While travelling in China you quickly realize that many things are different. This goes for your phone too - many of your favourite apps are useless and you need to find alternatives. Here are the apps we found to be especially useful during our month and a half journey through the country.
Have you visited China? What is your experience? Tell us in the comments!
Trying to use the internet can be a real struggle without a VPN in China. A big chunk of the online resources are blocked and the apps and websites that we have used regularly, especially when travelling, were unreachable - Google search and all Google products, like maps, mail, translate, Play store, docs, Dropbox, Facebook, Instagram, all major news outlets, Whatsapp, Skype, Viber, Line... I had underestimated how bad it would be before we landed in China and was surprised how useless my phone became as soon as I connected to the airport WiFi, the only apps I could use were Airbnb and a single game.
If you are Chinese or at least can read Mandarin - there are lots of apps for the local market, that people living in the country can use freely (well, monitored by the government, but at least accessible), however, most are not available in English or have very limited English versions.
See our full article Best free and paid VPN options for China, it has recommendations for apps for your phone and laptop.
This is the app that we use most often during our travels everywhere else. It has proven to be quite accurate and up to date in most places, but in China, it was a bit of a struggle.
First, you cannot download offline maps for China. This means that your internet connection is down for some reason, your navigation is gone too. And it uses more data every time you run the app.
Second, apart from the major attraction spots, forget about finding anything specific in Google maps. Whether it is that the maps are updated too long ago or never actually had the correct information, to begin with, with specific addresses, ATM locations, hotels, shops - Google maps will confidently lead you to narrow alleys, backyards and closed doors far away from the places you are looking for. Or simply return no results.
Third, the satellite images, that come in handy when double-checking information, are mostly outdated. Buildings and roads are missing, huge neighbourhoods shown as empty fields. The map and satellite images were not even aligned for some places.
And, this should go without saying - no street view or the option to navigate any other way except walking.
Having said all that, we still used mainly Google maps for navigation. Yes, it needs a bit more effort and you know that it can lead you to unexpected places, but it was still the best option and we were thankful to have it. No other map app comes close to in terms of accuracy, except Baidu maps, but more about it next.
This is the Chinese counterpart of Google maps. And it is great - it has the most up to date map data, great navigation options, has street-view-like features, information is accurate. It has just one slight problem - it is all in Mandarin. Everything. Even the search function will only yield proper results when queried in Chinese. If you cannot write/read the language - like us - it has very little use.
Still, we had this one installed too and used it from time to time - to find the numbers and locations of subway exits or to navigate to places that were closer and possible to recognize even in Chinese.
It is particularly useful if you have an address in Chinese.
Didi (greater China)
This is the equivalent of Uber and Grab and it was a bit of a disappointment and at the same time probably the most useful local app we had.
The app has a fully functional English version which allows you to get cars or taxis to drive you around town, choose a pickup point and destination - the map it used was very accurate and it was possible to enter address information in English, which was great. There is a choice between getting a DiDi car (like an Uber or Grab car, not a taxi) and calling a taxi. The catch is that if you want to get a DiDi car you must pay through the app - but it only accepts WeChat pay or local card. We tried a Visa and a Mastercard, but with no success. So, all the DiDi cars on the map were unreachable for us and we were stuck with taxis. There are more DiDi cars than taxis on the app, which means that when booking a taxi there can be some waiting time before it finds a driver, sometimes one has to initiate the search again and again.
However, even with the limitation of only calling taxis, DiDi was extremely useful - can get a taxi anywhere, anytime (even with a bit of a wait), you can even book in advance, which we did to catch an early flight. Also, the app forces the drivers to use their meter and you get a fair price for the journey. But the most important thing is that there is no need to explain to the driver where you want to go. Not a single driver spoke a word of English, trying to communicate destination would have been quite difficult.
WeChat is a not only messaging app - it has social media functionalities, a mobile payment app component, plus much more. Probably the most widely used app in China, it has taken over almost all payments - from hotels, attractions, supermarkets to small souvenir shops and food stalls, it is accepted everywhere, and with the exception of few elderly people and some confused foreigners, no one is using cash anymore.
The bad news is that WeChat only accepts Chinese credit cards to be set up as payment options, meaning we could not use it. There are people online who were able to get themselves a Chinese credit card with a local bank, but most banks would not issue one to people on a tourist visa.
To be able to install WeChat you have to be in the country and holding a phone with a local SIM card and number. Once it is installed, in order to create an account you need another WeChat user to scan your code and verify you - this may prove difficult if you have no friends or acquaintances and the only option is to ask a hotel employee or a stranger. We installed the app first thing after activating our new China Unicom SIM card and asked the sales rep who had just sold us the card, they were nice enough to do that for us.
We used WeChat to communicate with our Airbnb hosts when the Airbnb app failed and to arrange some tours.
The good thing about this app is that languages can be downloaded and the app used offline. It can translate speech, text or even text from a picture (either using a camera directly or import a photo).
The results are dubious at best, as can be expected - it will mostly spit out gibberish and you try and find a word that makes sense in the context of what you are trying to translate, hoping that you can figure out the meaning somehow.
Your best bet is to give it simple words like "meat", "vegetable", if trying to purchase food for example, or simplified sentences at the most. Instead of "I would like to return my metro card and get a refund for the remaining balance", go with "Return card. Take money". Anything slightly more complicated may yield unexpected results.
Locals were using some other translator app, that was surprisingly accurate and worked well even with more complicated sentences, but I am not sure what it was.
This is a good currency converter app which can handle multiple currencies with good accuracy.
This is the app for the popular weather forecast site, very accurate in most places we have been to, but unfortunately not so much in China.
For longer stays (more than 3-4 days) Airbnb is a good way to book accommodation - it is cheaper and the apartments are nice. The app is one of the few ones that are allowed through the Chinese firewall, so you don't need a VPN to use it.
The downside of Airbnb is that you have to register with the police for every stay (hotels do that for you), which means a short visit to a police station with your host within 24 hours of you checking in.
You can read more about our experience with Airbnb in our article - All you need to know about using Airbnb in China.
Of the hotel booking sites we found Agoda to have the most places and best prices.
Klook is a tour/transport/ticket booking site. We mostly used them to book tickets - for example, when visiting the Forbidden City you can buy tickets online or in-person at the ticket booths. If buying at the ticket booths - first, you have to queue for the tickets, second, there is a limited number of tickets each day and there is the risk you may not be able to get yours. For the online purchase of tickets for the Forbidden Palace - if using the official site, everything is in Chinese and the payment can only be done if you have a Chinese bank card. Booking with Klook is easy and the price is the same as the regular tickets (it was a bit cheaper even when we booked), you pay with your credit card and get instant confirmation. An added bonus is the lower price on many of the attractions.
They have a variety of tours and can be a good choice if you have limited time or just don't want to bother with the details of organizing things on your own.
This one can be used to book flights, hotels, tours, but we found that it can be especially useful for buying train tickets in China, and gives the best price compared to other similar booking sites and apps.
As with many other things in China - official online bookings for train journeys are only for people holding Chinese ID cards, so foreigners have two options - buy in person at a train station or book online through resellers. When buying through Trip you buy your tickets online and then go to a train station ticket booth, show the confirmation you got and your passport and collect the physical tickets. The queue at the ticket office cannot be avoided, but tickets can be bought in advance, which is important as many routes sell out days and weeks before the departure date.
In all fairness, we did not use the app to book tickets, only to check schedule and availability. We had enough time in Beijing to be able to spare half a day to go to a train station and buy everything we need in person. This does save money (the booking fees really stack up when buying multiple tickets), but finding the right place and trying to communicate in English can be a bit frustrating - read about our experience in our article - How to buy train tickets in China (and step-by-step at Beijing Railway station).