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 something in a market, or even ask for directions.
Having the Google Translate app on your phone will really help you get by.
I recommend Google because it’s easy to use and everyone knows Google.
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 time up your sleeve, you could compare China VPN providers but the features are all pretty similar. At the end of the day you just want something fast and reliable.
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 that 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.
The app should detect your location and then you’ll see some English.
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.
You can add up to RMB 2,000 to your account each time, up to a maximum of RMB 5,000 per debit/credit card.
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 dumplings in China), but super-easy with the Mobike app.
Mobike is one of the largest bike share companies in China, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding one of their bikes. Plus, they’re bright orange!
Once you’ve found a bike, open up the app, scan the code on the bike, and off you go!
Rides start at just one yuan (about US 20 cents), making it the cheapest mode of transport around.
While I’m on the theme 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 alternatives, like Baidu, but they’re in Chinese and won’t be of much help.
If you’re on a packaged tour you may not need Trip (also known as Ctrip).
However, if you’ve got some spare days on either side of your vacation, or you’ve got a layover in China on the way to somewhere else, Trip is a great app to have.
It’s the most prominent holiday booking site in China.
It’s ideal for things like hotels, flights, airport transfers, and my favorite – bullet train bookings.
Help for train bookings
Once you buy your ticket online, you can either collect the physical ticket at the train station or have it delivered to your door for an extra 40 yuan.
If you’re picking it up at the station, bring the ticket pick-up number (from the email) as well as your passport.
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.
If you forget your passport, you won’t be able to travel! So it’s super-important you bring it.
I personally find the 40 yuan for ticket delivery a bit steep and always collect mine at the train station.
However, the trade-off is the time you spend finding the counter, and lining up at the station. In China, you can be guaranteed there will be queues at the station!
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.
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.
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.
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 may not 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!
What do you think of this list of must-have China apps for traveling? Let me know in the comments if you think I’ve missed any.