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China tech

No bank account needed for Alipay and WeChat Pay

Move opens untapped tourist market for Alibaba and Tencent mobile payments

Labels for WeChat Pay, Alipay and other services are displayed outside a watch store in Hong Kong.   © Reuters

BEIJING/GUANGZHOU -- Visitors to China now can access the country's leading mobile payment apps without having a Chinese bank account, further expanding the reach of Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings as the government promotes tourism.

Both Alibaba's Alipay and Tencent's WeChat Pay added features that let tourists link credit cards to the apps, with some restrictions.

Previously, the apps required users to have bank accounts or similarly registered sources of funds in China. Beyond those holding work or student visas, foreigners generally were cut off from China's vast cashless society.

One Japanese woman visiting Beijing on a business trip Wednesday was able to use Alipay to buy a recharging cable for her smartphone.

"It's inconvenient to handle loose change, so I want to pay for everything with a smartphone," she said.

Cashless payments have penetrated China to the extent that some vending and train ticket machines do not accept cash. This has proven a headache for travelers without access to Alipay and WeChat Pay, which account for the bulk of mobile payment transactions in the country.

China aims to draw 150 million travelers by 2020, up from 134 million in 2015. The People's Bank of China, the central bank, issued a notice last month urging smartphone payment companies to improve ease of use for foreigners.

Alibaba commands more than half of the domestic mobile payment market while Tencent comes in second at roughly 40%.

With the market increasingly saturated at home, both companies are developing a network of stores abroad that cater to Chinese who use their apps. Capturing demand from tourists visiting China presents a new area of competition.

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