How to Travel in China without speaking Mandarin

Even though seeing the world can be one of the most rewarding experiences, tourists eventually will run into problems communicating with locals because of language issues.

While it may not be possible to become fluent in the language of every nation you visit or travel to, there are techniques to increase the likelihood that you will have a memorable and exciting experience there.

Travelers from other countries will likely find travel in China very easy to navigate. The country is large and well-established, with a lot of young people who understand the English language and multilingual signs being the norm. You can visit all of China without needing to learn Mandarin if you have a valid visa.


Major tourist destinations like Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, e.t.c., do not require fluency in Mandarin to navigate. There is a sizable international community in these major urban centers, so getting assistance from a local is not difficult. Taxi drivers in China’s top cities are required to learn at least the bare minimum of English to help you get where you need to go. Furthermore, English is widely used on restaurant menus.

Traveling to rural areas, second and third-tier cities, or other places where tourists are scarcer can be more difficult, but it is still achievable with the right preparation and attitude.

Traveling around China without speaking Mandarin can be daunting, but with the following helpful hints, even a first-time visitor can have an unforgettable experience. Using these hints and tips will make your travels within China more enjoyable by exposing you to more aspects of Chinese culture. This will not only help you feel more at ease among the people you meet, but it will also likely win you their favor.

Be Practical, use Smart Phone Apps, or pack a dictionary/phrasebook

Using your smartphone is currently one of the most common ways to travel around China if you don’t know Mandarin Chinese. Many foreigners in China have benefited from technological advancements, such as the proliferation of smartphone apps that translate languages. Numerous podcasts and applications are also available to assist you to pick up the rudiments of Mandarin Chinese wherever you go. Here are a few of the best translation apps you should download ahead of your trip:

translator apps -travel in China
translator apps -travel in China
  1. iTranslate Converse: For iOS, iTranslate Converse is one of the best free translation apps available, and it’s the one I recommend to friends who use iPhones and iPads. In order to communicate in Chinese, you simply talk into your phone and it instantly interprets what you’ve spoken. In the same way, if you speak Chinese on your phone, you’ll hear English translated back to you. This software is unfortunately only available for iOS devices, but Android users need not feel left out in the cold because there are plenty of other excellent options.
  2. Google Translate: Another excellent translator that is free for both Android and iOS users is Google Translate. If you want a textual translation of what you type, say, photograph, or draw on your touch screen, Google Translate can do it for you. Once the Simplified Chinese language pack has been downloaded, it can be used without an internet connection. Its adaptability is unrivaled, but it does come with a price. In China, you’ll need a virtual private network (VPN) in order to use this excellent tool. It’s no secret that the great firewall of China prevents access to popular websites and apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, YouTube, and Google from within China. To bypass this restriction, however, a VPN can be set up (VPN). By establishing a private tunnel to another network through the internet, you can bypass filters and regain access to previously blocked content. As a result, a virtual private network (VPN) could end up being one of your most useful tools while residing and traveling in China.
  3. Naver Papago, available for both iOS and Android, is yet another free translation tool. Photo translation, voice translation, text translation, a dictionary, and a phrasebook are just a few of the services included to help a foreigner feel at home. Papago is able to adapt to the user’s preferences and learn from its mistakes thanks to the neural machine translation it employs.
  4. The iTranslate app, number four on our list, is compatible with iPhones, Androids, and Windows Phones; it can translate text and voice, and it’s free. It has a straightforward layout that makes storing translations for later using a breeze. With this app you can, instantly interpret menus, cards, signs, and more with the camera on your smartphone. It is functional even while not connected to the internet.
  5. There is also another free app called TripLingo that will translate any sentence you type in, whether it’s professional, informal, or slang. It includes guides on how to properly greet people in the local culture, as well as audio courses and phrasebooks. All of the essential functions are available in the free version.
  6. Microsoft’s Bing Translator, also known simply as Microsoft Translator, is a robust and free translation tool. Even though you may be concerned that the Chinese firewall might prevent you from using this fantastic app, rest assured that it is not being blocked in China. You need an active internet connection to use it, but it can translate both text and voice.

One last thing to keep in mind while looking for a translator app is that an Internet connection may not always be accessible in some parts of the country, so it’s important to pick an app that can be used without Wi-Fi or cellular data.

Other Important Apps help you to travel in China

In addition to language-translation software apps, there are a few more apps that are crucial for any foreigner to have while traveling in China. These will make your vacation much less stressful and more enjoyable. They include:

  1. The Didi Chuxing App 滴滴出行: As the biggest Chinese ride-hailing app, it’s like the Chinese version of Uber. The Didi app is highly recommended for local travel in China. It includes an English language app that allows you to hail practically any kind of transport, including a taxi, van, limo, and even a shared bicycle. If you have WeChat on your phone, you can access Didi directly from your WeChat Wallet.
  2. Pleco: Pleco is the best phone dictionary app out there. It’s packed with useful features, including a high-quality English-Chinese and Chinese-English dictionary. You can use the handwriting feature, for instance, to look up Chinese characters you observe in the environment. Absolutely one of the top applications for getting around and staying in China.
  3. WeChat 微信: WeChat is the most popular messaging app in China; bring it with you on your vacation or trip if you want to make new friends and share thrilling experiences with old ones. WeChat is primarily used for chatting, but it also offers many other useful features. WeChat is more than just a digital wallet; it also has a news feed-like feature called “Moments,” an Instagram-style feature called “Channels,” integrations with online shopping and ticket booking, and much more. Even though WeChat isn’t the only messaging app available in China, it’s the most widely used. Among Chinese mobile applications, WeChat is an absolute must.
  4. Google Maps is unavailable in China, therefore you’ll need to use an alternative such as iMaps or AMap 高德地图. Android users can download either Baidu maps or the Chinese app AMap as alternatives to Apple’s iMaps. The most up-to-date and precise option is AMap; however, despite supporting English-letter location name input, the interface is entirely in Chinese. There is no way to survive without one of these map apps. Whenever I was lost or stranded in China, these map apps helped me truly get back on track. It’s also smart to have copies of critical addresses written in Chinese characters on hand.

If you are a student who wants to study in China, these Apps will help you: 9 APPs Must Have When Studying in China 2023

The third tip for navigating your way through China with zero knowledge of mandarin is to hire a tour company or a guide

A Tour guide talking to tourists during a tour

Join a reputable Chinese tour group if you don’t know any Mandarin and want a stress-free vacation or trip. It may not be the most economical choice, but at least you’ll have the services of an English-speaking guide who will see to your every need. You won’t even need to know how to count to ten in Mandarin. Fortunately, you should know that you are not alone. Many tour firms in China have sprung up specifically to serve the needs of foreigners who wish to travel within the country but who lack the language skills necessary to get around on their own. Windhorse Tours, Wendy Wu Tour (exclusively serving guests from the United Kingdom, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand), Travel China Guide, Great Wall Hiking, Leo’s Guide & Driver Service, China Highlights Tours, Jenny’s Guide & Driver Service, ChinaHiking, e.t.c, are among the most well-known Chinese travel companies.

Being polite is the fourth piece of advice for those who intend to travel within China without knowing how to speak Mandarin

Courtesy is key

Learning how to say “please 请” “thank you 谢谢你” and “hi 你好” before your trip can help you communicate effectively and make friends quickly wherever you go. You’ll get far more help and cooperation if you take the time to accomplish this. Making an effort to communicate in the language of the country you are visiting is a sign of respect for that country.

If you’re learning phrases from a phrasebook, this will be difficult, so use an app like the one indicated above that will read the phrases to you as you listen. The locals you interact with will appreciate it if you take the time to learn how to pronounce common words and phrases. Speaking properly and slowly is also important. You may have trouble communicating with the natives due to your strong accent. Speaking slowly and clearly will help the locals understand you better, as your accent may make it harder for them to do so.

The fifth piece of advice for getting around China if you don’t know any mandarin is to always keep an eye out for landmarks

Landmark in Guangzhou-Guangzhou Tower
A landmark in Guangzhou-Guangzhou Tower

Keep an eye out for landmarks even if you have a map and a GPS service with you so you can figure out how to get back to your lodgings or destination if you get lost. There is always the risk that you will misplace your map or run out of power on your phone.

If you’re on foot, the landmark strategy is your best bet. Remembering landmarks like “I turned left at the white building” or “I walked towards the tall police station” can help you get back to your car if you get lost while driving.

Finally, if you’re a foreigner in China and you get lost or stranded during a trip, don’t be too proud to ask a local for help

Ask for help when stuck

Most Chinese people, especially the young, are extremely helpful for what seems like no reason at all (at least to Westerners), and you often don’t even need to say much before they grasp your plight and are ready to offer assistance.

The majority of Chinese children begin their English education in elementary school. In other words, you can get by in China just fine if English is your only language skill. If you need assistance, all you have to do is ask a young person for it. Most Chinese students, however, only study English in order to pass interminable tests. It signifies that they are unable to communicate effectively in English.

They may not understand what you’re saying at first, but they will if you slow down and use basic terms. Learn how to point and use sign language if necessary. Finally, the emergency number here in China is 110. (Dialing 110 would be equivalent to dialing 911 in the United States).

I hope the aforementioned tips will be quite useful as you explore the fascinating, beautiful and culturally diverse land of China.

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