Before moving to China, I had a million and one questions on how to travel and live in China. We have backpacked China a few years ago but never stayed for longer than a month.
The first few weeks consisted of hopelessly searching, trying to work out apps and how to write my address in Chinese and eventually figuring out that China is the most convenient place to life and travel in because of the awesome apps. So, here are THE best apps for China Travel.
Note: It is worth investing in a smartphone if you don’t already have one, most of these apps require the internet.
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Best China Apps you need to travel
1. Express VPN (or similar)
To be able to access certain websites in China, you will need to download a VPN for your phone. This includes websites such as: Facebook, Youtube, Gmail and Pinterest.
Personally, we believe Express VPN is one of the best VPNs in China and you can download a 7 day free trial – do this the day you are leaving for China. The 7 days start straight away but the app must be downloaded before entering the country; you will not be able to access it once you are in China.
There are also various free VPNs that you can try once you are in the country. Hexatech is a popular choice and is free to download and use.
Once you have downloaded the app and signed up, you can turn your VPN on and off by pressing the big circle; the app is in English so is fairly simple to navigate.
This app is the most used app in China. It is like the WhatsApp China version – you can use it chat with friends but also add local restaurants and businesses on to make purchases.
Either before travelling to China or whilst you are here, download the WeChat App.
Apart from communicating with others, WeChat can also be used to pay for items in most stores but can also be used to order food online.
Ordering food online
- Press ‘Me’ in the bottom right of the screen.
- Then press ‘wallet’, this will appear under your name at the top of the screen.
- Then scroll down until you see an icon of a kangaroo, entitled ‘Food Delivery’.
- Click on the kangaroo and a page will open. This is in Chinese.
- In the top left, there is a circle shape with a dot inside it. This is your location.
- Click on this dot and input your address in Chinese. You may ask the hotel/hostel staff to enter the address but what we tend to do is take the English address from the booking website such as booking.com or cTrip, translate it into Chinese using the Google Translate app then paste this in. Works all the time.
- Once that is set up, you can order from the many restaurants listed.
- Google translate can be used to translate this page; either by screen shooting your screen then opening it as a picture in the google translate app or by using another phone, opening the google translate app and turning on the camera (there is a camera button under the text box).
- There are some restaurants (like food chains such as McDonalds and Pizza Hut) that accept cash on delivery. For others however, you may need to pay online, which you can do by adding a bank card to your account.
Adding your bank card to WeChat:
- Open the WeChat app.
- Press ‘Me’ in the bottom right corner of the screen.
- Press ‘Wallet’ under your name at the top of the page.
- At the top of the page, their are three icons. The third icon says ‘cards’, press this button.
- From here, press ‘add a card’
- It will then ask for your Name and Card No. On the text box that says Card No, you will see a camera icon. If you click on this icon, you can hover over your card and it will read all the details of your card and save them for you.
This is China’s version of Uber and the best China taxi app to download.
You can order a taxi for immediate pick up or schedule a taxi in advance. These rides are slightly more expensive that local taxis but the app is in English and can recognise most destinations in English. The App in Chinese is also available if you are sharing your location with a local.
When setting up Didi, you must have a payment method available; preferably a Chinese card to avoid bank charges but international cards are also accepted. Another option is to top up your WeChat account with your international card and use this as payment for both WeChat purchases and Didi. Once you have set up your payment, you can use this as your payment method.
To order a Didi:
- Open the app
- Place the green pin at the pick up destination. The app can find your location automatically so look at the street on the map and check it is the location you are in.
- Then, in the second text box, you can type in your location. This can be written in English but a few locations are not labeled in English.
- Different options will appear at the bottom of the screen. The first option from the left is called ExpressPool; you can share the journey with other passengers who are going in the same direction as you. The second and third options are direct private taxis with the Select option on the right being an upgraded option and slightly better service.
- Confirm your order. It will find you a taxi and you will get a notification when a taxi is on its way.
- In the bottom left corner of the screen, there is a button that says ‘message’. You can send a message explaining ‘I don’t speak mandarin, please don’t call’ – sometimes drivers like to call and check your location is correct.
- The map will show you where your driver is and how near he is to you. Once he has arrived at the pick up location, you have 5 minutes to get your taxi. If you are running late, you can send a message to your driver and generally, they will wait for you.
4. Google Translate
Google is literally a lifesaver for us here in China. It is the best Chinese translator app to use in my opinion because it was so user-friendly.
Download the app before visiting China but also download the Chinese translations as you won’t be able to use the app live without having a VPN on. Google is one of those websites that is banned here in China.
One of the best tools for the translate app is the camera icon; you can click on this and hover your phone camera over a menu, sign or anything with Chinese characters and it will translate it for you. We have managed to avoid ordering pig intestines or duck neck by using this helpful tool!
5. China Metro
China Metro is a must have app if you plan on getting around the cities using public transport. With the China Metro app, you can choose the city you are in and plan your route on the metro line. The stops are written in English characters so you can put in your starting and ending locations and the app will find you the quickest route. It will also tell you the costs. We show the Beijing metro app please but there is a helpful Shanghai metro app and apps for the smaller cities or lesser-known cities too.
Note: Head to your phone settings and make sure location is enabled on this app. The app can tell you what the nearest station is to you, using your location.
6. Chinese Skill
For those looking to spend extend time traveling China, it may be worth downloading the Chinese Skill app and investing some time in using it. You can learn basic day-to-day Chinese which will come in helpful; especially if you intend on visiting some of the less touristy areas of China.
The best part of this app is hat it doesn’t just teach you how to speak Chinese but it teachss you to learn to read Chinese and how to write Chinese. This makes it our favourite Chinese learning app, especially for those living in the country and wanting to know more than the basics.
Tip: If you haven’t got time to learn, then just remember Ni hao (pronounced Ne-how) for hello and Xie Xie (prounced Sh-ye, sh-ye) for thank you.
7. Hello Bike
As you travel around the major cities of China, you will probably notice how many bikes are left around the cities. This is because of the very popular bike sharing program the country runs.
Download this app to be able to scan the QR code on the bike, use the bike and leave the bike wherever you want to (safely).
The Hello Bikes are the blue bikes you will see all over the city but as of 2021, you will also see yellow bikes (Meituan Bike Share company) and turquoise and white bikes (Didi bikes).
These are the best apps for travel in China but for those who are looking to live in China, you may want to download these extra apps:
- Taobao – You can buy anything and everything from TaoBao and sometimes what shows up may not always be what you expected.
- Carrefour – The European company have a chain of supermarkets in China who deliver groceries on the same day of ordering.
- AliPay – Some stores and markets will accept AliPay payments You attach your card to the app and then make payments by scanning a QR code.
- TMall – Similar to TaoBoa, TMall is like the Chinese Amazon. There is better quality stuff on this website but items cost more.
- JD – The JD China app is a collection of services. You can log into your water or electricity account and pay your monthly bill. You can find pharmacies online and order medicine to arrive within 45 minutes, order items from the grocery store, order electronic items and more.
Other helpful China apps you may want to download:
- Apple maps – A China map app that shows directions inside the airports of Chinese airports too.
- Map.me – A great app that you don’t need the internet to use.
- Baidu Maps – the local China map app that is detailed and up-to-date.
- Ctrip – China’s own travel agency; you can browse and book flights, trains and hotels using this app.
- China Train Booking app – To avoid having to queue up and pick up your train ticket, you can browse, buy and use the delivery option to buy train tickets using this app. It is a fairly new app, allowing English speaking visitors and expats plan their train travel with a little more ease.
- TanTan – For those looking to date, TanTan is like the Chinese tinder and the most popular dating app in the country.
- AirVisual – Download the AirVisual if you are travelling for longer than a week or so or if moving here. You can track the pollution levels in your location which is essential if you want to stay healthy.
- Pleco – This Chinese Dictionary covers all the key phrases and Chinese language, so you can look up words and translations as you travel.
- WayGo – This translator app is a great tool to translate roadsigns and menus without needing a VPN (Google requires a VPN to access).
- Dianping – If you love eating out, this app is for you. It is like the Tripadvisor for China, with reviews of restaurants all over the country, written by locals and expats.
- XE Currency – We always have this app regardless of where we travel but it is handy having this available in China so that you can quickly convert, especially good when haggling in markets.
- Luckin’ Coffee – For coffee lovers this is a must. This quickly growing coffee chain offers fantastic deals, has a menu in English and is cheaper than Starbucks.
Apps for China FAQ
Skype is banned in China but you can Skype family and friends if you are attached to a VPN. A VPN allows you to access banned websites so download Express VPN before your travel in the USA.
Anzhi Market is the name of the App Store on the Chinese phones. If you have an iPhone, you can still access the App Store as usual.
As we have included in this post, you need Google Translate, WeChat, Didi and a VPN at the least.
WeChat is the most popular app in China, with locals and visitors up to 983 million actively using it by the time of writing.
China bans most Google apps, so don’t expect to use Gmail, Google maps, Dropbox, Microsoft One Drive, Goole Play, Youtube or Hootsuite without a VPN. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are also banned in China.
WhatsApp is a restricted app, meaning you will need a VPN to use it. This can make the app slower so bare that in mind when communicating on it.
No, Spotify is not banned so you will be able to access this app during your time. However, China has not yet launched its service, so mainland Chinese customers can not yet sign up for Spotify.
Yes, WeChat is a messenger app similar to WhatsApp but has more features for the user, including food ordering, bill checking and QR payment options.
Some apps are available in English whilst many have an option to change the language after download. The most popular apps like Didi and WeChat can be downloaded in English.