What’s for dinner?

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

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

And if you’re traveling in China, your hotel room won’t even have a bar fridge!

In this article, I’ll talk about the best food delivery apps in China and how to use them, as well as a helpful English alternative if you run into problems.

The best China food delivery apps

food delivery in China

Even individual ingredients can be delivered to you. Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

The most popular food delivery apps in China are:

  • Meituan Waimai (美团)
  • Ele.me (饿了么)

From a simple steamed bun to every ingredient you need to host a hotpot dinner party, these apps have everything.

As well as cooked and fresh food, Meituan and Ele.me can deliver things to your door like flowers, phone charging cables, makeup, and even sex toys.

apps banned in chinaapps banned in china

For the purposes of not writing an epic, I will 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 the wait times can be slightly longer than that, but that’s an exception, not the norm.

What’s the difference between them?

Ele.me driver China

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

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.

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.

Can I use Meituan and Ele.me in China?

ordering food online in China

You need a local phone number to use the best food delivery apps in China. Image by Freer on Shutterstock.

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

  • A Chinese phone number
  • A translator on your smartphone (unless you know Mandarin)
  • The ability to use an accepted payment option.

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.

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.

Currently, both Meituan and Ele.me are in Mandarin only. But you can 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 don’t have a Chinese phone number, don’t worry.

There’s an English food delivery app you can use in China called Sherpa’s. They even have a bilingual call center if your order goes astray.

Sherpa’s is available in three Chinese cities:

  • Beijing
  • Shanghai
  • Suzhou

Compared to Meituan and Ele.me, there are fewer choices and the delivery fee is higher with Sherpa’s.

Actually, 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, which is why it’s such a helpful travel app for China.

You can find Sherpa’s here:

Note: Link opens in a new window.

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

Start with the food categories

Alright, back to Meituan and Ele.me.

You can browse food under these main categories:

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

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

Just note that your choices of Western food will be much more limited outside of the major cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen where I live.

Okay, but I really want one specific dish

Fried rice in China

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

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

By using a translation app, you can see that the Chinese characters for fried rice are 炒饭. You 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.

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.

What about special dietary requirements?

lunch in plastic containers at my desk in China

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

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

But if you have a serious allergy, I’d suggest getting somebody to help you find a few staple merchants that you can order from before taking the risk.

Even when using online translators, ingredients or cooking methods might be unclear.

For vegans and vegetarians in China, be aware that some Chinese dishes might seem meat-free but are actually cooked using animal fat.

They could even include small pieces of meat!

Can I use Meituan and Ele.me without knowing Chinese?

Translation of the Meituan Waimai registration screen

The Meituan signup screen (Ele.me is similar). Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

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.

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.

apps banned in chinaapps banned in china

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

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

useful apps you need for food delivery in China

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

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.

Screenshotting, translating, screenshotting, translating does get tedious.

But it’s useful when:

  • items aren’t completely clear from their picture alone
  • you want to know more about ingredients
  • you’re filling in your delivery information
  • you’re filtering your options.

If you’re extremely hungry, it might be better to leave your room and go get food the old-fashioned way!

Where will my food be delivered?

Food delivery at my door in Shenzhen

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

delivery shelves in China

Delivery shelves. Image supplied by Olivia Seaton-Hill.

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.

Because of COVID-19, many residential buildings have adopted a collect-it-yourself delivery system.

This prevents non-residents from 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.

Most likely, your delivery will be the only one with an English name. (Mine is Penelope Pitstop – don’t ask.)

What’s the cost to use food delivery apps in China?

Eating takeaway food in China

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

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 Uber Eats and DoorDash.

Here in China, that is not the case.

Firstly, the delivery fee for the driver is usually only a few RMB. That’s 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.

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 scooters can only really do so much.

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 I pay?

screenshot about Meituan

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

In China, everything is linked to WeChat Pay or Alipay.

If you’re about to travel to China, I suggest setting up both these payment methods on your phone.

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

apps banned in chinaapps banned in china

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.

Will the driver or merchant 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, the delivery guy 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.

App reviews

Meituan food delivery app

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

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

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

Helpfully, many Chinese 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 food delivery apps have some other cool features like:

  • Scheduling your delivery ahead of time
  • Sending a driver to a store to collect things not available on the app
  • Donating a percentage of your order fee to charity.

There’s also an option to tip your driver. But just note that tipping in China isn’t common at all.

Psst! A quick China travel tip

Did you know that you won’t be able to access major foreign websites and apps in your Chinese hotel using Wi-Fi?

I’m talking about Google, Insta, Facebook, WhatsApp, TikTok, YouTube, Gmail, and tonnes more.

That’s why you need a virtual private network (VPN) app in China, unless you want to churn through overseas data which could cost you a fortune.

Please take a read of my review of the best VPN for China. Otherwise, you can skip the review and tap on the button below for the one I recommend most.

Link opens in a new window. This is a reader-supported affiliate link.

Just remember to download your VPN to your devices before you land in China, otherwise you won’t be able to get access.

Key takeaway (pun intended)

Having returned to the West only 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.

I hope I’ve given you the tools and confidence to get started with these China food delivery apps.

Just remember to translate anything you don’t understand or you could end up eating something quite strange!

Do you have any helpful tips for using China food delivery apps? 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 food delivery apps in China

How do you order food delivery in China?

You can use Meituan or Ele.me apps in mainland China if you have a Chinese phone number, a Chinese payment method, and 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.

What can you order on the largest food delivery apps in China?

As well as choosing dishes from restaurant menus, you can order fresh produce, fast food, movie tickets, bubble tea – the list is endless. Wait times might be a bit longer if the item you order is unique!