The Chinese app listicles we read before visiting China were… well… they were terrible. A lot of travel guides overestimate the number of translation apps you will need. You will need one (1). They overestimate your interest in the air quality index. If you cared at all, you would go somewhere else (or visit Dali, China where we are enjoying clean mountain air along with the beautiful scenery and culture). And, of course, most of them were out of date and included apps that either didn’t exist anymore or had fallen out of use. We are currently living in China, and these are the apps that we use all the time.
By the way, this post contains affiliate links. If you click on one and make a purchase, we will receive a commission at no extra cost to you. However, these recommendations are genuine and based on our experience using the services described.
It’s worth noting that Chinese apps in general are huge. They take up a lot of space on your device, and they often run in the background, eating up your batteries. So keep that in mind. That doesn’t apply to the western apps listed in this article.
ExpressVPN is a virtual private network service. And if you are wondering which apps you will be needing in China, this is the first one. When you are at home or traveling in most of the world, a VPN is useful because it enhances your security and privacy, making it so that your internet usage is completely anonymous and encrypted. But when you are in China, it plays an especially important role. China is notorious for its censorship, and it’s website blocking program has earned itself a special title: “The Great Firewall of China.” (You see what they did there.)
Because a VPN anonymizes your location, you can make it appear that your computer is anywhere in the world. This allows you to bypass the firewall and use all the apps you know and love so you can keep in touch with your family and friends, follow the news, use social media, navigate in English, and search the whole internet.
Some of the western online services blocked by China include Google, Google Maps, Gmail, Chrome, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Youtube, Twitter, and WhatsApp. There are a lot more. There are other VPNs available, but ExpressVPN is one of the few that has been reliable in China over the last few years, in part because it has the resources to stay ahead of the censors. It’s also the only one we’ve tested, and it has not failed us in over a year. We couldn’t get by without it. You can read our review of ExpressVPN for travel, or you can just go sign up risk free for only $8.32 per month.
Make sure you sign up for ExpressVPN before you arrive in mainland China, though, because VPN websites are also blocked there, and they won’t appear in App stores for devices purchased in China.
Say what you will about Uber’s corporate culture (but watch your language, this is a family travel blog), it runs an amazing service. There’s no Uber in China though, and hailing a gross taxi is as awful here as it is everywhere else, plus you have to know Chinese. Luckily, there is Didi Chuxing. Didi works almost exactly like Uber, and at long last they are starting to make themselves accessible to westerners.
First of all, they now have an English language app, that makes recommendations as you are typing. You can also pick your destination by placing a pin on the map, assuming that you know where you need to go. This saves you the trouble of having to communicate with a driver in another language, and the fact that you can watch your progress en route also makes it easier to tell if they are going the right way or trying to increase their fare (common with taxis). The Didi cars tend to be much cleaner, and the fares are cheaper than the taxis too.
Speaking of fares, for a long time Didi was not accepting international credit cards, which meant you had to have a Chinese bank account to use it. No more. It now accepts major international cards, so you can use it even if you are only in China for a few days. Like with Uber, the company handles the billing automatically, so you don’t have to worry about arguing with the driver over the price.
WeChat (and WeChat Pay)
WeChat is the dominant player in Chinese social media. Everyone, everyone in China uses WeChat. Some people will recommend you also get Weibo, but we value it so little I didn’t even bother looking up the url for a link. That’s how dominant WeChat is. If you want to communicate with someone you meet in China, their WeChat is more valuable than their phone number and email address combined.
What’s that, you don’t plan on making any friends while you are in China? It doesn’t matter. You still need to get it. That’s because the most valuable part of the app for foreigners isn’t the social aspect, but the transactional. The WeChat app includes WeChat Pay/Wallet, which allows you to make payments with your phone. You can do this for online purchases or in person purchases usually by scanning a QR code. And yes, it can now be linked to an international credit card.
Almost every vendor accepts WeChat Pay in China. We have purchased a handful of mushrooms at a market from an old woman who weighed them with a handheld balance, and when we didn’t have the right change, she just pulled out a paper with her phone with the QR code displayed and we were on our way.
You might be worried about security – as you always should be when traveling – but as far as I can tell it’s pretty air tight. The whole system works similarly to PayPal, and you even have to enter a password before the transaction can be completed. But just to be safe, only scan QR codes using the WeChat Pay app, and limit all WeChat communications to people you know. Obviously, you should never give out your password or other personal information either, and don’t keep it on or near your phone, in case it gets lost or stollen.
Meituan WaiMai (Chinese) is a food delivery app, and it is Amazing! On the rare occasions that our family has to stay in a hotel or other place with no kitchen, we just order all of our food through Meituan, rather than waste our time walking around looking for restaurants. The way it works is similar to task rabbit or uber eats, you can use the app to order delivery from almost any restaurant in the area, often at a discount, and the app will dispatch a deliver person to pick up your order and deliver to your house/airbnb/hotel for a delivery fee that is often less than $1. Pretty much every hotel in China allows Meituan delivery persons to deliver to the door. One downside of this – it can make you lazy.
The choices are sorted by distance, type of food and restaurant name, so instead of looking up the number for a restaurant, calling it up or visiting their website, you can type in the food you want to eat – for us it’s always vegetarian – and a list of restaurants will be displayed for you to compare and read reviews, each dish has accompany photo, so opening the app will make you feel hungry.
Another downside? You pretty much have to speak and read Chinese. This is the only service in this list that is not at least somewhat English accessible, but I like it so much I just had to include it. If you don’t speak a word of Chinese, you might be able to order from the pictures, but if the driver needs to call you for directions, you’ll have problems. If you speak or understand a little bit of Chinese this app is a must have for traveling in China, we only learned about it during one of our hotel stays. Dannie wasn’t familiar with Chinese apps and the hotel staff helped her set it up. Some expats use two phones, one to order, and one to translate off the screen (See Google Translate below).
For the first year of our slow travel adventure, we stayed almost exclusively in AirBnbs. Unfortunately, AirBnb just isn’t that great in China. Most of them are not allowed to host foreigners (but won’t tell you that), and they just all tend to have some serious flaws that you will never expect. Right now we are renting our own apartment in Dali, China, but when we need to travel – on a visa run for example – we usually use Booking.com (website) to find a hotel. It’s in English, it’s got good customer service (when we had a problem with a booking in France, the upgraded us to this nice place for free), and when a hotel in china can’t accept foreigners (as in you are holding a US/European Passport) , it says so in the first sentence of the description.
Because Chinese is so different in structure and idiom from western languages, there really is no perfect translation app. They can all translate the literal meaning of individual words, but the overall meaning and context of a sentence often gets lost. That being said, I’ve always liked Google Translate. It has a word lens feature that lets you just point your camera at text and it will overlay the translation in real time for you to read. It can translate 103 languages, 59 of which are available offline. It can interpret voices, and it can read out loud.
And yes, there are a lot of choices out there for translation apps, but I happen to be a big fan of this one. I don’t expect this to change any time soon either because Google is way ahead of its competitors when it comes to machine learning, which will likely be the key to any company improving translations in the future. But being run by Google is also the apps big weakness. Any online features will require a VPN to use in China. (See above)
That should pretty much cover your bases. If you have been to China and feel like we left out something important, please comment below. All of these apps should work on any phone you purchase before your trip, though if you want to buy a Chinese SIM card and use data while traveling, your phone has to be unlocked from your carrier. You can also buy a phone when you arrive in China, but if you do so, your choices of western apps might be limited unless you figure out how to root your phone. If you forgot to buy an unlocked phone before visiting, a trip to Hong Kong or any other nearby country while on a visa run or on your way to China might be a good chance to get one.
China is just the latest place we’ve been traveling. If you’d like to read about the other places around the world that we’ve visited, head over to our destinations page. If you’d like to help support our travels and the production of articles like this one, you can do so by visiting our resources page when you are planning your next trip, or by reading Operation Digital Nomad, our monthly report on our progress monetizing this blog.