6 free apps that are a must for travelling in China


Be it for pleasure or business it may be that China is on your travel list for the foreseeable future. With the country having one of the best network coverage in the world (Roaming Inner Mongolia’s desert with 3G is not a problem) it is easy to stay connected. Although, China is the furthest away in terms of culture and perhaps distance for the majority of the Western world. Here are 7 of the most useful and must have apps to survive and thrive in the middle kingdom, regardless of you being a newbie or a seasoned traveller.


Betternet/Express VPN

The concept of the “great firewall” is well known across the globe. It basically comes down to everything that is done on the internet within China being monitored by the government. As a result there are many copies of some of the most famous Western apps, such as: Baidu (Google), Weibo (Twitter), Youku (Youtube), Wechat (Whatsapp&Facebook) as Western counterparts are blocked. With internet becoming as much of a basic need as shelter (almost) it is comforting to know that popular apps such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat can continue being used to your heart’s content. By means of a VPN (Virtual Private Network) you are able to bypass the great firewall and use the internet as you would in your native country. Betternet is a free app providing a VPN that does a basic job but is sadly prone to regular outages. Otherwise there is Express VPN which costs $99 a year and gives you a stable connection with good customer service. Depending on your intended length of stay you might opt for the latter.



Trusty Google maps or even Apple maps are a bit tricky to use. Google has never had the chance to index the narrow alleyways or 10 lane highways with Google street view. More importantly is the fact the app can only be used while connected to a VPN. Surely there must be a better way? There definitely is, with Maps.me. This app works online as well as offline, which is a major benefit. There is also the additional bonus of being able to put in the English name of places and Maps.me will find the corresponding Chinese translation and position, especially useful if you cannot write Mandarin and are struggling to make sense of the Pinyin input.



So far you’ve got means of staying connected with home and you should be able to find your way across China effortlessly. However you might be a little rusty on your Mandarin skills. The Duolingo courses sadly could not prepare you for the difference in tones as much as you thought it would.  No worries. With Pleco you are able to get simple words translated as for free from English to Chinese. Pleco allows you to write or even draw a character and works offline. Although it won’t be able to construct in-depth grammatically correct sentences, it will get the basic message across.



If not the biggest then at least in the top 3 mostly used apps in China with 700 million users worldwide and a stunning 630 million within is Wechat. If you make friends, meet people or even when having business meetings you can be sure that every one of them will be on Wechat. Wechat is a cross-over between Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp and even Snapchat. On Wechat it is even possible to order food, tickets, invest and send money between users, all within the same app. It is by far one of the most invaluable tools to enhance your trip and make your life a whole lot easier. With a built in translation function to basically any language you are able to let Wechat do the translating for you. The translations are sometimes imperfect and laughable but they generally give you an idea of what the other person is trying to say. Remember, Wechat is essentially a chat tool, not a translation app per se.



This app should be probably be at the top of your download list. Reason being?  Seamless correct translation at your fingertips. Sure there are other apps out there that provide basic translation but with Chinese there are too many factors that could be misinterpreted, especially by machines. The beauty of Stepes is that it is powered by native speakers. With Stepes One-on-One you can be set up with a Chinese person that can help you with interpretation of images, text, videos or simply by placing a phone call. Need help with ordering a taxi, food or even buying things from Taobao (more of that in next paragraph) Stepes has you covered in a matter of seconds. Best of all, you can try it for free for the first couple of interpretations!



The eBay of China. From this app you can buy anything that is manufactured within the Middle Kingdom. There is no need to travel to crowded tourist trap market places and those days of paying too much for too little are outnumbered. With Taobao you purchase directly from the source. It can be daunting at first to navigate the application but as long as you have a picture of something you want you are able to do an image search. Alternatively, let a Stepes translator help you out with ordering, just as easy!

With these apps downloaded and installed on your device you have nothing to worry about when you travel to China!