Getting around in China can be a daunting prospect for any expat, traveler, or visiting family member. With a totally unique language, totally different app and social media landscape, and the dreaded “Great Firewall”, a newcomer in China could easily be forgiven for relying solely on their helpful Chinese friends and colleagues to get them around.
However, there are a series of helpful apps that can help your life run smoothly in China. Here is the list of top apps to use in China!
Top apps to use in China
WeChat is the most obvious and prevalent of the apps to use in China that you’ll need to download for your stay in the country. Pretty much every person you meet in the Middle Kingdom has WeChat and uses it as their primary mode of communication. Many teachers in China find it invaluable.
The message system itself works in a similar way to WhatsApp for social functionality, with group chats, instant messaging, and tons of great stickers and gifs.
Learn more about popular Chinese online slang here.
Professionally, the app works in lieu of email for most businesses in China, so get ready for a very different and instant way of working, with quick direct messages replacing formal email communication. Additionally, you will be able to use its mini-programs and various functions to pay bills, order a taxi, pay for food or goods at restaurants and shops through ‘Wechat pay’…the list is endless!
With all Google services trapped behind the Great Firewall, you’ll need to be able to access a reliable translation app when your VPNs are acting up.
Baidu Translate is an excellent option, with the majority of Chinese using this as their go-to app for translation. The app itself is actually considerably better at giving translations in Chinese that make grammatical sense than Google Translate, and its conversation feature is superior to Google’s, meaning you can have a relatively seamless two-way conversation in English and Chinese with a colleague or stranger.
The app is also available in English, meaning you’ll be able to navigate your way around it easily.
Back to Baidu again, and the alternative to Google Maps. Baidu Maps is the ideal map app to use in China. Although Apple Maps certainly works, much of the data on nearby businesses, closing times and even new roads and streets is quite outdated. The best way to keep up with the ever-changing navigational landscape of a Chinese city is through Baidu Maps.
Interestingly, Baidu Maps is one of the very few map services that accurately records your GPS position. With the Chinese Government not allowing most foreign-developed apps to accurately record GPS coordinates, Baidu Maps is one of your safest and most accurate options, and you won’t need a VPN!
And speaking of VPNs… This is an absolute non-negotiable for living and getting around in China. If you want to access just about any Western app, news service or social media platform, then you will need to have a VPN.
Facebook, Twitter, all Google services, Instagram, SnapChat, BBC News, CNN are all blocked in China, as well as many more. A VPN provider (in very simple terms), makes it look like your location is somewhere else in the world, therefore allowing you to get around the Great Firewall. There are many providers available, both free and paid.
Keep in mind that at times of political sensitivity in the country the government may ‘beef up’ the firewall, making VPN use more difficult. Also remember to subscribe and download the apps onto your devices at home, BEFORE you leave for China.
Alipay is now the go-to payment app for services and goods in China. Just about every store, street vendor and restaurant will have an Alipay account and a QR code that you can use to pay quickly and simply. You can use it to pay for goods straight away, but also for deliveries, invoices, healthcare, utilities and for insurance and tax on your car.
Tourists are able to use Alipay in the short term and connect it to a foreign bank account; the process is generally a lot simpler than Wechat Pay. This is increasingly becoming a must-have app to use in China as the country transitions to a cashless society.
Didi is the “Uber of China”. You will be able to hail a ride from just about any city in the country using this app. In addition to private Didi Drivers (all of whom are ranked and audited in a similar system to Uber), you can also use Didi to hail traditional licensed taxis, as well as luxury cars.
Just 6 years ago, the prominent way of getting a ride in China was standing by the roadside and sticking your hand out, but this has all changed; Didi has become the norm for quickly catching a ride within Chinese cities.
Hack Chinese is actually not an app, but a website that enables even novices to grow their Chinese vocabulary as quickly as possible. If you’re heading to China (and especially if you plan to learn Chinese!) there is no better way to get a head start than by learning at least a few hundred Chinese words.
One good option is learning words like yes, no, thank you, taxi, and restaurant. Fortunately, the first level of the HSK (China’s official language proficiency exam) is only 150 words total and has all the most basic, most commonly used words. With Hack Chinese, you can learn these 150 words in about a week, and your efforts will pay deep dividends!
Trip is the rebranded name for CTRIP, the best app for longer distance travel and hotel booking in China. With CTRIP, you can easily book and store flight tickets, high-speed rail and hotel reservations for anywhere in the country. It really is the only app you need when it comes to making these bookings and will often present you with great discounts and loyalty credits.
Additionally, Trip.com is the only Chinese travel app where reviews are predominantly in English, meaning you can get a much better idea of the pros and cons of prospective hotel rooms.
There is an abundance of retail shopping apps and sites in China, such as TMall and Taobao, as well as efficient food delivery services such as Ele, but Meituan is quickly becoming a popular option for both. With the ability to be able to shop online and order delivery for just about any product and to order from almost any nearby restaurant, Meituan, with its useful and friendly customer interface, is quickly becoming the shopping app of choice.
There we have it. There are of course many other Chinese apps that are useful for getting around in the country, but these are the top ones for newcomers to become acquainted with.
Remember to make local friends and ask what apps they use in China, as sometimes different cities have varying preferences in terms of food apps, taxi apps, etc. But you won’t go far wrong downloading our recommendations. Enjoy your trip!