Do foreigners WeChat

WeChat - Our experience with the all-purpose app in China

WeChat - the most used app that nobody knows. At least that's true for Europe. Use worldwide over 1 billion people the app - but over 90% of it in China, the rest mostly in other Asian countries. The number of users in the rest of the world is more than clear.

As soon as you cross the Chinese border, however, you will quickly notice that they are everywhere WeChat QR codes.

And by everywhere I really mean everywhere. No poster, no shop window, no taxi, no flyer, no cash register and no street food stand where you cannot discover the little black and white code.

WeChat is omnipresent (mostly in combination with the competing payment system AliPay).

And the Chinese do everything with WeChat. And here too - by everything I really mean everything. Book train rides or event tickets, buy cinema or flood tickets, book doctor's appointments or restaurant reservations, rent bicycles or umbrellas, read the news, communicate with friends - or just pay.

Pay with WeChat

Online or offline, big or small. Everything will be paid with WeChat. From the overnight stay in a 5-star hotel to the electricity bill to a small donation to the street musician, there is almost nothing in China that cannot be paid for using the messenger. And in fact, we were looked at several times in Shanghai, puzzled or even annoyed when we pulled out our wallet instead of our cell phone when it came to paying.

But first of all, that applies to the Chinese. What about foreigners? Can we also use WeChat?

WeChat for foreigners - is that even possible?

First of all: Yes, it works, albeit with a few detours. But more on that later.

Of course, I downloaded and installed WeChat before I left for China. So far everything went smoothly.

The hurdles came up when I tried WeChat Pay, i.e. to set up the payment service. Because for this you have to register and activate a credit card. Now WeChat announced in 2017 that foreign credit cards will also be accepted in the future. Only of the four cards I tried, not a single one worked. Regardless of whether the credit card from DiBa, Volksbank, Sparkasse or even the Miles & More credit card, they were all rejected. The possibility of activating foreign credit cards seems to be more of a theoretical nature.

According to various reports on the net, other WeChat users can send money to the WeChat Pay wallet. Well, that sounds great. Of course, tried it out right away. And puff cake. You can only receive money from friends if you have confirmed your account. And that in turn is only possible with a Chinese ID or a Chinese bank card.

So we went to the bank in Shanghai on the very first day. Because here again - according to some reports on the net, you can easily set up a bank account. And here too - puff cake. No chance without a visa. So if you - like us - are only in China for a few days and do not need a visa, you also get a bank account. Apparently the requirements here have been tightened significantly in recent years, so that the likelihood of getting a bank account as a tourist has decreased significantly.

After doing some research on the net, I read that the foreign credit card should work if you download the app from China. Since I got a SIM card straight away (the passport is sufficient for this), I of course tried it right away. So WeChat deleted, re-downloaded and opened a new account with the new SIM card and mobile number. But here too - credit card was not accepted.

The solution - you can also pay with WeChat as a foreigner.

So all common options for using WeChat were exhausted. All but one. Because somewhere on the net I found another, somewhat more cumbersome way of getting money into your WeChat account. This requires some preparatory work and a few fees - but as a foreigner you also have a working option to participate in Chinese payment transactions with WeChat Pay.

What you need for this is an account with TheSwapsy.com. This is a user-to-user money exchange platform. The platform itself only establishes contact between those willing to exchange money and guarantees smooth processing. And of course you can pay for it with a few percent of the exchange amount.

But the nice thing is: You can offer US dollars via PayPal and exchange them for Chinese yuan - and then have the yuan paid directly into your WeChat wallet. And hey presto, do you have money in your wallet and can pay with WeChat. Without a Chinese ID, bank or credit card.

Topping up the WeChat Wallet with Swapsy - this is how it works

So that you can use WeChat Pay when you are in China, I have put together a step-by-step guide for you here. You can do it all in exactly the same way and have money in a wallet within a few days. You just need a little lead time.

Step 1: Create a Swapsy account.

First you need an account with TheSwapsy.io. It's best to put it on from home. You have to confirm the authenticity of your account by uploading a scan of your passport and a photo of you with your passport. It can take 1-2 days for all of this to be verified. Fortunately, I had already done this for another project and my account was already confirmed.

Step 2: Get access to a VPN

Since many websites are blocked in China (including Google, Facebook, Instagram, Wikipedia and over 10,000 more), you cannot simply go to the Google PlayStore to download WeChat, for example. A VPN solves this problem. It is like a tunnel to another country. So you do not dial into the Internet via China, but for example via Germany, the USA or Japan. And hey presto, you can access all websites again.

The whole thing has two disadvantages: First, of course, most VPN providers in China are also blocked, so you should set up access from home beforehand. I had access to hide.me, but it no longer worked in China. The provider ExpressVPN did its job flawlessly.

The second disadvantage: of course, such a service is not free. The costs are usually around 10 € / month, so they are manageable. And there is often a 30-day money-back guarantee, so that if you are only in China for a few days, you can get your money back afterwards, if you really are that short.

Incidentally, I would not take a free provider. Because when it comes to sensitive topics like data, the following applies: If it doesn't cost anything, YOU are the product.

So get access while you are still in Germany and download the app on all of your end devices. Then you can travel to China more carefree.

Step 3: If you are in China, get a SIM card

This step is probably not absolutely necessary, but it should still help. I was advised to do so by many insiders. It will also make it easier for you to get online in China. Just get a Chinese SIM card from a mobile phone shop or kiosk. There are simple cards with 16GB Internet (for me it was another 10GB more because of a campaign) for about 30 euros. Then you have a Chinese cell phone number. A cell phone with dual SIM is of course ideal, otherwise a second cell phone will do the job.

Step 4: Download WeChat and set it up

Now you can download WeChat via your VPN and set it up with your Chinese mobile number. As soon as that is done, you are a proud Wechat user and on the best way to set up the wallet as well. You can try adding your credit card now. Maybe it will even work. I consider the chances to be slim. But that's why it's going on now.

Step 5: Organize a swap with Swapsy

Now you should organize yourself Chinese yuan. This is relatively easy with Swapsy. You simply enter how many dollars you want to exchange and look up which swaps have already been advertised. If you find a suitable one, you can confirm it, otherwise you can also open a new swap of your own.

In my case, I took a swap that was already advertised. So I sent the corresponding amount via Paypal in US dollars to the other party. For this there are fees for PayPal, you just have to live with that. To speed up the process, you can upload a screenshot of your payment confirmation. The payment was then immediately confirmed for me.

The swap partner is then asked to send the corresponding yuan amount in turn. You can have it sent directly to the WeChat wallet. It took me just a few minutes - the first part of the amount was received. According to Swapsy, it can take a full business day and money can come in in multiple installments. For me there were two payments within about 12 hours.

And you already have yuan in your WeChat Pay account and can start paying.

Step 6: Deposit a credit card

Now that I had money in the account, I was suddenly able to deposit a German credit card. Unfortunately, no one has yet been able to tell me whether there is a connection and whether this step is even necessary. But I didn't want to leave it unmentioned here.

Do you speak WeChat? The language barrier

A challenge with WeChat and especially with the countless mini programs that make the functionality of WeChat so infinitely large is that a large part of the texts are in Chinese. So I keep popping up clues that I just can't read. My Galaxy Note 9 has the practical translation function using the S Pen. But that is of no use with pop-ups, because by the time I have pulled out the pen, the message has long since disappeared. So to this day I still don't know what WeChat wants to tell me. And maybe it is better the way I will explain now on the subject of data protection.

What about data protection at WeChat?

In short: Probably not that good. China's government has full access to all content in WeChat. In extreme cases, this means that the government knows where you are, what news you write, which news and videos you consume, what you buy and where, which means of transport you prefer, where you stay overnight, what you like to eat, which movies you watch look - just everything!

For the Chinese, it goes one step further. A person can be identified even more clearly using facial recognition (in China, WeChat can sometimes be used as an ID) and compared offline with the WeChat profile (and thus with the entire life) using the ubiquitous surveillance cameras. If you connect that with the social scoring model in China, you can quickly get a little queasy ...

Incidentally, it can be assumed that WeChat is not entirely reluctant to access other smartphone files. Maybe I even agreed when I clicked away on one of the many Chinese messages. In any case, I have now deleted WeChat again ...

WeChat - my conclusion

I found this excursion into the potential future of messenger services both exciting and depressing. Yes it makes everything a lot easier. You no longer have to surf dozens of websites and install countless apps, everything is centrally available and can be done in seconds.

But if you look at the price at which this convenience is bought - namely the complete and total monitoring of all areas of life - this vision of the future seems to me to be much less tempting. Compared to WeChat, the much criticized Facebook is a real pioneer in terms of data protection ...

In any case, WeChat shouldn't be a role model for us, at least not in this consistency.