Cleaner, Faster, Cheaper: Uber in China

UberTell me if this sounds familiar: you’re on the street in Chengdu trying to flag a taxi, but you aren’t having any luck. When you finally find one, you swing the door open and duck in the backseat. The first things you notice are the dilapidated interior and the cigarette dangling from the driver’s lip. Next you notice that the window won’t go down as you wave smoke away and struggle to understand the driver’s Sichuanese accent.

I have experienced this hundreds of times. But not once in recent months, because I’ve been using a much better alternative in Chengdu called Uber. And as long as Uber is available in Chengdu, I don’t think I will be taking a single taxi again. Not only is Uber much more comfortable than a taxi, but it’s actually much cheaper too.

Uber in Chengdu

Uber is an app-based transportation network that’s been in China since 2014. Using your iPhone or Android smartphone, you can call a car to take you anywhere you want.

Uber came to Chengdu in October of last year. Since then Chengdu has become the 3rd largest city in China for Uber, after Beijing and Shanghai, with over 10,000 drivers. Each day, Uber hosts two training sessions in Chengdu which qualify over two hundred new drivers to hit the streets. Business is booming.

Chengdu Uber
Taking a ride through Yulin in an Infiniti G-Series through Uber

How to Set Up Your Uber Account in China

The first thing to do is download the Uber app. If you have an iPhone you can get Uber in the App Store, if you have an Android phone, you can get it in Google Play. If you have an Android device without Google Play, like a Xiaomi smartphone, then look for Uber in the app store that you have on your device.

Once you have the app installed, you will need to register an account. You will register with your email address and phone number since drivers in China will call to confirm your location for each ride. When you register, enter in my promo code (uberjustcharlie) and get your first ride free.

When it comes to payment, it gets a little more tricky. I tried to create an Uber account with two Chinese bank cards, both Merchants Bank and Bank of China. Neither worked. I ended up using an American credit card (a Paypal MasterCard) which works great. AliPay, the Chinese Paypal, also works if you have that. When you input your payment information, Uber will charge a small amount to the card for verification.

Using Uber

Uber in China

Once setup is complete, open the app and you will see your position on a map. Call for a car and usually within one minute a driver will be on his way to pick you up. You will receive a phone call from the driver to communicate your location, even though already specified it on the map. I have had many conversations where the driver calls and I tell him “look at the map”.

Before you’re picked up by an Uber driver, you can toggle between two types of cars:

People’s Uber

The cheaper of the two options, People’s Uber is their standard service in China. This is what I use almost every day. All the cars I’ve been in at this range are less than five years old, which means they are more comfortable than 90% of taxis.

The fee structure for People’s Uber looks this:

  • Minimum fare of 10 rmb
  • 0.20 rmb per minute and 1.3 rmb per kilometer

The cost of People’s Uber is much cheaper than taking a taxi. From my home to my office in the Tianfu Software Park, taxi fare is around 27 rmb. With People’s Uber, it’s 15 rmb. Commuting to my office every day, this saves me 180 rmb a month or 2,160 rmb a year.

Common cars in this range are:

  • Volkswagen Jetta & Passat
  • Hyundai Elantra
  • Buick Encore SUV
  • Audi A4
  • BMW 3-Series

You won’t believe how nice some of the cars in this range are. My highlights include a Lexus CT200, a Mitsubishi Lancer EVO, and a BMW 325i.

Uber Black

This is Uber’s higher-tier service and it features luxury cars. Sometimes these cars will offer passengers perks like a bottle of water or a wi-fi hotspot inside the car.

BMW

Cars in this range:

  • Audi A6L
  • BMW 5-Series
  • Mercedes-Benz E-Class

The fee structure for Uber Black:

  • Minimum fare of 15 rmb with an 11 rmb base fare
  • 0.45 rmb per minute and 3 rmb per kilometer

Except for picking up guests from the airport, I never use Uber Black. There are fewer Uber Black cars in the city so pickup takes longer and it costs much more. Not worth it, in my experience.

Meet Cool People

About once or twice a year I will encounter an especially friendly taxi driver and have a great conversation. I encounter these type of people about 20% of the time that I take a ride with Uber and it has changed my impression of Uber as a service: I see it as a network of friendly people working for themselves more than a company with central leadership.

I have already suggested to friends that they should check out Uber instead of taking a taxi. When one friend, Dan, took Uber for his first time in Chengdu, he immediately connected with the driver and made a new friend.

Drivers are happy to do what they’re doing and they like Uber because it treats them well. Instead of serving a monopolistic taxi company, they are working for themselves and earning more. This is a service that I am happy to support.

Uber

The Longetivity of Uber

I’ve spoken to many drivers to learn what they think about Uber. The first thing you will hear is that they love the service. “It’s much better than a taxi”, they all say, which I agree with. The next thing you hear is fear and concern about the future of the service in China. “I worry about how long it can survive here”, one driver told me. I asked him why and he said that the central government is likely to crack down on Uber when it grows large enough to threaten taxis. Taxi drivers have protested both Uber’s presence as well as the government’s heavy-handed cab monopoly. The Chinese government, meanwhile, has already taken steps to ban Uber, and Seoul has banned Uber services as well.

It’s a good idea to take advantage of this while it lasts, because no one knows when this will be gone.

In Conclusion

You have nothing to lose by registering an account and giving Uber a shot. Use my referral code (uberjustcharlie) and the first ride is free.

Link to Uber in the App Store
Link to Uber on Google Play

Have any experiences with Uber or questions about the service? Post a comment below.

May 6th, 5pm edit: Evidently Uber’s head office in Chengdu was raided this afternoon. Photos from Chinese media are below:

Uber Raid in Chengdu

May 6th, 6:30pm edit: I received the two images below from a friend whose office is across the street from Uber’s Chengdu headquarters. You can see police lined up on the street outside. I also have seen what is purportedly a text message sent to all Uber drivers in Chengdu, that is below in Chinese and in English:

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

[Uber] Dear partner, we will continue to actively communicate and participate with local authorities, as of now Uber operation in Chengdu is normal. The best way that you can support Uber is by serving residents of Chengdu and to remain calm. Thank you for your support and understanding! Uber Chengdu will continue working hard to provide more support and better service to you!

Uber Chengdu Uber Chengdu

54 thoughts on “Cleaner, Faster, Cheaper: Uber in China”

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  2. I remember you posting this in the forums not too long ago:

    “Didi Kuaiche is more convenient in my opinion, plus it has the 专车 feature if you want something like an A6. I don’t think Uber has a really good reason to exist here other than catering to the non-Chinese speaking expat audience, which comprises probably 0.0002% of Chengdu’s population.”

    Glad to see that you have seen the light. Let’s hope the government does too.

    Reply
    • Right, I had really discounted Uber for a long time, thinking that a premium version of 滴滴快车 would be equivalent. What I’ve found instead is that the premium version of Uber is unnecessary and the standard version of Didi kuaiche brings all the inconvenience of a normal taxi.

      This morning I took Uber Black to my office just to switch it up. The car was an Infinite G-class (similar to an Audi A4) but the charge was 55 rmb instead of the normal 16 rmb or so. People’s Uber is the best value by far, I find.

      Another benefit of Uber is that you can use it almost everywhere. I used it in Beijing and Hong Kong last week, no problems.

      Reply
    • One other thing to mention about this: I really struggled for a long time to get Uber working in China. It would not accept any of my Chinese bank cards, and I couldn’t figure out why.

      After consulting with friends and doing some research I found that Uber works with Merchant’s Bank of China cards, but not with many others (I tried Construction Bank and Bank of China). I assume that these work fine for Chinese (like WeChat wallet) but are problematic for foreigners in China.

      In the end I got it working with an American MasterCard, which is not ideal, but it works. Since then it’s been really great, setting up payment was the only significant problem I’ve had.

      Reply
    • Uber is practicing discrimination in China, you cannot log in with alipay if you have a foreign passport and you can’t use a chinese card to pay if it is linked to a foreign name. And they want you to use a “international card” amazing when you have been in China for 5 years and just use “union pay”.

      Reply
      • Uber is discriminatory because of the lack of payment options it offers? Sounds far fetched. If you don’t like it, use 滴滴快车. It accepts WeChat wallet. But does not accept foreign credit card so you may find that discriminatory also.

        Reply
  3. The first thing I became aware of was how *quiet* the Uber was: no voice telling me to enjoy Chengdu: Land of Abundance and home of Pandas, no Didi Kuaiche bell going off every 25 seconds, no walkie talkie banter… just…. quiet.

    And while I love the rattle of the receipt printing machine and associate it with life here in Chengdu, I do love me some quiet.

    Reply
    • Honestly, I feel like inside an Uber is one of the only places in China that is quiet. I find that I have a conversation with about 1/3 of the drivers that pick me up. Every 10-15 rides or so I will meet someone really cool and have a great conversation. The service aspect of Uber, aside from the convenience of the product, is paramount.

      Reply
  4. Charlie do you get charged a transaction fee or a conversion fee by your bank? I’ve been having trouble setting this up with my zhifubao for some reason. I’m worried about using my credit card because I don’t want to get dinged with a fee everytime I use it. I so rarely use my foreign card here that I’m pretty underinformed about how it will work.

    Reply
    • No, I am billed by Uber in the US in dollars, so there is no conversion that takes place. The card which I use is a Paypal MasterCard, so putting money onto the card is the same as putting money into my Paypal account, which is very quick and easy. The only fee that I pay is the Paypal fee which is about $5 for every $100 that I move into that account. I pretty much only use this card for Uber and for emergencies, but it works well. Since I generally save at least $2-3 (or up to $5) on each trip I take with Uber that I would take with a taxi, I’m not concerned about the $5 Paypal commission.

      Reply
      • I just resolved the problem with my alipay account. I hadn’t confirmed my identity before with my account, just hooked it up to my bank card and phone number. I called it and checked it out. They said once I did this I would be good to go. As a foreigner, it is a bit of a hassle. I had to submit pictures of my passport and visa. I am waiting for these to be confirmed now online and then can use my alipay with uber.

        Reply
      • Follow up: After confirming my identity with my account, still no luck with uber. Got back on the phone with the people at zhifubao and they said that currently uber China does not accept people who use passports to verify their accounts yet in mainland China. Very, very frustrating.

        Reply
        • So the only option is to use a foreign credit card? That is quite a hassle. But if you get it set up, I think the hassle will be worth it. At least, it has been for me, I’ve taken Uber probably 5-10 times a week over the last month.

          Reply
        • Hey Zak: I was trying to do with Alipay and Uber as well. But when I try to reply the SMS from Alipay, it says my verification is not accepted all the time. Have you got it working (Uber and Alipay)? I just don’t want to charge to my home country credit card.

          I already verified my account with Alipay and Passport, and I have done a lot of transaction using the Alipay. But only in Uber, it’s not working.

          Do you know how to call the Alipay customer service in English? When I called 95188, there’s no option for English.

          Reply
          • I don’t think you can use Alipay with Uber if you’re a foreigner. It seems that the only solution is to use a Visa or MasterCard, whether that card is linked to a bank or credit account in Asia or elsewhere.

          • No, there won’t be an extra charge. You will be charged the same amount as a Chinese passenger using Alipay. It will just convert the rmb charge into whatever currency your card is in (in my case, USD).

          • I don’t pay any bank fees and I use a foreign credit card. Your experience may vary, I would just give it a shot and see what you’re charged.

          • If you’re registering for Alipay as a foreigner, register with your email address and not your mobile phone number. For some reason Alipay requires a Chinese identification number if you register with a phone number but not with email.

  5. Jet legging in CD, reading the site to get educated about what’s new here. So many surprises, including the Uber referral code! Registered, got a 30kuai credit! Thanks!
    Will try Uber tomorrow for a long ride. Can’t wait!

    Reply
    • Welcome to Chengdu! Uber is more advantageous in Chengdu that anywhere I have seen. It’s significantly cheaper than taxis.

      I just got back from Chongqing yesterday, used Uber there also. In Chongqing People’s Uber isn’t available, only Uber X. I don’t know why these different services are available in different cities in the same region, but it’s more expensive in Chongqing than in Chengdu.

      Reply
  6. Uber in Minneapolis is primarily run by the Somali mafia. Love the service, love the nice cars. Too bad China’s pay infrastructure makes it tough to get linked quick. Problems only extend to expats tho, right?

    Reply
    • As far as I know, yes. Zhifubao works for locals, apparently that takes only a moment to setup. A lot of the drivers that I’ve met in Chengdu have told me that I’m the first non-Chinese passenger they’ve had, so I think that most passengers are locals for now, and not expats.

      Reply
  7. I ubered a Honda Accord today for a 7.43km ride, took 30 mins. The bill should’ve been 13.20kuai (already cheap), but it was free because I used Charlie’s referral code provided in the article (30kuai credit)! This means I still have 16.80kuai left for my next ride. Awesome! Indeed, the car was cleaner and nicer than regular taxis. The driver was also cool, but a bit chatty. (I guess men prefer to chat with taxi drivers more than women)
    Before this Uber experience, I took two taxis yesterday. One cabby welcomes Uber’s competition, another cabby does not welcome Uber, and he’ll file his complaint with his teammates.
    Anyway, I dont use Uber in New York, because it’s not any cheaper than Lift or other car services. However, in Chengdu, Uber seems to be the real deal. If you’d like to register, you can also use my referral code: v542aue

    Reply
    • Glad to hear it worked out for you! I think the referral works for the first ride only, although I may be mistaken about that. Either way, it is much cheaper and better than taking a taxi in Chengdu.

      When I was in San Francisco recently I took Lyft everywhere because their “Line” service, where they can pick up multiple passengers, was about half of what Uber costs there. No Lyft in Chengdu, though.

      Reply
      • the good news is that the referral code works for multiple times. Every charge of a free ride has also received 12% off. I still have some kuais left from the 30kuai credit. my friends have also received their Uber credits, so we haven’t paid any real money for the rides in the past few days. It’s really incredible!

        Reply
  8. Took uber to the airport a few days ago, and it was vastly cheaper than any other taxi I’d taken there. However, when trying to take it back from the airport last night, I couldn’t connect to the service. It showed my location, but wouldn’t give me the black bar with estimated time of pickup or where cars were (tried on wifi, with VPN etc.) Not sure if anyone else has encountered this recently.

    Reply
    • I encountered that recently at the North Train Station in Chengdu. It wouldn’t let me hail an Uber from the station, but only from inside second ring road which was a few blocks away. I put the marker at second ring road and called a car, when he called I told him I was at the train station, he came to pick me up and I had no problem from there. From the airport you might want to just move the indicator somewhere else and tell the driver you’re at the airport, I doubt they will have a problem picking you up from there.

      Reply
  9. Hi there. Great post, with lots of useful info. I was a little confused by the notion of having a conversation with the Uber drivers. Are you assuming that users of the app will be able to speak Mandarin reasonably competently. I’m keen to gauge how useful Uber may be for tourist visitors to China. The idea of using a foreign credit card for payment seems to be a positive. However, I am concerned language issues will cause confusion (and a failure to get picked up!). Any advice? Thanks:)

    Reply
    • Yes, some Chinese is probably required to use Uber in China because when you call for a car, they will call your telephone and ask where you are. If you can’t speak to them, they might not pick you up (I’m not certain, haven’t tested that). From what I can tell, very few Uber drivers in Chengdu speak English – something like 1/10 maybe.

      Reply
  10. Very frustrating with regards to being unable to use a passport verfied Alipay account with Uber- Does anyone know why this could be the case? I also don’t want to use my international credit card with uber.

    Thanks

    Reply
    • It seems to be the case that Alipay works easily for Chinese citizens, and foreign credit cards work easily for expats. I don’t know that it’s impossible, but I had no luck using my own Alipay account with Uber. But I save so much money and earn so much in comfort that it’s totally worth using a foreign credit card for Uber in Chengdu. One alternative which might work is to get a Visa bank or credit card from a Chinese bank and use that with Uber.

      Reply
      • Yeah thanks Charlie, I think I amy end up getting a credit card just for Uber.

        I heard from the Uber drivers that Uber pays a percentage of the fare which makes the fare cheaper for us, the customer. I wonder if this is just a promotional period, and in a few months Uber will stop subsidising, and the Uber fare will rise above the fare we are paying for the Chengdu taxis.

        Reply
        • This is true, I’ve heard the same thing and confirmed it with other drivers. From what I’ve heard, they pay double: if your fare is 9rmb, Uber pays 18rmb. Surely this can’t last, and I do expect prices to rise. Since last week I have been starting to see Surge prices on Uber, which is higher fares during rush hour. This is a new thing in Chengdu. The price of Uber in Chengdu will certainly go up in time. For now, it is amazingly cheap.

          Reply
  11. It is going to be interesting to see how they do here. Like you said they surely cannot keep that up. So inevitably the prices are going to rise above the standard taxi fares. So its going to be a case of whether people are prepared to pay more for a more luxurious car (not sure if I would be willing). Agreed for now its great.

    Reply
    • It’s only natural that the cost of Uber is above taxi fare in Chengdu. Taxi fare in Chengdu is not expensive compared to other major cities in China, and Uber is superior to taxi service here in every way. I would be willing to pay more for Uber.

      Reply
  12. Using Uber in Shanghai since October 2014 twice a day. Service is good but having no other choice than paying with a foreign card is bad, especially if you are non-US because transaction is charged in USD in the US so you get fees. A lot of (non-US) foreigner friends I recommended Uber to never used it finally because of that.
    I confirm Alipay does not work if your account is not linked to an id card (read *Chinese id card*). Also tried this new Baidu wallet but you cannot even finish registration if you are non Chinese. ICBC debit card does not work. Uber support says to use a credit card but no idea if a UnionPay credit card is ok or if that must be Visa/Mastercard/Amex.

    Reply
    • I agree, payment on Uber in China is not ideal. However, I find the service to be worth the hassle. If the prices on Uber rise significantly, I will re-assess but for now I’m happy taking Uber twice a day on average.

      Reply
  13. Hi guys,

    It appears Uber China has come up with a solution (for most Chinese bank card users at least). You can use Baidu Wallet, a new option, and you don’t even need to have a Baidu Wallet account, like you would for Alipay. All Baidu does is convey the transaction with your Chinese bank card. I see David above tried to set up Baidu Wallet in June and failed, but I just set mine up. Of course, classic Chinese (lack of) logic here, since I can’t actually register my Union Pay bank card directly with the Union Pay option without a Chinese ID card. Also, my Alipay account is verified with my passport and visa info, etc., but that also won’t work. Instead, I was able to add my bank card through Baidu Wallet with simply a name, phone number, and bank card. Wow, that makes a lot of sense..

    Here is a link to the instructions I used (although it’s so simple, you really shouldn’t need them):
    http://www.beijing-kids.com/blog/Sisi-Chen/2015/07/22/How-to-Use-Baidu-Wallet-for-Uber-Payments

    Reply
  14. Holy crap, the info about being able to use baidu wallet with BoC (rather than ABC) was of huge help! I’ve been arguing with Uber and messing with it for weeks trying to set it up, until today I was about to say F it, uber sucks. I did one final search for a way us foreigners who LIVE in China (and dont use foreign credit cards) and found this thread, and found the post by Matthew has solved the problem. I now finally have a local payment method. Thanks!

    Reply
  15. I am headed to Chengdu in about a month, and will be there for 4 days. I haven’t lived in China for 2 years, so my Chinese is less than impressive. How doable is Uber for someone who may not be able to communicate well on the phone with a local? Am I better off sticking to taxi?

    Reply
    • You might have a difficult time with Uber, but I would give it a shot. Drivers will ordinarily call you and ask where you are. I think you will be able to manage, but taxi drivers will also not speak english, so you may as well give it a shot.

      Reply
  16. New try today: After failing with ICBC because baidu wallet requests a Chinese id with this bank, I opened a new account at BOC this Saturday. But I could never convince them to not enter those second and 3rd names from my passport. Total 32 characters. The name field in baifubao only takes 30 chars. So I can go back close the useless account next week-end. 🙁

    Reply

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