Can I apply for UnionPay card while traveling for China?
Yes you can. And it seems easier than I thought. How? Read on...
Is it a good idea for a traveler to do so?
Likely not. Most of China runs on cash. You have to open a bank account. In China. It is not as hard as it sounds but be warned:
First, I would not recommend opening a bank account in China to a foreigner that is only staying in China temporarily; it is primarily beneficial to those that are going to be residing in China for a relatively long period of time.
from an expat guide while another such guide has a whole paragraph on why not to open a bank account in China.
How to get a UnionPay card?
You read right, you need to open a bank account and at that occasion insist on getting a UnionPay card.
Which bank to choose?
You are advised to choose a big bank over a rural one for service that is at least partially in English. Bank of China (BOC), ICBC and China Merchants Bank come recommended among others.
Chose a bank with a branch you can easily reach, you never know.
How to open a bank account?
Take your passport, some cash (100RMB should suffice easily but take some more if you want to charge your card right after. It will work like a debit card, so do not expect to be able to overdraw) and ideally a friend who could translate for you. That would greatly facilitate the process but I'll assume you are on your own for the rest. Alternatively you could call branches beforehand and ask (or have hotel staff ask for you) when there is English-speaking staff around. Again, I'll assume you are on your own.
Go to the bank you chose. You have to take a number but these have categories so ask staff for which one you need (usually there is some security / welcoming staff around, if not ask anyone. If you're lucky there even is an info desk.). The magic phrase is
“我想开一个银行账户” – Wǒ xiǎng kāi yīgè yínháng zhànghù
I'd like to open a bank account.
or just say "kāi zhànghù" if you're not that friendly with Chinese.
Get your number. Wait for your number to show up on a screen and go to the appropriate desk. Bring something to read for the wait in case.
Maybe they gave you the form already and again if you are lucky it has English on it. Still your best bet is to ask the staff fill in all of that stuff once it is your turn. Make sure they spell your name correctly (i.e. as it is in your passport).
They will need your passport (and only that). They might cringe when they see you are on a tourist visa, but it is not an issue, I have done it. Insist in case, worst case go to another bank or branch. You will need to tell them an address and likely a better strategy is to give them your hotel address (but no need telling them it's a hotel) than a home address in a faraway country. I can't remember having received any bank letters but then maybe that's my memory or I did not care back then.
They should issue you a UnionPay card in any case but no harm asking explicitly. Wait for them to complete the administrative process. They likely make a copy of your passport but will not keep it. You will be asked to choose and enter repeatedly a six-digit PIN.
At the end you will get your card, paperwork and possibly other stuff for online-banking. Try to get a basic explanation of how to use the card but you should be good already.
You can now fill up your card with cash at their ATMs (only some of the ATMs also accept cash, so choose the right one) and use your card - right away if I remember correctly.
Sources and further reading: