If you’re traveling to China soon, you’ll need to download the right apps on your phone.
They will help you get around, communicate with the locals, and generally make life easier.
I’ve lived and traveled extensively throughout China, and I’m confident the apps I’ve outlined below are the only ones you’ll need.
(If you’re looking for the apps that Chinese people use, check out these popular apps instead – just note most are in Mandarin so you won’t be able to use them.)
So, here’s what I believe are the best China apps for traveling in this amazing country.
1. Google Translate
Most people who go to China take a pre-booked tour with an English-speaking guide.
This is great as it takes the stress out of things. However, you’re still going to find yourself in situations where you’ll need to communicate with a local.
For example, you might want to buy food or ask for directions. Having the Google Translate app on your phone will help you in these sticky situations.
I recommend Google because it’s easy to use and everyone knows Google, but there are plenty of other ones too.
You can access free internet in China using Wi-Fi at places like your hotel, the airport and Starbucks.
However, if you want to access all your favorite websites and apps, you’ll need a VPN.
This is because the Chinese government blocks major Western sites and apps like Instagram, Facebook, Google, Gmail, YouTube, WhatsApp, The New York Times, and even Tinder.
A virtual private network – VPN for short – means you can bypass the Great Firewall of China and keep using the sites you know and love.
I’ve travelled extensively throughout China, and I’ve found that ExpressVPN is the most reliable.
If you have a bit of time on your hands, I recommend comparing China VPN providers – you can check out my review here.
However, the features are all fairly similar. All you need is something that works!
Chinese people use their phones to pay for practically everything, from train tickets to street food. And when you’re traveling in China, you can too!
Alipay is one of the two major phone payment methods in China. (The other is WeChat Pay – I talk about this at the bottom of this blog.)
To use Alipay, you simply scan the merchant’s QR code at the register.
Help for setting up Alipay
When you download Alipay, the first screen that appears may be in Mandarin.
Don’t stress – simply tap on the button on the right to get in. Enter your phone number to receive a four-digit security code, then enter the code in the app.
Select the international version of Alipay, and go into ‘Tour Pass’. This gives you 90 days of paying on your phone when traveling in China.
To load money, you’ll need to give Alipay:
- Your personal details (from your passport)
- A photo of your passport
- Your credit card or debit card details.
Any unused balance will be refunded to your card after 90 days so you won’t lose a cent.
If you’re uncomfortable providing your personal information to Alipay, you’ll have to use cash in China instead.
You can also use your international credit/debit card but not for small purchases, and certainly not for things like street food.
There are lots of cool places to explore in China.
Exploring on a bike is not only good exercise (you’ll be eating lots of great food in China), but super-easy with the Hellobike app.
Hellobike is owned by giant Alipay so you shouldn’t have a problem finding one of their bikes in cities big and small. Plus, they’re bright blue.
Once you’ve found a bike, open up the app, scan the QR code on the bike, and off you go!
Rides start at just 1.5 RMB (about US 30 cents) for every 30 minutes, making it the cheapest mode of transport around. If you plan on peddling a lot, the 30-day plan for 25 RMB might work out the best.
Payment can be made via Alipay. As mentioned above, try and set this up beforehand so you can hit the ground running in China.
And, make sure you use the app to work out where you can’t leave your bike. There are designated no-park zones.
Get the app by searching for 哈啰出行 (Hellobike) in your China app store.
While I’m on the topic of getting around, you need to download DiDi for your China trip.
It’s China’s version of Uber or Lyft, and works pretty much the same way.
If you’re traveling in China on a packaged tour, you may not need DiDi. But some tours have free travel days and you might need to jump in a car.
Just be warned – the driver may call you to confirm your exact location. Unless you can speak Chinese, you won’t be able to take the call!
I recommend using the in-app message translation feature instead. Your hotel concierge can also help if you get stuck.
6. Google Maps
It goes without saying that this app is worth its weight in gold – not just for China but any country overseas.
Finding your way back to your hotel, or even navigating the Forbidden City in Beijing, is easier with Google Maps.
There are alternative Chinese map apps, but most are in Chinese and won’t be of much help.
Trip (also known as Ctrip) is the most prominent holiday booking site in China.
It’s ideal for booking tours, hotels, flights, airport transfers, and my favorite – bullet train bookings.
If you’re on a packaged tour, where everything is sorted, you may not need Trip.
However, if you’re taking advantage of Visa-Free Transit and you have some time to kill, or your tour has finished and there’s more you want to see, Trip is a great app to have.
Help for train bookings
When you buy your ticket online, you can choose either an e-ticket (the most convenient) or a physical ticket that you pick up from the train station.
If you choose a paper ticket, make sure you bring the ticket pick-up number (found in the email) to the station.
Leave enough time to find the Online Booking Ticket Pick-up Counter. In Mandarin, this is 互联网取票专区, but most station signs are in English as well.
For both e-tickets and paper tickets, you won’t be able to travel if you forget your passport. So it’s super-important you remember to bring it with you.
Another good accommodation booking app is Agoda (fairly popular in China) or Hostelworld if you’re on a shoestring budget.
Ahhh, who could forget about converting currencies when traveling?
The XE currency app has everything you need for international currencies, including China’s currency (known as renminbi or yuan).
Simply enter the amount you want to convert and it’ll appear instantly on your phone. You can even use the app to transfer money.
XE is a helpful app not just for China, but any country you’re traveling to. I particularly like it when I’m on a layover in another Asian city and have no idea about that country’s currency.
Oh, and before you head to China you might want to familiarize yourself with counting money in Chinese. It will help you in places like markets.
What about WeChat?
WeChat is by far the most popular app used in China.
Like WhatsApp, it’s a social media app where you can keep in contact with people (and do a whole bunch of other cool things).
One of its most powerful features – WeChat Pay – allows you to buy everyday things like food and train tickets.
However, if you’re going to China for a vacation, I wouldn’t recommend you download it.
Why? You currently need a Chinese bank card to use WeChat Pay, though there are plans to make it more foreigner-friendly.
And, in the short time you’ll be in China, you won’t amass lots of locals to add and have conversations with. So there’s really no point.
What about food delivery apps?
The main Chinese delivery apps, Meituan and Ele.me, are in Mandarin and you need a Chinese phone number to register.
This makes them a little problematic for tourists, especially if you’re not going to be in China for a long time.
However, there are alternatives if you’re in Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou or Hong Kong. Get all the details in this dedicated article on how to order food in China using delivery apps.
My final, most important tip
Make sure you download the apps of your choice before you arrive in China.
In particular, you need to download your China VPN app before you arrive, otherwise you won’t be able to access Western websites and apps.
And, the Google Play store only works in China with a VPN.
For the best possible experience in this amazing country, arrive prepared!
Let me know below if you think I’ve missed any must-have China apps for traveling. You might also like the epic-sized article I wrote about Chinese culture. You’ll need to grab a coffee!
Main image credit: Supplied by Mike Cairnduff.