Daily life in China has become so reliant on using smart phone apps that I now wonder if I could survive without them! The obvious immediate obstacle for a tourist is flagging down taxis as these exclusively respond to ride-hailing apps now. That said, even though local Chinese people are using their smart phones to handle all their daily tasks from paying their phone bill, to ordering cinema tickets to renting a bike, it is NOW possible for tourists not only to get about, but also to take advantage of Chinese super-apps to facilitate their travel in China. Find out how you should best prepare for a trip to China (as of summer 2023).
Getting a Good VPN.
Any article about digital China for a westerner begins with the absolute necessity of downloading a high quality VPN. Many of the west’s favourite apps, such as Google, Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, Google Maps and Google Translate are not accessible from China without one. A VPN creates a way for you to tunnel digitally through China’s Great Firewall and access these much-loved apps that are banned in China. My experience is that China’s Great Firewall has different levels of control. During a People’s Congress when Beijing is locked down tight, even the best VPN’s do not work. However, at normal times, the Great Firewall is porous. I’m not going to recommend a particular VPN in this article, but if you are thinking to use a free or a low-cost VPN, bear in mind that you generally get what you pay for. And if you arrive in China with a VPN that is ineffective, your challenge will be to download a high-quality VPN from inside China, which is that much harder (though still doable). (Android phone users should also remember that Google Play cannot be used from inside China, so if they do not have a VPN installed, they are not going to be able to install a new VPN service in China, unless they find a wifi service which already has it.) My final suggestion in this regard is in fact to download two high quality VPNs prior to your trip to China, so that if one does not work, you can try to use the other.
How to pay with an APP
Two super-apps take up the lion’s share of Chinese users’ attention, similar to how Google and Facebook divide the western digital universe between them. In China, these are Wechat and Alipay, the former established by a company called Tencent and the latter created by Jack Ma, the iconic Chinese entrepreneur behind Alibaba. The most significant feature of both is that they have established themselves for mobile payment services covering payments as wide-ranging as to the taxi driver, utility companies and for cinema bookings. Both buttress this payment service with a panoply of mini-apps supplying everything from food delivery to insurance to translation. Theis wide range of services has led to them being known as super-apps. The idea is that they are a digital one-stop shop. We don’t yet have anything like it in the west – it would be like trying to use Amazon or Apple for all our digital needs.
Until now, overseas travelers to China have experienced real problems using anything but cash to pay for goods and services in China as only a limited number of retailers accept overseas credit cards. Although it is illegal in China for retailers to refuse cash as payment, the practical reality where almost no one is using it means that outlets are increasingly unprepared to accommodate it. The great news is that now if they have either a Mastercard or a Visa credit or debit card international travelers can register and use these with the English language versions of Alipay and Wechat. After doing so, not only can overseas travelers use Alipay and Wechat to pay for services in China, but they will also benefit from the various English language mini-apps offered on either app. Alipay was the first to announce their tie-up with Mastercard in June 2023 and instructions for how to link your Mastercard to Alipay can be found here.
Wechat announced at the end of this same month, June 2023, that they will allow overseas visitors to register their international Visa, Mastercard, JCB and Discover cards in their app from August 2023. Details for how to go about doing this can be found here. (Wechat previously had a facility to allow registration of overseas credit cards on their app, but this did not always translate into being able to make payments at many retail outlets in China.)
English Language Alipay Services
The scan function on the top left of the home page will enable you to pay for services, provided that your Mastercard is linked to the Alipay account. The transport icon facilitates for you to get about on the bus, by metro, hail a cab as well as buy train and plane tickets. In the “How—to” icon you can use the online translation service, where an image of Chinese text will be instantly converted into English for you. This could be useful in ordering food at a restaurant or trying to work out the destination of trains and planes at stations and airports.
English Langage Wechat Services
To use Wechat to pay for stuff, press the encircled + icon in the top right corner and select “Money” to allow others to scan you, or “Scan” for you to scan others’ payment codes, depending on the situation and payment format. In addition to payment, Wechat is known for its messaging service – it is in effect the Chinese version of Whatsapp with Wechat probably more widespread in China than Whatsapp is in the west. You are safe to assume that everyone you meet in China will have a Wechat account and so if you want to stay in touch and communicate with Chinese people this is the best possible way. (You will also probably find that many of your overseas Chinese friends back home already have a Wechat account.) To get someone’s contact, click the encircled + icon in the top right hand corner and click on “Add Contacts”, then either scan their QR code or select “My Weixin ID” to allow them to scan your code. (Wechat in Chinese is called weixin.)
As you can only use Google Translate inside China with a VPN, another excellent translation app for you to consider downloading prior to travel here is DeepL. You paste text into the window and can choose to translate it quickly and accurately into any number of languages.
If you are an Iphone user, then Apple Maps will work for you in China in English, and this is your best bet. Note that Google Maps does not work in China even with a VPN. The Map function on the Bing.com website will be all in Chinese. Similarly, popular local Chinese navigation apps like Baidu and Gaode are all in Chinese without English functionality. The only remaining option for Android users seems to be downloading an English language map from Map.Me. These are maps that you download onto your phone offline for use in China. They are available for China at a provincial or in more detail at a city level. These were useful in getting me between well-known destinations, such as a large hotel to a well-known tourist site, but when I tried finding a particular noodle store, this was not included in the map database. Therefore, this is a solid back up for most situations, but isn’t as complete as what you’re probably used to back home.
Booking Travel E.g. Hotels, Trains and Airplanes
Trip.com is a fabulous English language engine for easily and efficiently booking hotels, train tickets and airplanes in China.
If you speak some Chinese, I’d also recommend you download the following apps prior to a trip to China:
– Dianping is a terrific app for restaurant reviews and bookings.
– Didi and Gaode are commonly used for ride-hailing, the latter also having a popular mapping function.
– Taobao and JD are the best for online shopping
– Ele.me and Meituan are popular for ordering food deliveries and groceries.
I hope this article has opened your eyes to the enrichment that China’s digital app universe can provide to your travels in China, as well as intimating the depth and ubiquity of apps in Chinese daily life, whether in the city or countryside. At the time of writing this article, Alipay and Wechat had only just started to accept overseas credit cards onto their platforms. The English language versions of these super-apps offer a limited range of English language mini-apps, but I’d hope that as time goes by, they will offer a wider range of traveler-friendly apps.
If you found this article helpful, please do write in with comments after your China trip on how you found and negotiated your digital travels through China and please do include what you learned so that I can update the information here. Thanks.