In the past two years, China has turned itself into a virtually cashless society. By now you’ve probably heard of the super apps WeChat and Alipay where you can chat with friends and send money (among hundreds of other functions). Well, the backbone of these apps is the QR code, a simple compilation of black squares that contains an endless amount of information. The QR code was actually created in Japan over 20 years ago, but it was never thoroughly integrated into any economy until China came along. While we have services like Venmo and Paypal in the States, we don’t really use them to pay for products at local retailers or street vendors. In China, however, WeChat and Alipay’s payment functions are used more than cash. In fact, some newer vendors have transitioned into doing 100% WeChat and Alipay transactions, choosing to abolish cash from their business entirely.
When you download WeChat/Alipay, all you have to do is link your bank account to the app, which will then create a personalized QR code that you can show to vendors every time you want to pay for something. What’s interesting is that if you pull out a credit/debit card in China nowadays, the person serving you will automatically assume you’re a foreigner because that’s how integrated these payment apps have become. But the reality is that phone payment is just the beginning of what you can do with the QR code in China.
You can also use QR codes to access bike sharing services, look up information about job postings, ride the subway, use a vending machine, rent portable chargers, and even give alms to homeless people. The possibilities are truly endless.
When I was in China, a couple of my personal favorites were the food delivery app Eleme (饿了么) and of course, Taobao, the all-encompassing shopping app where you could purchase literally anything. QR codes are also useful when shopping at brick and mortar stores; certain items have QR codes attached to their tag that allows you to see where the garment was sourced from. And while it may seem small, being able to scan a QR code to download an app or hook onto WiFi also made life super simple and speedy. It’s the smallest things that made the biggest difference.
After experiencing the cashless and cardless society for a little while, my biggest curiosity was–why hasn’t the US done this yet? Life is so convenient when you can leave the house with nothing but your phone in your pocket. And because QR codes are encrypted, using them is actually a lot safer than most people think. What do you guys think? Will the US ever go fully mobile?