Traveling in China is in a way much more challenging than other countries. The country is not yet used to get foreign visitors, so it lacks severely of traveler friendly set-ups. And the huge language barrier doesn’t help either. So you really need to prepare well your trip, otherwise you might run into unexpected troubles. But good news for you, we leave in an incredible world where your phone can solve most of these problems easily. And most of the time for free! Here is our list of 10 best free aps for traveling in China. Enjoy your read!
- 1 VPN
- 2 Maps
- 3 Dictionnaries
- 4 Social – Wechat
- 5 Transports
- 6 Travel info
- 7 End of our list
One of the biggest worry that you must have (and that you should have!) is internet access in China. Not the literal access to the internet (you will have easy access to wifi anyway… but if you need a Sim card, you can order one online and get it delivered to your hotel for Shanghai). What we mean is the access to your favorite apps and websites (Facebook, Google etc…), as they are ALL blocked in China. The impossibility to access Google was especially more disrouting than expected… We really rely too much on Google! But in a country like China, the access to Google might be a necessity…
In order to bypass that blockage, you need something called a VPN, basically an app that will connect you to a server outside of China for internet uses. Most of them are paid apps, but we think that it’s really unecessary to pay for an app when you are going to stay a few days or weeks in China. So here is two free VPN!
Betternet is a free VPN that does not need any registration. We used it a few times in China. The result can vary a lot from times to times… Most of the times it’s really slow! But it is free, and gets the job done (unless you want to watch a movie or something like that, but you’re not in China for that are you!). For small Google searches or translations it will be of great use!
Tunnel Bear VPN is simply the best VPN we have used. It offers paid service, but the free version was completely enough for us: you get 500 mb of data per month. 500 mb is amply enough for small seaches for things to do or restaurants and for GPS usage. Of course if you plan to update your social media accounts during the travel it might not be enough… But that can wait right?
China is huge, and you won’t find english everywhere. So when you get lost… you can be lost for a long time if you don’t know Chinese. That is why if you are not taking a guided tour, we would advise you to have access to a GPS location enabled map app. This will save you from a lot of trouble and from losing time, to focus on your travel and enjoy it. Here are 3 apps for 3 case scenario:
You have access to internet AND have a VPN – Google Map
Well, you don’t really need to worry about anything. Because you are in the best case scenario: everything is the same as elsewhere. Just be careful because sometimes Google Map in China is not as accurate as other countries, but it’s still very reliable. The advantage is that you can type english addresses on Google Map, and even get automatic translations.
You have acces to Internet but no VPN –
Baidu Map OR Apple Map
It gets a little tricky. If you are an Iphone user, go for the Apple Map, as it’s not blocked in China, and the map is quite accurate. If you are an android user, you might have to download Baidu Map. It works just like Google Map so the interface shouldn’t be a problem. But the big issue: you can only type in Chinese! So the GPS will work to get the directions but you will struggle to type anything.
You don’t have access to Internet
Most phone nowadays come with an integrated GPS, so all you need is an offline map that can be used with it. It will allow you to navigate easily, without even having to connect to the internet. Of course, the accuracy of the positioning will not be the same, but it will help not getting lost. Here are 2 offline apps that work great for China.
Maps.me is a great free offline map that has a lot information on China. It works well for most cities in China (maybe not if you go to secluded places, in that case you might want to take some paper maps with you). You need to download beforehand the “zone” you want to be able to use it offline but it’s very simple to do so. We really recommend this one!
City Maps 2 go
City Maps 2 go is not really a free app, because it’s free for ONE city. We did give it a try in Shanghai (we didn’t take the paid plan) and it was working very well. The app allows you to register some landmarks (restaurants, hotels etc…) into subgroups, that can greatly help you organize your trip. However, compared to maps.me, we do not see enough added value to pay for more than one city. Download if you are going to visit just one city!
Communication is also a very big problem in China. Just assume that nobody speaks english, because that’s mostly true. We even tried to ask an airport employee (international airport…) the directions to find an ATM, and we couldn’t get an answer… So you need to get some apps to help you communicate. Here are 3 of them!
You thought all Google Apps were banned in China? Wrong! Google Translate works, and it’s very convenient. Of course, it won’t be 100% accurate (Not eve 50% maybe…) but for simple things it can get you what you want. And you can even make the app speak for you (it’s meant to teach you the pronounciation but hey, improvise, adapt, overcome!). Very good survival kit!
Waygo is a necessity: it can read Chinese caracters. You just scan them with the camera of your phone and it translates them for you. How neat is that! No need to worry about how you are going to order in a Chinese restaurant, just scan and you will understand! Like any translation app, it won’t be perfect, but it’s better than nothing ;). The free version is 10 translations per day, but coupled with Google Translate we never had to do more than 10 scans.
Social – Wechat
Maybe you are going to meet some people in China, befriend them and you will want to keep contact with them. Well, they use fundamentally different social apps than any other countries, so you might want to create a Wechat account before going there. You will find out that Wechat is a much bigger app than just a messenger or social app. They even have a payment system integrated! To our big surprise, most of people in Shanghai paid everything in their daily life with Wechat for example… You might want to check it out!
Transport in China can really be a challenge, especially public transports. And you guessed it, it’s because most of them do not have an English translation. It’s much better for the subways, so we advise you to prefer them over buses. But be advised, subways are really crowded! For taxis, the challenge is to give them Chinese addresses. Most of them won’t understand English translations, so make sure to print out (or have on your phone) Chinese original addresses.
Metro China Subway
Metro China Subway is a great free app that will allow you to have all the itineraries of all subway lines of China on your phone. It can give you all the information needed: itineraries, price, time to get to destination etc… And it’s available in 8 languages!
Didi Chuxing is the Chinese Uber (literally, as they bought Uber China). The English version of the app has been released earlier this year, so you won’t have any problem using it. The main issue is that it has to be hooked to your Wechat account… So if you were hesitating about creating a profile there, you have another reason to do so!
Dianping is the Chinese Tripadvisor. Although the app is in Chinese, most of basic information are translated in English. And you will see the ratings of the users so it’s useful even to non-Chinese speakers. The best thing is that you will have the Chinese addresses directly after your search, so you can just show it to the taxi driver!
End of our list
That’s all we have to recommend! These are mostly free apps (or at least has a free version), so it shouldn’t really be a problem in terms of budget. Of course, like all free apps their functionalities are limited, but we NEVER paid for an app and we think their performances were good enough as free versions.
Do you have any apps to recommend for China? Tell us in the comments!