There’s misinformation about using WhatsApp in China, and I’m here to tell you the truth.
Straight up, can you use WhatsApp in China?
The short answer is yes, and you do not need a VPN as at September 2023.
Yes, really. But the app’s features are severely limited.
Can I access WhatsApp in China?
It’s no secret that countless foreign websites and apps are banned in China.
This means the locals can’t access major sites like Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Google and so many more.
But what about WhatsApp in China? Can foreigners use it?
Yes, you can. And you don’t need a virtual private network (VPN).
The thing is, you can only use it to send text messages.
- Send or receive (i.e. upload or download) any files such as images and videos
- Make or receive phone calls
- Make or receive video calls.
So, if you’re happy using WhatsApp in China purely as a way to message family and friends back home, then you’re all set.
But if you want to do more than send messages, you’ll need to keep reading.
How to access all the features
If you don’t think you can survive in China without all the usual features of WhatsApp, then you’ll need a VPN.
Until I moved to China, I didn’t realize how often my friends sent me photos on WhatsApp!
So for me, a VPN in China is absolutely critical (not just for WhatsApp, but every other bloody website and app I use.)
Please refer to my review of the best China VPN which outlines the best ones.
If you don’t have time to read the review, just tap on the button below and go straight to the one I recommend most, which is ExpressVPN.
I recommend this as the best VPN because my personal experience with it, while working and traveling in China, has been great.
Why are so many apps banned in China?
China is different from most other countries, and so too is the Chinese internet.
The Chinese government wants to maintain control over the communication tools that its people use, as well as uphold socialist ideology.
Colloquially, the censored internet is referred to as the Great Firewall of China.
Don’t worry though, you can still access the internet in China even if you don’t have a VPN.
It just means you won’t have access to major foreign websites and apps, as well as sites that the Chinese authorities don’t approve of, like gambling and pornography.
I’ve written a whole article about apps banned in China if you want to dig deeper.
Are there any alternatives to WhatsApp in China?
Most of the major international messaging apps are banned in China, including:
- Facebook Messenger
But there are some exceptions.
Skype, which is owned by Microsoft, can be used in China. Just make sure all your friends and family have Skype too!
In fact, many (but not all) of Microsoft’s platforms can be used in China without a VPN, such as Bing and Outlook.
Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime apps are other good alternatives to WhatsApp in China. Like Skype though, you’ll need to make sure your loved ones have these apps.
What about WeChat?
This app is super-popular and is used by more than one billion Chinese people.
WeChat is China’s version of WhatsApp or Facebook, but with a lot more functionality like paying for things, catching public transport and booking tickets.
The downside to using WeChat is all your friends and family back home probably won’t have it, so they would need to download it.
You also need to keep in mind that WeChat may not have the same encryption, privacy and personal data considerations that you’re used to.
So, Skype, iMessage or FaceTime might be better options.
When was WhatsApp blocked in China?
Fairly recently, in 2017.
History shows that once a major website or app is banned in China, the chance of it coming back online is extremely slim.
Foreign WhatsApp users who live in China usually use WeChat to communicate with locals, otherwise they use WhatsApp (with VPN turned on) to talk to people outside of China.
Is Wi-Fi available in China?
It sure is, and it’s usually free.
In places like restaurants and coffee shops, you can get the password from the staff.
Airports offer free Wi-Fi too, but often you need a Chinese phone number to get in. Most foreign travelers don’t have one so they use their own internet data in airports (which can be costly, so watch out).
If you’re going to be in China long term, you can get a Chinese SIM card and put it in your unlocked phone. This is how expats access free Wi-Fi at Chinese airports.
What if my VPN doesn’t work in China?
Some solo travelers who absolutely can’t go without Wi-Fi internet access in China get two VPNs (i.e. from different companies) in case one goes down.
And sadly, that’s quite normal in China these days.
However, for group travelers the solution is simpler. Just make sure that each person in your group has a VPN from a different company so you can share access.
Just note, each person should download all the VPNs before they arrive in China.
You can also access a different server location from within your VPN app, but sometimes this doesn’t do much.
If the connection is down, you might just need to wait a little while (Chinese internet is sometimes intermittent). Or, you can reach out to the VPN provider’s customer service team.
Fore more on this, please read my China VPN troubleshooting guide.
Are VPNs in China legal?
Yes, use of a VPN is legal and I’ve written all about that here.
Is there anything else I need to do before leaving for China?
The four most important things to have for your trip to China are:
- Valid passport
- Visa if applicable
- Money (cash and cards)
- Phone with VPN, of course.
If you arrive in China with only these four things as well as the clothes on your back, you’re gonna be OK!
But of course, there are some other things you might want to consider. It’s a good idea to do some planning for your trip, especially if you haven’t been to China before.
Key takeaway from using WhatsApp in China
As I mentioned, you can use WhatsApp in China for text messages only (without a VPN) as at September 2023.
However, you won’t be able to send or receive files like photos and videos, let alone make or receive calls or video calls.
So, if you want more than just WhatsApp’s messaging feature, you’ll need to buy a VPN that works in China.
Just remember to get it sorted before you arrive, because VPN sales are blocked in China.
Again, take a read of my review of the best China VPN.
Or, skip the review and tap on the button for the one I recommend most.
Have an amazing time in China. It’s a fun and crazy place – you’re going to love it!
Got a question? Whether it’s about WhatsApp or anything China travel related, hit me up in the comments below.
Main image credit: Alex Photo Stock on Shutterstock.
FAQ about using WhatsApp in China
Is WhatsApp banned in China?
Yes and no. You can still use WhatsApp in China, but only for text messaging. You can’t send and receive files like photos and videos, or make or receive phone calls and video chats. If you want to do that, you’ll need to get a VPN before you arrive in China.
Can I access WhatsApp in China?
Yes, you can if WhatsApp is already downloaded on your mobile phone. If you don’t already have WhatsApp, you’d need a VPN to be able to download it from your app store.
Are there any WhatsApp alternatives?
Skype and Apple’s iMessage and FaceTime apps are alternatives to WhatsApp in China.
What do Chinese people use instead of WhatsApp?
Chinese users love WeChat, an instant messaging app with lots of extra functionality like having video conversations, playing games, and paying for things with a QR code. With around a billion active users, WeChat is one of the most popular apps in China and therefore it’s the best way to communicate with the locals.
Why do you say there’s misinformation about using WhatsApp in China?
Most websites say that WhatsApp doesn’t work in China. That’s untrue. They want you to buy a VPN so they can pocket a commission (and they’ve probably never been to China). I live in China and I can tell you categorically that text messaging on WhatsApp works. It’s just the other functions that don’t work, which is why a VPN may be necessary. It depends on how you intend to use WhatsApp while you’re in China.
Can you use WhatsApp in Hong Kong?
Yes. Although Hong Kong is a part of China, the ‘one country, two systems’ policy is still in place. This means you can fully use WhatsApp in Hong Kong, while you can’t in mainland China.
Why else is a VPN important in China?
It gives you end-to-end encryption for security and the privacy of your personal information, and helps you stay anonymous while you’re online. You can also turn on what’s known as a kill switch, which means if your VPN connection breaks, you’re not left exposed – the internet connection is also cut.
What is China’s Great Firewall?
It’s the name given to the censored Chinese internet which keeps the outside world at bay. China’s internet censorship is very effective at ensuring local internet users only see what the authorities want them to see.
What other social media sites are banned in China?
All the big foreign ones including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and X (formerly Twitter). Both the apps and social media websites are blocked. The good news is you can access these sites in China with a VPN, provided you download the VPN before you arrive.