10 Must-Have Apps for Travelers and Expats in China

Whether you are a traveler or expat in China, there are a few apps you’ll need to get to enhance your experience in China. We’ve compiled a list of 10 apps you must download before going to China.

VPN APP: access to blocked Internet

vpn app

When coming to China, you’ll have to say goodbye to apps and websites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube and Google, which are all blocked by the great fire wall of China. However, you can get around the wall by installing a VPN, or virtual private network. It allows you to create a secure connection to another network over the internet, that is, you can break the block and access to your favorite sites again by using the VPN application. Therefore, the VPN might be one of the best apps when you travel or live in China. And it is highly recommended to buy a paid and legitimate VPN service considering the data security. Also remember to get the VPN installed before going to China as most VPN sites or blocked in the country.

Google Translate: break language barrier

Google Translate
Google Translate

When traveling in a new country, the largest challenge you’ll face is the language barrier. Although the Chinese people are getting better and better at English, you cannot expect that people will speak English well. So, if you are not proficient in Chinese, a translate app will facilitate communication with the locals. As Google Translate is blocked in China (if you don’t have a VPN), you’d better download both the English and Chinese dictionary for offline usage. Another translating app – Baidu Translate is not blocked and is a good backup plan.

Pleco: Chinese dictionary app

Pleco - Chinese dictionary
Pleco – Chinese dictionary

Pleco is one of the most popular English-Chinese dictionary and the best language-learning apps, which allows different ways of input, including Pinyin input, English words, handwriting, and it supports OCR (Optical Character Recognition), that is, you can look up unknow Chinese words using phone camera, or tap-lookup words in a still image. The native speaker pronunciation can be very helpful to those who are interested in picking up Chinese and practice pronunciation.

WeChat: more than a messaging app


WeChat is China’s most popular messaging app, but it offers more than just messaging. It is like a combination of WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and more. You can use WeChat to do almost everything, such as sending text, audio and video messages, sharing pictures and videos, ordering food, booking flights and hotels, etc.

One of the best features about WeChat for foreigners is the translation in the messaging system. All the messages sent through WeChat can be translated into Chinese and English (though sometimes not very accurate). You can’t live in China without this app, so if you’re staying for longer than a month you need to get it.

Alipay/WeChat Pay: pay for everything

Alipay or WeChat Pay
paying via Alipay or WeChat Pay (source: Internet)

In most countries cash and credit/debit card are still the common forms of payment, while China is now moving further towards a cashless society as two mobile payment methods have rapidly expanded. One is Alipay, a smartphone-based system that was invented for Taobao, an online platform backed by Alibaba, a Chinese e-commerce giant. Its rival is WeChat Pay, a service of WeChat app, a product of Tencent, a social media giant.

Using Alipay or WeChat is the easiest way to pay for things in China. The cashiers just scan the QR-code on your phone and you’re good to go. Keep in mind though that you can only connect the payment apps to Chinese bank cards. If you’re traveling it’s easier to just use cash.

DiDi: taxi-haling service app

DiDi Chuxing for taxi-hailing service

If you’re stuck somewhere with no taxis in sight, then DiDi is the taxi hailing service app of choice. It’s pretty much the Chinese version of Uber, and can be a great option when the subway is closed and the buses stopped going. No matter the time of day, it’s possible to get a taxi to drive you anywhere with the DiDi app. The app can automatically translate English text into Chinese and vice versa, so don’t worry about communicating with your driver.

Baidu Map/AMap: city navigation app

Maybe you’re accustomed to using Google Maps, but it is not really accurate in China, even if you have a VPN. Therefore, it’s better to download a Chinese map application on your phone. Baidu Maps and AMap are the most used map apps, and they are more accurate, up-to-date and reliable for traveling the whole country. The apps will show you the routes to get you where you need to be.

Mobike: cashless bike-sharing app


Want to explore the streets and alleys in China freely? Then try Mobike, a bike-sharing application,. It allows you to get around the city without getting stuck in traffic. Bikesharing is prevailing in China, and you’ll see bikes scattered across the city. Signing up is free, but it requires a picture of you holding your passport to verify your identity. When your verification is done, you simply find a bike, scan the QR code, unlock it and take it for a ride, but remember to lock it wherever you’re done with it. Bike sharing is cheap too, you only need to pay for 1 yuan every 15 minutes of usage.

Meituan/ Eleme: food delivery platform

Meituan/ Eleme: food delivery platform
food delivery apps: ele.me(left) and Meituan-Dianping(right)

Too tired to cook at home or to go out for a meal? Then you probably want to get food delivered. Meituan Dianping and Eleme are China’s leading online food delivery platforms, through which ordering different foods can be convenient, fast and usually cheaper than going to a restaurant because they will give customers incredible discounts and coupons constantly. The apps are in Chinese so if you can’t read Chinese characters you can consider getting the Sherpa app instead. The app is in English but also more expensive to use.

Taobao or JD: online shopping

online shopping platform : Taobao JD
online shopping platform

If you love online shopping, then you should download a Taobao or JD.
Generally, people prefer to order high-quality or expensive products such as electronics, applications on JD.com, due to its strict quality control, great return policies and unbelievable delivery speed. The apps are in Chinese but they have a great image search feature where the apps helps you find what your looking for based on a picture. In my experience this has worked exceptionally well.

Taobao, run by Alibaba, an e-commerce behemoth, is a platform you go for everything you need and want. Anything you can think of buying exists on Taobao, no joke. If you want examples of some weird products you can get on Taobao, check out our previous article – The Almighty Taobao – The Last One is Too Creepy.

For a newcomer, living or traveling in China is always challenging, but thanks to software development, the right apps can help decrease the amount of challenges you have to face and let you enjoy your China even more.

Featured photo credit to Internet