What’s for dinner?

Ah, the age old question. In my household here in China, it’s usually followed by “Order or cook?”

Ordering food online is increasingly common in China. It’s often cheaper and easier than buying groceries and doing the cooking yourself, not to mention the time saving.

Plus, Chinese apartments usually don’t have the most well-equipped kitchens. And if you’re traveling in China, you’d be lucky if your hotel room even has a microwave!

Day or night; rain, hail or snow; come what may, you can order pretty much whatever you like to your door in China using delivery apps.

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The big dogs: Meituan and Ele.me

Meituan (美团) and Ele.me (饿了么) are China’s two insanely popular delivery apps.

I almost typed ‘food’ delivery apps, but that description vastly undersells their powers. Yes, they’re mainly used for food delivery, but on these apps, you can do so much more.

You can order everything from freshly cooked hot meals, to your weekly groceries, to flowers for the birthday you forgot, a charging cable to replace the one that’s been on its last legs for weeks but finally packed in, lipstick for the unexpected date you bagged after work (get in!), cat food at 4 am because despite your best efforts you’re not the best pet owner, heck, you can even order freaking sex toys if you want to!

hot pot delivery china

Even individual hot pot ingredients can be delivered. Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

For the purposes of not writing an epic, I will mainly focus on the food delivery aspect of these platforms.

The best part? Whatever you order will be delivered to your door in less than an hour.

Okay, during busy periods it can be slightly longer than that, but that’s an exception, not the norm.

What’s the difference between them?

There really isn’t a huge difference between the two apps other than Meituan is yellow and Ele.me is blue.

Some people might argue that Meituan is a bit more popular or convenient, but in my opinion and experience there’s not much in it.

Do Chinese people use delivery apps often?

Yes! Many people living in Chinese cities use these apps daily. Sometimes multiple times a day.

For those working 9 to 5 (or longer, as is often the case in China), breakfast is usually collected en route to work. However, in mainland China, lunch and dinner are most likely ordered from Meituan or Ele.me.

Ele.me driver China

It’s easy to spot an Ele.me driver in blue. Image by Humphery on Shutterstock.

At any time of the day, you’ll see drivers on their scooters wearing blue or yellow, depending on their allegiance, waiting to pick up their next order.

If you’re out and about around mealtimes, expect to see a lot of blue and yellow scooter drivers.

Can I use Meituan and Ele.me in China?

Signing up is easy, but there are three essential things you need:

  • A smartphone
  • Chinese phone number
  • Ability to use an accepted payment option (more on this later).

Unfortunately, there’s no way around the Chinese phone number requirement at the moment. But things change often in China, so maybe one day this won’t be the case.

ordering food online in China

You need a local phone number to explore the best delivery apps. Image by Freer on Shutterstock.

If you’re visiting China for more than a few weeks and you’re desperate to use Meituan or Ele.me, it might be worth getting a local phone number while you’re here.

SIM-only plans are relatively cheap in China so it won’t add a great expense to your visit and will save you extortionate data roaming fees when you return home. You’ll just need an unlocked phone.

You can refer to this guide for more information about Chinese SIM cards.

One more important thing about Meituan and Ele.me – they’re both in Mandarin only. But you can easily translate on your phone (as I talk about below) with a little patience.

Is there a food delivery app in China in English?

If you’re visiting Beijing, Shanghai or Suzhou, there’s an English food delivery app you can use called Sherpa’s. They even have a bilingual call center if your order goes astray.

However, there are significantly fewer choices with Sherpa’s, and the delivery fee in Beijing and Shanghai starts at 15 RMB for the first 3.2 km (2 mi).

The company was recently fined 1.2 million RMB (around $178,000) for its excessive delivery fees and having a monopoly on delivering food to foreigners in Shanghai.

But hey, at least you know there’s an alternative. And you can sign up with an international phone number!

If you’re in Hong Kong, the leading delivery apps are foodpanda and Deliveroo. Both are in English.

Food categories

Alright, back to Meituan and Ele.me. You’ll notice on both these apps that you have the option to browse food by these categories:

  • Dumplings
  • Burgers and fries
  • Pasta and pizza
  • Steamed buns and congee
  • Rice noodles
  • Hot pot
  • Local dishes
  • Fried chicken
  • Sushi
  • Barbecue.

There are still several more categories to choose from, but these are all the major ones.

The categories should be quite easy to understand based on the icons/images associated with them.

Okay, but I really want one specific dish

If you want something specific or not listed, for example fried rice, then you can also search for that.

By using a translation app, I can see that the Chinese characters for fried rice are 炒饭. I then copy and paste this into the search bar of the delivery app and browse through the options provided.

If your search only returns limited results, try simplifying or generalizing it and search again.

Fried rice

Mmmm, fried rice! Image by Juno Kwon on Pixabay.

Spaghetti with tomato sauce and meatballs might be better searched using only the Chinese characters for pasta and tomato. Tacos might be found more easily using the characters for Mexican.

You can order food in terms of distance, price and rating – just as you would do when booking a hotel. The option to do this is just underneath the images depicting the category of food you’re browsing.

Will I be able to use Meituan and Ele.me without knowing Chinese?

If you can use a smartphone and have ever even so much as dabbled in the world of online shopping, yes, probably.

You basically just open the app and a plethora of dining options are there for you to browse through.

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The trickiest part of using Meituan and Ele.me is inputting your delivery details as you will need to know your delivery address in Chinese.

You only really have to do this the first time you use these services in any given location.

If you’re brand new to China or these delivery apps, I highly recommend getting friends, co-workers, teachers or even hotel staff to help you set this up.

Meituan registration translation

Meituan signup (Ele.me is virtually the same). Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

They may even walk you through your first order, if they’re really nice.

Don’t panic if you can’t find anyone to help you. The apps themselves are pretty good at locating where you are.

You just need to double check that this is accurate and remember to include your exact room or apartment number.

Using WeChat to help translate

If you take a screenshot or picture of Chinese text, you can translate it to English on WeChat.

Do this by tapping on the ‘+’ icon in the top right-hand corner of WeChat’s launch page.

Next, select ‘scan’. At the bottom of your screen, you’ll notice ‘scan’ (again) which is for QR codes and barcodes, and ‘translate’ which is for screenshots, menus, text messages and the like.

apps you need for food delivery in China

Four apps you need for food delivery in China. Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

Screenshotting, translating, screenshotting, translating does get tedious.

But it’s useful when items aren’t completely clear from their picture alone, or if you want to know more about ingredients. Or you’re filling in your delivery information. Or you’re filtering your options.

Where will my food be delivered?

Will my order come to my room or apartment door, or the main door of the building or hotel?

As with many things in life in China, there’s no concrete answer to this.

Most office buildings will have shelves outside on the ground floor where drivers can leave your food.

In hotels, your delivery will go to the reception. If it’s a nice hotel they will bring it up to your room for you. However, sometimes you will have to collect it from the front desk yourself.

Food delivery at door

Food delivered right to the door. Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

delivery shelves China

Delivery shelves. Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

In the strange world we’ve lived in for the past few years, many residential buildings have adopted the office style collect-it-yourself delivery system.

This limits the non-residents entering a community and, I suppose, is faster for the delivery drivers.

Usually a picture of your delivery will be uploaded to the app and the receipt attached to the bag should have your name on it.

photo from food delivery driver China

The driver will send you a photo like this. Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

Most likely, your delivery will be the only one with an English name.

My name for delivery at my apartment is Penelope Pitstop. I thought it was funny, it isn’t, and just haven’t bothered to change it.

What’s the cost to use Meituan and Ele.me?

In the West, you’d probably expect to pay an arm and a leg for this somewhat luxurious convenience. Usually only well-established restaurant chains will be on apps like UberEats.

Here in China, that is not the case.

Firstly, the delivery fee for the driver is usually only a few RMB – less than 1 USD/GBP.

For this reason, you generally see drivers delivering multiple orders at the same time. They collect and deliver orders across their chosen areas as they go.

This must require a decent amount of logistical planning and some problem-solving on the driver’s part.

Of course, on the odd occasion when they miscalculate their routes or timings, you end up with a long wait for lukewarm food. The giant heat-resistant box attached to their mopeds can only really do so much.

I’ve accepted that, despite it being annoying, delays happen from time to time. It’s still incredibly convenient and cheap.

Eating takeaway food in China

Enjoying takeaway food in China and not cooking! Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

Secondly, a lot of merchants might offer discounts that you wouldn’t normally get in store. For example, spend over 20 RMB and save 3 RMB.

Honestly, I’m not super clued up on how these discounts work, but I’m always happy to see my total payment amount go down.

Towards the end of the day, supermarkets often sell vegetables for as little as 0.01 RMB! That’s almost negative money when you convert it to dollars or pounds.

How do you pay?

In China, everything is linked to WeChat or Alipay.

Currently both of these platforms claim to be set up to accept foreign bank cards. But in reality, only Alipay seems to be working.

So if you’re visiting China on vacation, use Alipay’s Tour Pass option (there are simple instructions here).

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I’d highly recommend setting this up before you arrive in China to avoid any last-minute payment disasters.

Unfortunately, cash upon delivery is not accepted because cash is like so 2016 here.

If you’re planning to be in China a bit longer for work or study, you can also add your Chinese bank account directly to Meituan or Ele.me as a payment option.

This can be a little finicky to do as you must input your name the exact way the bank staff did when they opened your account.

screenshot about Meituan

You can order practically anything on Meituan. Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

Given that this is almost never the way you actually write your name, good luck figuring that out.

Some common troubleshooting includes trying all capital letters, removing any spaces, putting your family name first, and so on.

Will the drivers or merchants ever contact me?

Yes, they actually do contact you pretty often.

Ensuring you can receive your delivery seems to be the main reason why a Chinese phone number is required to use Meituan or Ele.me.

Usually drivers will call to let you know they’re arriving with your food. If you don’t speak Chinese, there are a few ways to deal with this:

1. Ignore

You can ignore the phone call entirely and likely still receive your delivery. This almost always works.

Most buildings have security guards outside so provided you input the correct address, you’ll probably be fine.

2. Assume

You can assume that they’re calling to say “Hey, I’m almost here” and just feign understanding by replying “OK, OK, OK, xie xie, bye bye” to whatever they say.

I’d estimate this has around a 75% success rate. But it could backfire and you may end up confusing the driver and causing even more phone calls and a delivery disaster!

3. Message

You can send a message to the driver telling them that you don’t speak Chinese so can’t answer the phone.

In Chinese, I usually type something like “I can’t speak Chinese. No phone calls. Send a message if there’s a problem”, which I get from my translation app.

You can hopefully avoid the situation altogether by sending both the driver and the merchant the above message via your chosen delivery app as soon as your order has been accepted.

This way both parties know that they should message you if they need to communicate anything to you such as an item being out of stock or a delay with delivery.

How good are these apps for specific dietary requirements?

It’s hard for me to say.

I have no allergies and eat pretty much everything – sturdy Scottish genes.

I do, however, avoid seafood like the plague. If I suspect something may arrive being a little fishy, I don’t order it.

lunch at my desk in China

Lunch at my desk in Shenzhen. Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

As allergies can be quite serious, I’d suggest getting somebody to help you find a few staple merchants that you can order from before taking the risk. Even using WeChat’s translate feature, ingredients or cooking methods might be unclear.

For vegans and vegetarians, be aware that Chinese dishes might seem meat-free but may have been cooked using animal fat or might even include small pieces of meat!

You can find out more about vegetarianism in China here.

Anything else to look out for?

Keep in mind that, the further away the restaurant is, the longer it will probably take for your food to arrive. Especially during busy periods.

The distance should be pretty clear to distinguish, being shown in meters (m) if under a kilometer away and shown in kilometers (km) if more than a kilometer away.

I do give the rating a quick check before ordering. You’ll notice a star and a number, where 5 is the highest and best.

Restaurants in China take their Meituan and Ele.me ratings very seriously. Just one bad review could lower a restaurant’s score and lose them a lot of future business.

Meituan food delivery app

App reviews are everything in China. Image by Taha on Unsplash.

Helpfully, many people post pictures with their reviews. I like this feature as you can actually see what your food will look like when it arrives.

I don’t generally leave reviews – that’s next level and I’m not there yet.

If a merchant has a low score, under 4 stars, or only a few reviews, I tend to avoid ordering from there unless I already know it’s a decent place.

One of the worst Western restaurants in town was recently offering a 50% refund if you left a good review and sent them a screenshot. That says it all really.

Other cool features

Chinese delivery apps have some other cool features like:

  • Sending a driver to a store to collect things not available on the app
  • The ability to tip your driver should you want to (although tipping isn’t very common in China)
  • Scheduling your delivery ahead of time
  • Donating a percentage of your order fee to charity.

I’ve barely scratched the surface on the possibilities with simple meal delivery in China.

Key takeaway (pun intended)

I hope I’ve given you the tools and confidence to get started with delivery apps in China. Just remember to translate anything you don’t understand or you could end up eating something quite strange!

I’ll leave you with a closing anecdote about just how big a role these apps now play in my life.

Having returned to the West once since moving to China, I must say that 24/7 apps like Meituan and Ele.me are one of my favorite parts about living here.

After arriving at my boyfriend’s home in the US in the wee hours of the morning, we reached for our phones to order a hot meal after our long flight only to remember that we weren’t in China anymore, Toto.

Do you have any helpful tips for using delivery apps in China? What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ordered? Please leave a comment below, or keep reading about all the top apps in China.

Main image credit: StreetVJ on Shutterstock.

FAQ about delivery apps in China

How do you order food delivery in China?

You can use the hugely popular Meituan or Ele.me apps in mainland China if you have a Chinese phone number and you can use a translation tool. Otherwise, use Sherpa’s if you’re in Beijing, Shanghai or Suzhou, which is in English.

What’s the best food delivery app in China?

Meituan and Ele.me are equally popular. There’s not much in it.

What’s the cost of food delivery in China?

The delivery fee is usually a few yuan with Meituan or Ele.me. This is less than 1 USD/GBP.

Is there a food delivery app in China in English?

Yes, it’s called Sherpa’s and it’s only available in Beijing, Shanghai or Suzhou.