You may be surprised to learn that the third-biggest player in the credit card payment field is not American Express. Nor is it Discover. As a matter of fact, it’s China UnionPay, or CUP. In terms of processed transaction values, at least.

Visa and Mastercard lead the credit card payment market, boasting the majority of the market share between them. In credit card data analysis of the year 2016, Visa was responsible for 335 million transactions, or 52.8% of the market. Mastercard managed 200 million, equating to 31.6%. Both are household names known around the world, and accepted as payment around the world. The fact that UnionPay is just behind them shows how widely used it is.

China is well-known for replicating successful products in their own image. Instead of WhatsApp, they have WeChat. Instead of Twitter, they have Weibo. This is nothing new, yet many Westerners have never heard of these companies. Perhaps this explains why UnionPay may have slipped under the radar despite massive activity in and around China.

Different types of UnionPay cards

UnionPay does not have one fixed card, but instead offers a wide range of products to suit customers’ needs. Consumers can apply for a credit card, debit card, prepaid card. commercial card, premier card and theme card.

Their credit and debit cards are fairly self-explanatory. Similarly, the prepaid card is exactly what it sounds like – a UnionPay card which needs funds loaded on in advance to be spent. The commercial card is segmented to target three main areas: business, purchasing and corporate.

Their prepaid cards, similar to Paysafecard, have gained worldwide recognition and hundreds of merchants and casino gamers from all over the world use them as a reliable payment method.

Their premier card is focused around concierge and VIP treatment and the theme card is a highly customisable card. Logos and colour themes can be adapted, making it quite useful for businesses who want their brand to be recognised with the simple flash of plastic.

How to use UnionPay

Using a UnionPay card can be simple, or a little more complex, depending on where it is you want to make a transaction. As a Chinese company approved by the Chinese government, UnionPay is of course fairly easy to use in and around mainland China. The vast majority of ATM machines in China, Thailand, Singapore, Korea and Japan accept these cards.

UnionPay is also somewhat widely accepted in Europe, too. There are more than 70,000 Link cash machines covering major cities like London, England, which also accept these cards. Plus, it’s recognised at a range of well-known tourist attractions such as the London Eye, Madame Tussauds and Harrods.

However, UnionPay cannot be used quite as freely as, for instance, a regular debit card. Referring again to the example of Link cash machines, yearly withdrawals are currently limited to 100,000 yuan. This equates to around £11,000. This is fine for most casual users, but customers who want to use it exclusively, or for large purchases, will have to consider this first.

Perhaps one of the strangest quirks of UnionPay crops up when trying to make a transaction in a country such as Germany or Switzerland. In many cases, the customer will be requested to put in any six random digits in lieu of a Pin. It won’t affect your payment, but it might feel like quite an unnatural experience for users.

Account Linking and Fees

Most types of UnionPay cards are linked to your bank account. This means that you can withdraw money at participating ATMs or spend money in-store, just as you would with your regular debit or credit card.

For the prepaid UnionPay card, things are a little different, as money will need to be uploaded in advance. You won’t actually need the prepaid card in order to top it up. Instead, anyone can make a deposit to the card with a few details by using the company’s Money Express program. This makes it a useful choice for people who need someone to deposit cash to their account while they’re abroad, for instance.

When making withdrawals at a cash machine, you’ll often be charged a small fee by the facilitating bank. This varies across different machines and regions, but is worth bearing in mind if you use these cards for frequent withdrawals. However, there’s no currency conversion fee, which is a big plus for many users.

There’s also another way to make convenient payments – from your mobile. UnionPay Mobile QuickPass offers users multiple ways to make a speedy payment. The multi-transactional interface allows users to pay with a QR code, in-app or by contactless. It’s accepted in around 20 countries including China, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada and Russia. You can use it at a number of online shops and it’s also accepted at many online casinos.

Applying for a UnionPay card

Applying for a card can be a confusing process if you’re living in a country other than China, or one of the territories which uses UnionPay freely. For the easiest application possible, it would be ideal to have a Chinese bank account. A mainstream bank like Bank of China (BOC) or China Merchants Bank would ensure a smooth process.

However, if that’s not possible, you’ll need a bank account with another appropriate bank. Primarily, UnionPay applications are open to citizens of the Philippines, Korea, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and Russia. Even though the cards are accepted all over the world, getting hold of one is a much trickier task.

Because of this, it’s difficult to get a UnionPay card if you live outside of these countries – say, for instance, in the US. In this case, an alternative might be to get a Discover card. Whilst this is fundamentally a different type of card, an agreement between the two companies means you’ll be able to enjoy some synergy when using it:

“In May 2005, Discover Network announced an alliance with China UnionPay Network. The two companies have signed a long-term agreement that allows acceptance of Discover Network brand cards at UnionPay ATMs and point-of-sale terminals in China and acceptance of China UnionPay cards on the PULSE network in the US.”

As well as this, there are a few other alternatives to UnionPay, including Discovery, Visa, Mastercard and American Express. If you’re all set up and ready to go with UnionPay, there are plenty of casinos out there ready to accept payment.