How to set up a Taobao account

Everything you need to get started in the world of Taobao

Ali Zila via YouTube
Ah, Taobao – the online mega shopping mall that appears so frustratingly out of reach to foreigners in China. Sometimes it feels impossible to navigate the millions of items, stores, symbols, online banking options, cartoon pop-ups, and chatty shop owners.

But have no fear! Although it may seem inaccessible, Taobao, in all of its confusing glory, is relatively straightforward once you get going. We’ve put together a five-step guide to take you from Taobeginner through to Taobrilliant – so by next week you’ll be down to your last kuai, but at least you’ll have piles of newly acquired costumes, clothes and kitchen gear to keep you company.

This is key! You don’t want to get sucked into the Taobao black hole without being able to make a purchase! Look for the characters 免费注册 (mianfei zhuce; ‘free registration’) Find these characters at the top-left of the Taobao homepage. From here, all you need is a Chinese phone number, the ability to create a password, and the help of our best friend, Google Translate, to tell you what to write and where (alternatively, if you use Google Chrome most of the on-page text should automatically translate). A few clicks later, you’re officially a member of Taobao. Congrats, you!
Unlike most Western online shopping websites, where you simply key in a credit card number, Taobao uses Alipay, China’s version of PayPal. However, connecting an Alipay account to your Chinese bank account can be a massive hassle, and makes the whole Taobao experience much less accessible. But once again, fear not! There are far easier ways to get that pair of shoes from your shopping cart to the checkout line.

Instead of paying as you purchase, you can simply ‘recharge’ your Alipay account the way you would your cell phone when you run out of minutes. 

Here are the steps: 

1. Head over to your local China Post Office and ask for 网汇E (wang hui-E). The teller will give you a small form and tell you what to fill out, but essentially all you need to know is your phone number, your name, your zip code, and the amount of money you want on your account. Let’s say you want to start with 300RMB. 

2. During the process, the teller will ask you to create a six-digit Pin code. Remember this number! 

3. After processing your paper, the teller will give you a receipt. Don’t lose it! 

4. Once you’ve hurried home, log on to your account. Next to your profile picture (the default is a cartoon of a grey person crying), click on the characters 我的支付宝(wodezhifubao). This will take you to your Alipay account, which should have a total of 0.00RMB. 


5. Click on the large orange icon that has the characters 充值(chongzhi; ‘recharge’).

6. Click on the fourth tab that says 充值码(chongzhima; ‘recharge code’)


7. When this tab opens, select the green icon that is farthest to the right and click the orange button below. 

8. The first box you need to fill out is the 14 or 18 digit code that is printed on your receipt.


9. The box directly underneath is for the Pin you gave at the Post Office. You didn’t forget it, did you?

10. Voilà! In a matter of seconds, your account has been charged and you’re ready to go with 300RMB! As soon as you have spent the lot, simply go back to the Post Office. They’ll know you there by name in no time.
With thousands of individual stores, some are bound to be a little bit dodgy. But even if you can’t read Chinese (and are baffled by Google’s translations), there are several easy ways for you to successfully navigate the shops of Taobao. The most obvious are the symbols. Those little hearts, diamonds, and crowns aren’t just there for pleasant decoration – each one indicates the number of successful transactions that a seller has made. Those with one heart are just starting out. They build up to five hearts, then get levelled up with increasing numbers of diamonds, blue crowns, and yellow crowns, before achieving that highest of honours - five yellow crowns. 

Serious Taobao sellers obviously mean serious business, and vice versa. Generally speaking, you don't want to risk doing business with sellers who have less than four diamonds to their name.

Other symbols commonly appear when you scroll through items and shops. The little '7+' sign, for example,  indicates that items can be returned for a full refund in seven days. 


Occasionally, when clicking on an item, you might find yourself on a site with a deep red background. That simply means you have entered, an offshoot of Taobao. There’s not a lot of difference between the two, except that Tmall (Tian Mao 天猫 in Chinese) is exclusively a business-to-consumer marketplace, with flagship stores from most of the big brands. Its products are therefore more likely to be genuine… but they're usually also pricier. 

You'll want to pay attention to the seller reviews and ratings – the Taobao fanatics we quizzed recommended only using stores with at least 98 percent approval. If you don’t feel like copy-pasting thousands of individual comments into Google Translate, the simplest rule of thumb is to check the number of positive (haoping 好评) versus negative comments (chaping 差评) . Also, look for shops that use pictures taken by the seller, rather than stock photos of ones from the product’s official website. And you should generally avoid anything ‘too good to be true’. A ‘GENUINE LEATHER PRADA WALLET’ for 40RMB is not going to be genuine. It’s just not. 
Once you've set up your account, recharged your Alipay and browsed around a bit, completing a purchase is relatively breezy. Before you press the big orange button, however, it is customary to ‘chat’ with a storeowner to ensure they have your item in stock. 

Obviously, this can prove difficult for those of us who don’t read or write Chinese. However, with the help of a Chinese friend or a translation tool, this step can be completed easily. If the little teardrop in the green or orange ‘ratings’ box is blue, that means the seller is available to chat (if it’s grey then they’re not around). Double-click to open a chat. Simply copy the link of the item, paste it into the chat box, and ask ‘有没有?’ (youmeiyou; ‘do you have this?’).


If you have other questions about the product, sizing or shipping, this is also the place to ask! Shop owners will usually call you ‘亲’ (qin; ‘dear’), so don’t be confused when you see this extra little character.
Congratulations! You've made it to the final step in your journey to Taobao glory! You’ve made your account, you’ve gone to the Post Office, you’ve browsed, you’ve selected, you’ve chatted, and now, you can finally click ‘Buy Now’. Select your size, the desired colour, and press one of the big orange buttons! The dark orange one on the right will add the item to your shopping cart, so you can continue browsing. Alternatively, the light orange one on the left lets you 'buy now'. You'll be directed to a new screen, where you must select your shipping option from a drop down menu. The most typical is the 10RMB 快递(kuaidi; courier delivery). If you have not already set up a shipping address, you will do that now. 


You should now be directed to the payment screen, where you will see your account balance near the top. Once you enter your password in the box, you’re done! You have arrived at your destination: Taobao paradise. All you have to do now is anticipate the arrival of your new Prada wallet. 

While you wait, you could twiddle your thumbs or pace around your apartment for a few days. But we think the better option is to just get back online, login to Taobao, and add a few more pairs of shoes/bags of coffee/skateboard wheels to your collection.

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