Apps to use in China

Apps for China: 11 Useful Apps for Expats in China

China is a fascinating, yet sometimes challenging country to navigate.

Google, Instagram, Facebook, platforms you’re probably used to by now, are blocked here. For a lot of people this can be unimaginable, but The Great Firewall is no joke.

You’re probably wondering: then how can I survive in China?

Well, to make your stay in China a lot easier, I’ve compiled this list of 11 must-have apps to use in China as an expat. After studying and living in China, I’ve learned what apps are the most important to download.

Especially if you’re planning to stay in China for a little bit longer, for example to study, it can be extremely helpful to download the following apps as soon as possible:

1. WeChat (微信 (wēi xìn) in Chinese)

Had it not been for my family and friends living outside of China, China almost made me forget about Whatsapp, Instagram, Facebook and other social media platforms.

When you’re in China, you will definitely need to download WeChat, as this can be viewed as the Chinese version of Whatsapp (also: Wechat is not censored like other social media platforms are).

Wechat is more than that though, you can post things on your feed, you can use it to pay and you can even use it to translate things such as menus. The app WeChat is the primary line of communication in China.

Apps to use in China

2. Maps.me

Google is censored in China and the maps provided by Google Maps are not accurate. Therefore, it’s a much better idea to download maps.me beforehand to make sure you can count on some offline directions.

I cannot recommend this free navigation app enough.  During my first few days of studying in Shanghai, I had drastically underestimated the absence of Google Maps.

I got lost on multiple occasions for hours and hours. As I did not speak any Mandarin, asking people for directions wasn’t really going well either.

3. Alipay (支付宝 (zhī fù bǎo) in Chinese)

Alipay is a great way to pay for everything during your stay in China. Compared to other countries, the use of a QR code to pay has been around for a lot longer in China. With Alipay you can easily scan QR codes and pay directly.

As mentioned above, you can also use Wechat as an E-Wallet during your stay in China. However, this requires a Chinese phone number to be able to work. If you don’t have this or if something goes wrong setting this up, Alipay will be a great alternative. 

What’s even more convenient about Alipay, is that it has more apps built into the app. Such as DiDi (taxi app), a bike renting app and a translation app.

Apps to use in China as an expat
Photo credits: Bangyu Wang

4. Astrill VPN / LetsVPN

As China has its own Great Firewall, you will need a reliable VPN while you are staying in China. You will need this VPN if you want to visit Instagram, Facebook and other censored platforms. The VPN that I have found most reliable is ExpressVPN.

Make sure to download the app before you come to China. The only time that this VPN became less reliable for me was during the Golden Week, when the national holidays of the People’s Republic of China are being celebrated.

Update March 2024: ExpressVPN isn’t working that great anymore in China. The most preferred VPN in China right now is Astrill. Another good VPN right now is LetsVPN.

5. Meituan (known as 美团 (měi tuán) in Chinese)

The Meituan app makes it possible for you to order a taxi in China. Do keep in mind that this app is exclusively in Chinese. Another alternative for ordering a taxi used to be Didi, except this sometimes disappears from the App store because of a crackdown by the government.

6. China Train Booking

This app makes it easier to book a train in China. The train system in China is excellent and it will really add to your experience in China to make use of traveling by train.

The app is in English, which makes it easy for foreigners to use. Besides, you don’t have to print your tickets, as e-tickets are widely accepted in China.

Must-have apps to use in China

7. Ctrip (携程旅行 in Chinese)

Another transport app I recommend is Ctrip, also known as Trip.com. This app makes it possible for you to book trains, flights and hotels in China. 

8. Taobao (淘宝 (táo bǎo) in Chinese)

Taobao is a shopping heaven. Whatever you are looking for, chances are high that you will find it on Taobao. Although this app is in Chinese, I think you can still be able to make it work without speaking a word of Mandarin. While I was in China, I ordered a lot of clothing from Taobao and they often arrived very quickly. 

9. Ele.me ( 饿了么 (è le me) in Chinese)

This app will open a whole new world for you in China, especially if you are a foodie like me. It literally means ”are you hungry?”. The app is used by locals and foreigners alike and offers an enormous range of food delivery in China.

You will need to put your address in Chinese. But after you’ve managed to do this, you will quickly learn why this was worth it. During my stay in China I was really surprised by how incredibly fast the food (and bubble tea!) delivery through this app was. 

Apps to use in China
Photo credits: Joshua Fernandez

10. Bing

If Google is blocked, what search engine should you use? Well, there is the option to use Baidu, a widely used search engine in China. However, everything is in Chinese.

Therefore, if you’re still not able to use Google and if you cannot read Mandarin, opt for Bing instead. 

11. Baidu Translate (百度翻译 (bǎi dù fān yì) in Chinese)

I cannot recommend this app enough. This app makes communicating with local people a whole lot easier. It is the best Chinese/English translating app out there if you ask me. 

Lastly, there are many more Chinese apps you could download during your stay in China. However, I think the apps mentioned above are the must-have apps to use in China.

If I would add all the apps that could be of use in China, the list would be too long and there would be no overview (or space on your phone!) of what to really download and what not. This is why I’ve only compiled a list of the must-have apps to use in China.

If you’ve read this list it may sound like visiting China is a pain in the ass. Especially due to the existence of The Great Firewall. I must admit staying in China can be challenging at times, but it’s all worth it in the end.

If you’ve set up these apps correctly, living or studying in China can even be very comfortable! It can even be more comfortable than what you’re used to at home. 

Expat in China
Photo credits: Akash Rai

In conclusion

The apps listed above currently are the best apps for China. If you’ve set up these apps correctly, you will be able to order food which arrives quicker than you can imagine.

You will be able to communicate with locals on the Chinese version of Whatsapp, you will be able to pay everywhere very easily by just scanning the QR code and you will be able to immerse yourself even better in the unique culture that China has to offer.

Traveling in China is very affordable and regardless of whether you want this or not – it will get you out of your comfort zone. 

Besides all of this, you will also be able to travel throughout China to landscapes you did not even know existed, such as Huangshan, Yellow Mountains.

Away with Danae

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