fun.
Go to a phone company store (like China Unicom). Ask for a two-year phone plan for 300 yuan ($50). They'll give you a SIM card. They may send you to a larger office for passport verification, sit-down-and-take-a-number style. Use a paper clip to swap your new SIM card into your phone. You've got a new number now! You may not receive texts sent to your old number (though iPhone-to-iPhone messaging will still work). Also, people may ignore your texts because they look like spam. When you get tired of swapping SIM cards all the time, you may want to get two phones.
Your phone plan is probably not "all you can eat". It may include a 36 yuan ($5) monthly fee, only 80 free phone minutes per week, or whatever. How do you pay these ongoing charges? In your WeChat wallet, there is a "Mobile Top Up" button. This doesn't mean "use my mobile phone to top up my WeChat account from my bank stash" (you already did that above by clicking on "Money"). Click "Mobile Top Up" to see your phone number and transfer money to your phone carrier. How will you know when you owe the phone carrier money? Probably when your phone stops working?
Go to a restaurant and pay from your WeChat wallet. Sometimes they scan your QR code, and sometimes you scan theirs. If you don't know, you can ask "wo sao ni ma" (I scan you?) or "ni sao wo ma (you scan me?). The restaurant's QR code may be on a plastic display card near the cash-register.
Install the DiDi ride-sharing app. There is an English version. You may be able to connect payment to your foreign credit card (like VISA), or you may not. In any case, verify yourself with whatever they ask*. When DiDi connects you with a driver, the driver usually call you up on the phone. I figured out that this is a nonsense conversation, like "Did you call a car? Should I pick you up?" Ignore the call, and instead use the in-app text function to send a canned phrase like "I am at the GPS location, please pick me up there." The driver will receive the Chinese version of that message, and it will work.
* If you don't read Chinese, you may not know what information a given app is asking for, and you may need a friend to translate for you. Sometimes the app text is not cut-and-pasteable, so you can't use your automatic phone translator. For example, you might get "Click here if you don't have a Chinese National ID card number", after which they may ask you to upload a photo of your passport, and a photo of you holding the passport next to your face, and to type your name. Be sure to type your name in all CAPS, otherwise you can get held up for days, not even kidding.
Install the Ofo bike-sharing app. Yellow Ofo bikes are a super-practical way to get around, and even a longish ride costs 50 cents. The Mobike "red bike" app is even cheaper, but asks for a 300 yuan ($50) deposit. You can pay it, then request it right back. The DiDi app has a "blue bike" service, but it's only available if you switch the app language to "Chinese". Even then, I couldn't get the app to verify me as a customer. I held my passport up to my face, and when nothing happened after the promised 3 hours, customer service said the photo wasn't clear. I did it again, and the next day, they said the same thing. When I asked what exactly wasn't clear, they said they'd have to check. Finally, the app gave me the okay to scan a blue bike! But just before I hit "scan", the button literally disappeared from the app screen, right out from under my approaching index finger. In the end, blue bikes were the only thing I had to give up on. But there are plenty of yellow and red bikes.
Go back to the bank and ask to change your phone number in their system. Don't forget your passport. Try to deposit more money. When I did this, I typed a 4-number PIN to get into the ATM. When I made my deposit, the ATM asked me for my PIN again. I failed three times, and the ATM ate my card, and I had to take a number to get it back. I guess I had a 6-number PIN? Then why did the 4-number PIN work at first? Remember your PIN!
Install the JD.com app, so you can order things for delivery, like Amazon. Just link JD.com to your WeChat wallet. Order something! Unlike with Amazon, the delivery people will always call you as they get close, instead of just leaving the package. If you get a phone call, you'll have to first determine that it's them, and then you'll have to say something like "Leave it with the hotel receptionist" (in Chinese, good luck!).
Install AliPay, and link it to your bank account. This is the other big payment system besides WeChat. I didn't have AliPay at first, and could get along fine. For example, at the gallery I mentioned above, they only took AliPay. But the gallery temp just accepted my WeChat payment to their personal account, then paid the gallery with AliPay themselves. So, ten seconds instead of five seconds.
Okay, you're good! You're likely to hit snags, and you have to persevere. At the beginning, you may spend half an hour every day begging your phone to believe that you are you.
PS: Google, Dropbox, YouTube, Amazon, Slack, and lots of other things don't work in China. You need VPN to use these. Your VPN may stop working after some number of days ...maybe it puts up giant red warnings that your VPN is insecure, or something like that, then it just stops connecting. Even with VPN, I somehow couldn't use many applications. You may want to warn people that you may not be able to read Gmail. I switched from Google Translate to Baidu Translate and Microsoft Translator. Microsoft's app translates English to Chinese characters, and while it's not super-obvious, you can swipe right to get the pinyin pronunciation.