Alipay and WeChat Pay may be dominating China, but cash is still king in the rest of Asia, PayPal study finds

Key Points
  • Cash is still the dominant method of payment in Asia despite the many digital alternatives, such as Alipay, according to a PayPal report
  • The survey found people are reluctant to steer away from cash due to a lack of available information on digital wallets
  • To drive further digital-payment adoption, governments and companies needed to work together, said Rohan Mahadevan, APAC senior vice president at PayPal
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Asia Pacific has no dearth of digital-payment options as smartphone ownership picks up, but cash is still king in most of the region's major markets, according to a new study from PayPal.

The report, titled "Digital Payments: Thinking beyond Transactions," found 57 percent of the respondents said they preferred cash for their day-to-day transactions.

Another about 24 percent of the participants said they preferred using other traditional payment methods, such as bank transfer, internet banking and credit or debit cards.

Only 12 percent said they frequently used digital wallets to make payments and a very small number of respondents said they preferred contactless methods using their smartphones.

Geographically, more than 70 percent of the respondents in India, Philippines and Indonesia said they used cash most often.

In Hong Kong and Singapore, the financial hubs of the region, about 44 percent and 43 percent preferred cash respectively.

Finally, in China, where the likes of Alipay and WeChat Pay have seen massive uptake in recent years, only 25 percent indicated they still preferred using cash for transactions.

How to build a cashless society? Give people no other choice

The report, which surveyed about 4,000 people across China, India, Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia, also found that despite the preference for cash, awareness of newer methods of payments was high.

Nearly half said they were familiar with digital wallets and 23 percent said they knew what contactless payments using credit or debit cards was, with another 23 percent saying they understood what making contactless payment via mobile phones meant.

"There's a lot of awareness of digital wallets, but engagement is much, much lower and there's a big gap," Rohan Mahadevan, senior vice president for Asia Pacific at PayPal, told CNBC.

That was despite some of the common problems people said they had with cash or credit and debit card transactions, including not having enough cash on hand, lack of easy access to ATMs, long queues in banks or even fees for late payments.

Mahadevan pointed to several reasons why many people still preferred using cash.

First, there wasn't enough information about each digital payment method, he said. For example, there are various e-wallets, such as PayPal, and also in-app payment systems, such as GrabPay or Uber pay, or digital currencies, including bitcoin.

Yet, many people don't have a clear understanding of what each payment option does and what kind of value it can provide, Mahadevan said. Conversely, cash is a straight-forward option in use for centuries.

The complexity of setting up a digital wallet or any other online-payment method, such as additional security measures, could also turn people away from using them, according to Mahadevan.

On top of that, concerns over privacy were always a priority, with users wondering if their financial records will be kept safe, he said.

57% of Asia Pacific still relies on cash: PayPal

Recently, there have been cyberattacks where hackers made away with millions of dollars worth of digital currencies, for example. Those incidents inspire little confidence in using digital wallets.

"When anybody has a lack of information, they are typically scared about it and they don't want to go and address it," said Mahadevan.

But he added that once people start using the wallets, they move up the learning curve "very quickly," so getting people on the first rung was key to driving usage.

The answer, he said, required a collective effort from both the government and the private sector to educate users about digital-payment options.

Additionally, service providers needed to simplify the steps required to sign up for a digital wallet, while keeping it easy to use and secure, he said.

Finally, merchants needed to provide incentives, such as rewards, for payments made with a digital wallet or possible disincentives for traditional methods.

"It's a combination of things that need to come together ... I don't think one industry or one group can achieve the rapid scale of it," said Mahadevan.