Must have apps before you go to China as a tourist – 3

I separated this essential list into three categories. I also added my experience and problems which might help you. Today, I will talk about Phone Apps.

Before we start: Chinese people live a comfortable and easy life with the following essential apps because everything is at their fingertips: paying, food, transport, housing, leisure etc. But, as a foreigner, you can forget that. Good news: with a valid passport and a credit card, you can use the essential apps that will help you a lot!

What do I need when I go to China

So, you made an appointment, gave all your paperwork, your passport, 2 pictures and paid the processing fees? And you got the Visa after a few days? Well, congrats. Now, we have to prepare!

First, get an iPhone!

  • I’m not kidding. You really need one and it will be so much easier. Apple exists in China. Microsoft too. So, a lot of your apps still work in China, and you can directly download apps.
  • I have made the big mistake to go to China with an Android. Never again. Without a good VPN, it’s just a mess (But, if you insist, go check out my other post)

Okay, now, let’s download some Apps. I will guide you trough all of them. Please remember: You need to have patience. App errors and not translated texts are common, because these Apps are different than for Chinese people!

Chinese Apps that you must have as a tourist. I mean it.

  • WeChat (oh yes, you really need this one!)
  • Alipay (Again, extremely essential)
  • 12306 (To buy train tickets – and that’s a whole other story…)
  • Nihao Mobile (The best provider, and also cheap, to get a Sim Card. Yes, you need one!)

Apps that you must have as a tourist in China

  • (For Hotels)
  • Google lens (If you have an Android with VPN)
  • Google translator
  • Apple translator (With iPhone)
  • MetroMan (Metro map of major cities, but in English)

Useful apps

  • Didi (Basically a Chinese Uber)
  • Meituan (Mostly used like Uber Eats and Deliveroo)
  • Taobao (Like Amazon)
  • Little Red Book (Like Facebook, Insta and Twitter)
  • Baidu Maps (Google Maps of China)


WeChat, also known as an everything-app, lets you write and call people, post your status like Instagram, pay everywhere, buy tickets to museums, trains, go on the web and start programs inside the app. It might sound confusing, so let me show it to you (Anyway, if you don’t speak Chinese, you won’t use most of it):

Most basic functions

You will need WeChat to communicate. So, download the app on your store and follow the inscription procedure with your phone number, no Chinese number needed.

There are a lot of basic functions on WeChat, and one of the most interesting ones is that when meeting other Chinese people, it is very common to give or to ask them their WeChat.

We do have on top right of the screen a Plus sign, which includes new chat, add contacts, scan, and money.

Follow through this website based on the picture that is displayed right here. Let’s start at the bottom.

  • We have on the left chats, which contain all your chats and other communications,
  • then we have the contacts where all the contacts are saved and where you can search for new friends or official accounts. On the right is the part of the app lets you see others’ status, like Instagram, scan for a QR code or also start Mini programs, which I will explain in a second.
  • Finally, we have the me section, where you will see your profile picture, your name, your WeChat ID, your QR code and other very useful settings. For instance, you will have to go here at the early beginning and try to validate your identification (If you want to set up payment).

If you swipe down with your thumb the chats, it will open on the top of the app and new window, which is the mini programs app. In there you will have a lot of little applications that will be useful for other activities, like searching and browsing a little shop of a little firm. Those mini programs allow little companies or people to advertise their shop where you can then immediately buy something. However, you will not need this at the beginning, but it will be at least as of now in July 2023, because you will need to download a mini program to declare your health, called China Customs and to gain subsequently your entry into China (more on that in the next posts).


Alipay is a little bit different from WeChat and has some very remarkable advantages. For instance, you can create an account with the foreign phone number as WeChat, but then you can set up your credit card on this app which allows you to pay in most Chinese shops.

  • What do I need to do to set up Alipay?
  • Download App and then follow the instructions. Works better on iPhone.
  • After successful login, below, click on the left on Account.
  • You will see that you need to verify yourself before being able to use this payment app (As in every other payment app in the whole world)
    • Basic Identity Information: So, you need to take pictures of your Passport and yourself, add your whole name, your gender, your country, your Passport number, its expiry date, your occupation and your address. After that (it may not work always, but just keep trying), it takes a bit time until they have verified you.
    • Add a credit card
    • Verify your phone number
  • In the end, you should be able to click on Pay/Receive and see a Barcode, below a QR-Code, and below that your Credit Card information.
  • What can you do with Alipay?
  • As a foreigner, you can pay in most places in China. In other words, you can pay at every merchant, restaurant, taxi driver, hairdresser and more
  • You can, with the Transport Icon, use the bus and the subway. Note that in Beijing, you need a Chinese phone number registered (-> go to Nihao Mobile).
  • You can rent the public bikes.
  • Well, that’s it. The rest is either not available to you or it doesn’t work.

So, you can’t charge your wallet (like having a prepaid card) or benefit from other commodities. Basically, you can just link your card and then pay with it by displaying your QR-Code in shops and for transportation.

Check my next post about how to pay as a foreigner in China, there I will explain how I set up this app. (It was quite tedious, but I didn’t have a choice)

This app is extremely handy and saves you a lot of stress, I am sure! Here, you can buy Chinese hotel rooms and train tickets online and pay with the currency you want. I always choose Yuan since their currency converter is not the best (as is with every other app or store in the world). So, if I want to book a hotel or take the high-speed train from Beijing to wherever, I buy it on the app and after a few minutes, it’s done! Even Airplanes and ships work. However, they add a hefty premium for the transportation. So rather go with it if you only take 2x the train. More, and you should go with the Chinese App 12306, which is also available inside Alipay.

Google lens

  • Google lens lets you take pictures, and it scans it. The best tools are text and translate. You will need to translate a lot, so take a screenshot and let Lens do the job for you. In addition, you can download languages, so even if you don’t have internet, you can understand Chinese. Works only with VPN.

Google translator

So, Google translator is a similar app to Google Lens, and you can also download the language. The benefit in this case is that you can paste several phrases or also insert words in Chinese, but everything is offline, and you don’t need internet access like other applications, for instance DeepL.

Apple translator (With iPhone)

  • Works without VPN, basically the same as with Google Lens when translating, and does the same as google translator. Definitely the better choice in China.


So, there are similar or better apps for seeing the Metro. However, those are in Chinese and require a Chinese phone number and probably also access to a payment service in China as I have explained on Alipay.

Didi (Basically a Chinese Uber)

  • Very high comfort, and it’s so cheap compared to Europe. Still, in cities like Beijing Metro is better.

Meituan and Meituan Food (Like an online supermarket)

For people that already know some Chinese. Very convenient! My example: I wanted to buy a Laifen (Like Dyson-hairdryer), and so I searched it there, bought it, and after an hour it was already at my hotel!

Meituan Food is an amazing food delivery app. You can shop conveniently from a lot of restaurants and the food gets then delivered to your doorstep.

Taobao (Like Amazon)

  • To buy books, electronics and more. However, this is again a little bit more ‘advanced’, because of the language.

Little Red Book (Like Facebook, Insta and Twitter)

Called: Xiaohongshu

You should download this now. It’s very fun and gets you a step closer to China. In addition, it’s different than western apps. I like it a lot.

Amaps (Google Maps of China)

  • If you want to go from A to B, use this App. However, Apple Maps is also very good.

Nihao Mobile

I use this service for Calls and Internet in China. I pay 88 yuan, like 12 dollars, for 20GB of Internet and 90min of calling. I think it’s okay and if you are interested, check out my future posts. Yes, it also works for tourists. If you have questions, just add them on WeChat (go to their Website) and ask them.

In WeChat, there is the possibility to call, when you are in China, to every foreign country for as low as 5 cents per minute. When I called from China to Switzerland, it was 5 cents.

The Mini-app inside WeChat is called Easycall.

So, for now this was the list. As a tourist, you don’t need more, it’s rather the language at this point that is the biggest problem. No one talks English. A few people in luxurious hotels in Beijing or Shanghai, but in general, no one.