Top 8 Must-Have China Travel Apps for Tourists

list of essential apps for traveling in china

China is a fascinating country that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime. It is home to breathtaking nature, hyper-modern cities, authentic Chinese villages, rich history and culture, and delicious food.

However, China is not the easiest country to travel to, especially for first-time visitors. In China, they have different payment systems from the ones we are used to in Europe or America, other accommodation and transportation booking engines, and there is a language barrier, too.

This shouldn’t put you off, tho, as China is such a pleasure to visit and explore!

Thankfully, there are a host of mobile apps that can make your trip smoother and more enjoyable. In this article, I’ll share the must-have China travel apps that every tourist should download before embarking on their adventure.

These apps will help you communicate, navigate, and pay with ease, ensuring a seamless travel experience.

Top 8 Must-Have China Travel Apps for Tourists 

1. WeChat

WeChat is the most popular Chinese app, and I bet everyone has heard of it. It is not just an app; it’s an integral part of daily life in China. For tourists, however, it is essential for communication and payments.

While traveling in China, WeChat will serve you as a WhatsApp. All sorts of communication with the locals, whether it’s your hotel staff, tour guides, or newfound friends will be happening through it. It offers messaging, voice calls, and video calls. And yes, you can easily sign up with your foreign number. The setting up process is easy and straightforward and only takes a few minutes to complete. You will need your passport for verification.

Aside from its communication features, one of WeChat’s most significant advantages for tourists is its payment feature. You don’t really need cash when traveling around China and apps like WeChat make it easy for everyone to pay anyone, everywhere. Many establishments, from high-end restaurants and boutiques to street vendors, accept WeChat payments.

To set up the payment feature, tap the “+” button at the top right of the screen, select “Money” from the dropdown, and link your debit or credit card. This setup will allow you to pay effortlessly by scanning vendors’ QR codes or providing your unique QR code to be scanned by vendors. Please note that what I just explained is different from the WeChat wallet feature, which, from what I have heard, is a struggle to set up. Just go for what I explained and forget about the WeChat wallet. As long as you have your debit or credit card connected to the app, you can pay without a problem.

WeChat is one of the essential apps for traveling in China also because many restaurants in the country only have their menus available on WeChat, and some even require you to order through the app. This makes WeChat a must-have for dining out.

Download WeChat: iOS | Android

must-have china travel apps

Here, you can see the QR code for WeChat that the street vendor has and Petr scanning it to pay for the fruits that we are buying.

2. Alipay (+DiDi)

Alipay is perhaps the most important app for traveling in China. Similarly to WeChat, it is easy and straightforward to install and set up, and it requires a passport for verification purposes.

With Alipay, you can also pay for everything anywhere. You can link your debit or credit card, similar to WeChat, ensuring that you are always ready to make a transaction.

What differentiates Alipay, however, is the rich library of mini-apps integrated into it. Most of them won’t be of any use to it as a tourist, but there are some other functions that are very convenient and will make your trip easier.

One of these features is the DiDi integration. DiDi is a taxi app, the Chinese version of Uber, that is useful for getting around. The metro system is the best way to get around China’s major cities, but still, every once in a while, you will need to grab a cab. You can book DiDi taxis directly through Alipay, eliminating the need for a separate ride-hailing app.

Furthermore, Alipay can be used to enter and pay for metro and bus services in many cities. So, with it, you won’t need to buy tickets from the vending machines or the ticket offices in the metro station. You just simply open the app, go to Transportation, choose the city you want to travel around and scan the QR code to enter/pay for the bus or the metro. So convenient!

On top of that, Google Translate and Trip.com, which I will mention next, are also integrated into Alipay. And you can also rent bicycles through it, too.

Download Alipay: iOS | Android

chinese payment apps

Every bicycle has a QR code which you can scan to set the mini app for it and unlock yourself a bike.

must-have apps for traveling to china

In this shop, you can pay through both Alipay and WeChat.

3. Trip.com

Formerly known as Ctrip, Trip.com is China’s biggest online travel agency and an essential China travel app for anyone looking to book accommodations, train tickets, activities, and more.

Trip.com offers a broader range of accommodation options for China compared to other platforms like Booking.com. Whether you’re looking for budget hostels, boutique hotels, or luxury resorts, you can find your place on Trip.com.

The app is also useful for booking activities and train tickets, which are the most popular and convenient mode of traveling between cities in China. You can view real-time train schedules and availability, ensuring you get the best possible travel arrangements. Train tickets in China are only released 15 days before the scheduled departure, and if you want to guarantee your seat on a certain train, you need to make a reservation through a travel agency (such as Trip). The minus is that there is a booking fee for buying train tickets through Trip.com. The booking fee varies depending on how far you are traveling, typically between 2 and 9 EUR. It is worth the peace of mind, especially if you are traveling around Chinese national holidays when tickets get sold out far in advance. We booked most of our train tickets through Trip.com, so I can guarantee that it is safe and reliable.

Beyond bookings, Trip.com provides travel guides and recommendations, helping you discover interesting places to visit in every city on your China itinerary. This feature is great for planning your itinerary and ensuring you don’t miss out on must-see attractions.

Download Trip.com: iOS | Android

hotel room in shanghai, china

Our hotel room in Shanghai, booked via Trip.com.

4. MetroMan

MetroMan offers detailed and accurate metro maps for numerous Chinese cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and more. These maps are very useful for understanding the metro routes and planning your journeys efficiently. The app provides real-time updates on train schedules, helping you avoid long waits and missed connections. It also offers estimated travel times, making it easier to plan your day and ensure you arrive at your destination on time.

The app’s interface is straightforward and is in English, which makes it even easier to navigate and use.

Download MetroMan: iOS | Android

china travel apps for tourists

This is how the metro tickets look like in Beijing. This was before we discovered that we could actually enter and pay through Alipay.

5. Railway 12306

Unlike Trip.com, Railway 12306 allows you to book train tickets without any additional fees. However, on the Railway 12306 app, you cannot book train tickets for more than 15 days in advance. With this in mind, I recommend having both Trip.com and Railway 12306 in your arsenal of China travel apps and booking through the one that makes more sense for your travel plans. If you’re going to book last minute or only a few days in advance, then book via Railway 12306 and save on booking fees. If you, however, want to secure your train seat far in advance, then you will need to use Trip.com.

Railway 12306 is the official app for China’s railway system so it also offers up-to-date information on train schedules, availability, and prices.

Download Railway 12306: iOS | Android

booking train tickets in china

apps you need for traveling to china

6. Maps.me/Apple Maps

Another must-have China travel app is a navigation app. Getting around China without a navigation app will definitely be challenging, especially if you don’t speak Mandarin. Although some people might think they can rely on Google Maps, let me remind you about the Great Firewall of China, which blocks all Google services, making them inaccessible without a VPN.

Even if you have a VPN and are able to access Google Maps, it is just of no use as the information there is outdated and inaccurate. Not to worry though, there are accurate and reliable alternatives. iOS users will get along just fine by using Apple Maps, whereas Android users can download Maps.me. Both Apple Maps and Maps.me worked great for us and provided accurate location data and navigation instructions. Another benefit of Maps.me is that it allows you to download maps for offline use, which is incredibly useful in areas with limited internet access.

You might also find people recommending Baidu Maps and Gaode Maps, which are Chinese native navigation apps. I downloaded both, and at first glance, they looked like great Chinese travel apps. So, why don’t I recommend them then? The reason is simple: both of these apps only support Mandarin, making them very difficult to navigate and use. Also, even if you get the hang of them, they’ll still be useless for you as a tourist as you cannot search for locations using the Latin alphabet.

Download Maps.me: iOS | Android

must-have apps for tourists visiting china

Us in a DiDi taxi en route to the Summer Palace in Beijing.

7. VPN Apps

Okay, let’s talk VPN now.

One of the scariest things about traveling in China is the Great Firewall of China.

”The Great Firewall (GFW;) is the combination of legislative actions and technologies enforced by the People’s Republic of China to regulate the Internet domestically. Its role in internet censorship in China is to block access to selected foreign websites and to slow down cross-border internet traffic.”

When people find out about this, they get crazy about being limited in using Google services, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, etc., which are different apps that most of us use on a daily basis, whether that is for work, reading news, entertainment, or whatever.

So, this is where VPN comes into the rescue.

vpn service recommendations for china

Shanghai

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is essential for accessing many websites and services that are blocked in China, such as Google, Facebook, and many more. Having a functional VPN is crucial for maintaining access to familiar apps and websites. It ensures you can stay in touch with family and friends, access important information, and use your favorite online services.

There are many VPN services on the market, and here I will share with you the two that I recommend and the ones that I don’t recommend for traveling in China.

I recommend these two VPN services: 1.1.1.1 and VPN Bucks. In my experience, both of these VPNs have proven reliable for accessing restricted content in China. They offer stable connections, are easy to set up and use, and are both very affordable.

While many travelers recommend ExpressVPN as the best VPN for traveling in China, I wouldn’t recommend it. I downloaded, installed, and paid for Express VPN, but it didn’t connect to a network and didn’t work for me. On the other side, 1.1.1.1 and VPN Bucks worked flawlessly, allowing me to stay connected without any issues.

In any case, I recommend having at least two VPNs in case one doesn’t work, or you’re having trouble connecting to a secure network.

Download 1.1.1.1: iOS | Android

Download VPN Bucks: iOS | Android

which vpn to use in china

Xingping Ancient Town

8. Translator Apps

Language barriers can be a significant challenge in China as English is not widely spoken. Translator apps are, therefore, indispensable for communicating and getting along.

For translation purposes, you can use both Google Translate and Apple Translate. They both offer reliable translations for text, voice, and even images. You can use them to translate menus, signs, and conversations with locals.

Papago is another excellent translation app that supports multiple languages and provides accurate translations. It’s particularly useful for Asian languages and offers a user-friendly interface. I downloaded it to use it in South Korea but it came of use in China, too.

Download Papago: iOS | Android

translation apps to use in china

Petr communicating with a fruits and vegetables vendor in Beijing.

apps to download for your trip to china

An example of a menu that you can not understand without a translation app.

9. XE

And the last but not least important on the list of must-have China travel apps for tourists is one of my all-time favorite travel apps, XE Currency. XE Currency provides real-time exchange rates for every world currency. It ensures that you always get accurate and up-to-date information, which is crucial for budgeting and making informed financial decisions.

Download XE: iOS | Android

china travel tips

Both XE and the translation apps are handy when you’re trying to determine what a certain place offers and how much it costs in your home currency.

Other Nice-to-Have China Travel Apps 

In addition to the essential China travel apps mentioned above, there are several other useful apps that can further enhance your travel experience in China. These apps offer additional conveniences, from food delivery to language learning, and can be a valuable addition to your app library. Here’s a list of nice-to-have China travel apps that you should consider downloading for your trip:

  • China eSIM:

China eSIM provides an easy way to stay connected without the hassle of purchasing a physical SIM card. It allows you to activate a mobile data plan directly from your phone, offering a convenient and cost-effective alternative to traditional SIM cards. This is especially useful for short-term stays and travelers who want to avoid the complexities of buying and registering a local SIM. I can’t provide a recommendation for any China eSIM provider as I opted for a physical SIM card.

  • Meituan:

Meituan is a comprehensive app for food delivery, hotel booking, and local services. It’s similar to apps like Uber Eats and Yelp combined, offering a wide range of dining options, reviews, and the ability to book various services.

  • Dianping:

Dianping functions much like Yelp, providing reviews and ratings for restaurants, shops, attractions, and numerous services in the beauty industry and beyond. It’s an excellent resource for discovering the best local eateries, entertainment spots, and shopping destinations based on user feedback. Dianping also allows you to make reservations and access special deals. However, the app is only available in Mandarin.

travel tips for visiting china

I booked a facial for 13 EUR in this place through Diangping. I leveraged the discount they offer for first-time visitors.

  • Air Matters:

Air Matters provides real-time air quality information, which is especially useful in major Chinese cities where pollution levels can vary. The app offers detailed air quality indexes, health advice based on current conditions, and notifications for significant changes in air quality.

A Few Notes for the China Travel Apps 

Now that I covered the must-have and nice-to-have China travel apps for tourists, here are a few extra tips:

  • Make sure that you download, install, and set up all these apps BEFORE you arrive in China. At the bare minimum, you should have your VPN sorted in advance. Otherwise, you won’t be able to access your Play Store to download the others once you are already in China.
  • Where possible, download offline maps, language packs, and other resources to ensure you have access even without an internet connection.
  • While translation apps are great, knowing a few basic Mandarin phrases can be very helpful.
  • Keep your device charged. You can either carry a portable charger with you or rent one on the street in the major cities.

Conclusion

Traveling in China is a thrilling experience, especially when you’re well-prepared with the right tools. These must-have China travel apps will help you communicate, navigate, and make payment transactions with ease, ensuring a smoother and stress-free experience. Make sure to download these apps before your trip so you can familiarize yourself with their features, and you’ll be ready to explore China with confidence.

I hope that this article gave you a good overview of how to prepare for your trip to China. If you have any additional questions or comments, please let me know in the comment section below, and don’t hesitate to contact me.

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Thank you for reading,

Bilyana

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