Travelling in China as a non-Chinese-speaking foreigner can seem daunting, but these apps can help make your trip a lot easier
It can be a nightmare visiting China as a foreign business traveller if you don’t speak putonghua (standard Mandarin). Many locals can’t speak English, and there are few well-translated English signs, especially in lower tier cities and villages. Fortunately, several apps have emerged in recent years to make your trip a lot easier.
It’s wise to get a valid mainland China phone number (with a +86 country code) because most apps require a local phone number for sign-up. A verification code will be sent to you via SMS for authentication purposes. If you plan to buy a pre-paid SIM card upon arrival, you need to present a valid passport due to China’s real-name authentication policy.
Trying to decipher the hieroglyphics of a Chinese restaurant menu is the bane of business travellers trying to eat out in China. It often confines them to the comforts of their English-speaking hotels, restricting their ability to explore the city and taste some authentic Chinese cuisine in more local neighbourhoods. Where English translations exist, they are often of shocking quality; photos of comically bad menu translations are widely shared online.
Waygo can translate text in the images from your phone’s camera roll without an internet connection. Its best use is for menu and sign translations. There is also a food photo feature that shows you a picture of the translated dish, so you can visualise what you’re about to order.
The free trial is limited to ten translations daily, though you can earn three days of unlimited translations for free by completing a survey, or pay to upgrade your plan (US$6.99) for unlimited Chinese-English translations.
Download: Free on iOS (paid upgrade plan available)
While you’re probably familiar with Uber and Lyft, Didi is China’s most popular ride-hailing app. The in-app digital map is available in English, so you can locate yourself and find out the address of your destination easily. If you need to contact the driver, you can type an English text message and the app will translate it into Chinese. You can also choose several pre-set messages. Alipay, WeChat Pay, and international credit cards are all supported.
Metro China Subway
Chinese taxis cost peanuts compared to their cousins in cities like London and New York, but if you’re on a tight expenses budget, or simply want to avoid China’s notorious traffic jams, this app is the one for you. It covers nearly all of China’s metro systems, including full maps and route planners. You can also find useful details of a particular station, including its exit information, facilities, floor map, timetable, and nearby places of interest.
Although the free plan will be good enough for most people, you can upgrade to the VIP plan for an ad-free interface and offline maps (US$0.99 per month, US$1.99 per quarter or US$5.99 per year).
Trip.com, owned by Chinese travel service provider Ctrip, is an online travel agency that helps international audiences book flights, trains, hotels, car rentals, as well as tours and attraction tickets.
Most importantly, as booking train tickets in China isn’t straightforward, mainland train tickets can be purchased via the app or its website up to 60 days in advance and at least 35 minutes before departure. This includes tickets for the cross boundary, high-speed train between the mainland and Hong Kong. Read our review of the business class seat on the high-speed rail train used on this route.
If you’re looking for a good restaurant or food delivery service, you’d probably use Yelp in your home country. However, Yelp hasn’t entered the Chinese market yet, and China’s homegrown answers to the app – Dianping and Meituan – don’t have English versions.
Instead, try Bon App!, which provides detailed information and user reviews of restaurants, bars, hotels – and even hospitals and schools – in English. You can also check out the latest events, gatherings and exhibitions. However, in mainland China, it’s only available in the bigger cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Suzhou, and Chengdu.
Home-grown instant messaging app WeChat has exploded in popularity since its 2011 launch and now has over a billion monthly active users. Other messaging apps like WhatsApp and Line are blocked by China’s internet censorship regime, so you’ll need WeChat to stay in touch with your family, friends, colleagues and clients.
However, WeChat is not encrypted, so don’t disclose any sensitive personal or client information over the app.