Whole wheat bread: 5 yuan. Cucumber-flavored potato chips: 4 yuan. A large bottle of green tea: 8 yuan. Telling the cashier you chop down trees during your free time because of a tonal mistake: priceless.
There are some things in life money can’t buy. In China, for everything else, you can’t use Mastercard. Or Visa. Or American Express.
When Greg swiped his card, the cashier at the grocery store motioned toward the scanner’s dialpad and went back to bagging. After he and I exchanged mystified, first-week-in-china glances, Greg tried his ATM pin. The machine spit back a beeping noise and some characters that resembled terms and conditions.
Again Greg used the card. Once more the prompt. He punched in a four-digit version of his five-digit Zip code. The machine found this offensively stupid.
“We can’t do it a third time,” the cashier said in clumsy English. “Otherwise the machine will be even more very angry.” I looked down at the scanner and met with a menacing glare, full of red exclamation marks.
In a discussion somewhere between English and Chinese, the cashier conveyed that the credit card company would see a third failed purchase as evidence of theft. Greg wanted to avoid explaining to Mastercard that he had tried to steal his own identity—and failed—so he found a set of three ATMs just outside the store. Both of the first two machines rejected his pin.
It seemed we would have to return another time for groceries, or otherwise barter our belongings. On a lark, Greg tried the third machine. And, without a hitch, his order went through. We paid quickly and left.
Later, we browsed a few angry blogs and learned that Chinese credit machines have different magnetic tape and require a six-digit passcode. In attempts at small purchases later that evening, Mastercard, Visa, and American Express proved sterile. Calls to the credit card companies confirmed that our cards could not work in China. We would have to pay most expenses in cash.
But that would require a compliant ATM machine, and our batting average wasn’t too high thus far. Yet again, we found pertinent information from angry bloggers (one reason you should keep careful track of this site). Chinese ATMs operate on a six-digit pin system: only those marked with a “Cirrus” insignia accept a four digit pin. Some sites suggested adding two zeroes either before or after the four-digit pin, but we had no success with that.
Thankfully, we found a number of ATMs that have the Cirrus label. It seemed we would burn through our parents’ hard-earned money after all.
Then I encountered yet another problem. I lost my ATM card. Turns out that works the same way in all countries.