If you want to find your way around China, you’ll need a good map app.
I’ve always tried to be a hero in China and just followed my nose. I’ve tended to only use a map app when I’ve been well and truly lost.
But don’t be an idiot like me. Embrace the technology and learn to use a China map app before you leave your country.
You’ll have a much more pleasant time traveling, and you won’t waste time walking around in circles.
So, here’s my list of the best map apps that work in China.
I’ll start with the apps that are in English before moving on to some Mandarin options, and then finish off with some tips.
1. Apple Maps
- Available: Apple App Store
- English: Yes
- Chinese name: 苹果地图 (Píngguǒ Dìtú)
Got an iPhone? Then you should already have Apple Maps on your phone.
The app’s turn‑by‑turn spoken directions are really helpful. It makes the walk from Beijing’s Imperial Palace to Wangfujing Snack Street much easier.
If you’re in a taxi (or a DiDi – China’s version of Uber), the app can factor in real‑time traffic data. This includes the current speed limit, so you’ll know exactly how long until you arrive.
And, with Apple’s Indoor Maps, you can get detailed directions inside major Chinese airports including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. It’s pretty cool.
See also: Beijing travel guide
2. Google Maps
Everybody knows and loves Google Maps. You can get from A to B without even knowing the neighborhood you’re in.
In China though, Google Maps and other major foreign apps and social media sites (like Facebook and Instagram) are blocked when you use Wi-Fi. This is known as The Great Firewall of China.
Just make sure you download the VPN app before you arrive in China, otherwise you’ll be stuck.
What’s great about Google Maps in China is it shows both English and Chinese together on maps. Trust me, when you get lost, this is a blessing!
Just note that street maps don’t align perfectly with satellite maps. This is due to foreign restrictions on geographic data in China.
With over 140 million downloads, MAPS.ME is an insanely popular map app and a good alternative to Google Maps in China.
This is because the maps are available offline for free, and MAPS.ME isn’t blocked in China. So, you can find your way around without using the internet.
I recommend downloading the maps of the cities you’re going to before you leave your country, otherwise you’re going to have to do this in your hotel when you arrive. This can be time-consuming depending on the Wi-Fi connection, or costly if you use your own data.
Just be mindful that MAPS.ME is open-source software, so anyone can contribute to its development. This means that maps may not be entirely accurate (that’s been my experience, anyway).
I’ve also found it hard matching up the English in the app with some of the physical buildings and landmarks which are named in Mandarin. But hey, it’s free!
It’s worth pointing out that private mapping activities are banned in China. So, while you’re allowed to use this app in China, just don’t contribute to the actual building of it while you’re in the country.
4. Baidu Maps
Baidu-what? If you haven’t heard of Baidu before, it’s China’s equivalent of Google.
It’s the search engine that the locals use. And, like Google, they’ve got their own Maps app.
Baidu Maps has some pretty cool features like street view, 3D city maps and checking public transport times. You can also download maps before you arrive at your destination and then access them offline.
But, unless you can understand Chinese characters, Baidu Maps probably isn’t for you.
- Available: App and website
- English: No
- Chinese name: 高德地图 (Gāodé Dìtú)
Amap, pronounced Gaode in Chinese, is owned by Alibaba which is one the country’s biggest tech firms.
It provides China mapping data to both Google and Apple. So you know it’s a big player in the China map app space.
If you can read a bit of Chinese, you’ll appreciate using this mobile app for the user-friendly interface. In my opinion, it’s a bit less overwhelming than Baidu.
6. Tencent Maps
Tencent owns some of the most popular apps in China including WeChat, QQ and Tencent Video (China’s YouTube equivalent).
It’s no surprise then that Tencent wants a piece of the maps pie in China.
In February 2020, Tencent Maps (along with WeChat) raised eyebrows by launching a special map that pinpointed residential communities infected by COVID-19.
Like Baidu and Amap, you’ll need to be a Chinese language whiz to use this one.
What about Bing Maps?
Bing doesn’t have a map app.
But you can use their website map instead. Luckily, it’s not blocked in China and it’s a good one to use.
Just be careful with Bing though. It may automatically select the language based on your location, meaning everything will appear in Chinese.
If you don’t know how to change this, choose an English-speaking server location (e.g. United States) while using your VPN, and you won’t have this issue.
(But if you’re using a VPN, you’d be much better off using Google Maps than Bing for accuracy reasons – that’s been my experience anyway).
Other China map websites
You don’t need the latest apps on your phone to navigate your way around China.
So long as you can read Chinese, these map providers all do the job:
OSM is like MAPS.ME – it’s an open-source map that you can view offline.
The downside of OSM is that local maps are displayed in the language of the country you’re in. So in China, all the streets are shown in Chinese characters.
However, you can still type a location in English and the map works. A few businesses, particularly in the more cosmopolitan areas like Shanghai, have their English name on the map too.
Will using a map app in China eat up my data?
Using your hotel’s Wi-Fi won’t use any data. But if you turn on international roaming on your phone, you may start to use data quickly.
It depends on the kind of data plan you have on your phone.
I’ve previously activated international roaming with Vodafone for an extra AUD$5 a day (US$3.50). This got me unlimited data, and is a good idea for a short trip.
Your rate may be totally different. So, before you go to China, chat to your phone company to find out what your options are for international roaming. And don’t forget to turn it on!
If you don’t want to use any data while you’re in China, you’ll need to rely on an app like MAPS.ME. Just download the maps before you arrive.
Tips for using map apps in China
Here’s some advice on getting the best experience with your map apps in China.
1. Use a domestic app for street view
Only the domestic map apps and websites offer street view in mainland China. So, you would need to use Baidu Maps or Tencent Maps for this feature.
2. Download apps before you leave home
If there are any apps you think you’ll need in China, it’s best to download them before you leave.
For instance, Google Play is blocked in China. If you get a VPN though, you’ll be able to use Google Play.
3. Use offline maps
Downloading maps on the go will chew up your data quickly, and could end up costing you a small fortune. Download offline maps of the areas you’ll be exploring before you head to China.
Just note that you won’t get the full map experience, i.e. many features will be lost.
4. Don’t rely on 100% accuracy
The Chinese government has a big say when it comes to technology in China. And Chinese navigation apps are no exception.
For example, if you’re using Apple Maps – which relies on Chinese mapping company AutoNavi – you won’t be able to find your nearest H&M store. It’s missing due to a government boycott of certain Western brands regarding the situation in Xinjiang province.
5. Use Google Maps for Chinese street signs
Although you’ll see some English in the major tourist areas, you’ll only find Chinese characters and maybe pinyin (the Romanized spelling of Mandarin) on China’s street signs.
And that’s if there are any street signs at all!
Chinese writing is notoriously difficult to decipher, so you’ll need to be patient as you try to marry up the street sign with what’s showing on your app.
But remember, if you use Google Maps you’ll have both English and Mandarin to make it easier.
What if I get lost in China?
China is safe, and the people are generally friendly and will help if they can.
If you get lost in China, you can always rely on a translation app like Google Translate. It may not give you a perfect translation, but the locals will still get the gist!
Just show them the translation on your phone rather than try to pronounce the words yourself.
See also: How to learn basic Mandarin
So what is the best map app for China?
If you can understand Chinese characters, Baidu and Amap reign supreme.
But if you’re like most people and can’t read Chinese characters, you’ll need to use MAPS.ME, Apple Maps or Google Maps.
MAPS.ME is a good option because it has offline maps, and it’s not blocked in China. This means you won’t need to spend a cent on internet data.
However, it’s built using open-source software so the maps are far from perfect in my experience (especially in China where people are banned from enhancing the maps).
If you have an iPhone, using Apple Maps is your best bet. The app works in China, and the maps are based on Alibaba’s cutting-edge technology.
Or, if you have an Android phone, Google Maps is the best option. But because Google is blocked in China, you’ll need to download a VPN app before you arrive.
You can read my review for the best China VPN here.
My last piece of advice
No matter where you’re going in China, make sure you have the address in Chinese characters, not just English.
If you lose your way, you can simply show it to a taxi driver, and you’ll be taken to the right place.
Best of luck traveling – you’re going to have a blast!
I hope I’ve helped with your China map app needs. Leave a comment if you have any questions or suggestions. If you’re looking for the best overall apps for foreigners to use in China, check out my blog here. I think you’ll like it.
Main image credit: Firmbee on Pixabay.
FAQ about the best China map app
Does Apple Maps work in China?
Yes, it does.
Is there a Chinese map app in English?
No, so you’ll need to use something like Google Maps, Apple Maps or MAPS.ME.
Does China have Google Maps?
No, it’s blocked in China unless you have a VPN.
What’s a Google Maps China alternative?
Try MAPS.ME (though there are fewer features) or if you can read Chinese, use Amap or Baidu Maps.