Anyone who takes a closer look at China cannot avoid the WeChat mobile app. It is not only a useful chat tool but also a social network including a dating function and a payment service. Here is verything you should know about WeChat.
If you only have space for one additional app on your mobile phone before your trip to China, you should choose WeChat. No other smartphone app will serve you better in the Middle Kingdom – even if you may think that you do not need the functions at all.
Even more: WeChat has reached such dominance in contemporary China that you will miss an important area of everyday life for many people if you don’t take a quick look at the killer app.
In this article, we will explain why WeChat is so incredibly useful when traveling. Then we give you a few tips on how to use WeChat better. In the end, we would like to go into a few problems and dangers associated with the not entirely undisputed app.
Why do you need WeChat in China
Because everyone in China has WeChat on their phone, you first need the app to text with all the people you meet in China. In short: for what you are likely to use the almost identical Whatsapp for at home. As with the American double, you can also send spoken messages, pictures and much more via WeChat.
In this context, note that Whatsapp is currently blocked in China. So if you want to chat with other people, you either have to install WeChat (and ask your friends at home to do the same) or get a VPN.
Two functions that you can use within the WeChat conversation window are particularly useful for travelers:
First, WeChat has an excellent translation function. If you have communication problems, you can ask the other party to send you a short message in Chinese via WeChat. Hold the message for about two seconds and then select “Translate”. WeChat will then deliver understandable sentences.
Second, the app is incredibly convenient if you want to meet someone but don’t know their exact location. You click on “Location” in the chat window and then on “Real-time location”. Now you see a map with the location of you and your conversation partner. You can see how you move towards each other – or not. Important: You can only use this function if you have access to the mobile Internet.
WeChat as an alternative to cash
One of the special features of China is that a digital revolution has taken place in recent years when it comes to paying small amounts: Today, only a few use cash to pay the bill in restaurants and shops. Instead, they prefer to transfer small sums via payment apps such as WeChat Pay or Alipay.
In the meantime, this even goes so far that some businesses do not even want to accept cash – even beggars themselves are now using digital solutions. In short: you will come into contact with WeChat Pay again and again on your trip and you might want to try it out.
But while WeChat Pay is the future for most Chinese, the payment service for tourists is more of a bureaucracy nightmare. It was announced in early 2018 that the service would now also work with foreign credit cards such as Visa, MasterCard and JCB. Experience reports, however, seem to confirm the opposite.
Link WeChat Pay to the bank account
In order for WeChat Pay to work, two conditions must be met: firstly, you have to verify your identity on your profile, secondly, you have to find a way to top up your account with money.
The most promising way is to link WeChat Pay to a Chinese bank account. It is relatively easy for foreigners to open a bank account in China and takes about 20 minutes (+up to two hours waiting in line). You can then take the Chinese bank card with you. We recommend the China Construction Bank.
With a Chinese bank account, you can not only verify your WeChat account but also top up with credit. Note that the (Chinese) phone number that your WeChat is registered on must match the phone number you have deposited in your bank account.
Traveling to China soon? Take a look at our Guide for SIM Cards in China.
Alternative ways for WeChat Pay
If you don’t want to open a bank account, there is an alternative way to get your WeChat Pay up and running. However, note that we have not tested this ourselves and the following paragraphs are summaries from other traveler’s experiences. Please try it with small amounts and leave us a comment as to whether it worked.
First you ask a Chinese friend to send you a “red envelope”. A minimum amount such as one yuan is enough. When opening the envelope, you will now be asked to verify your identity – for example with a foreign credit card.
Now you should be able to use your credit and buy it with your WeChat Pay. Note that you cannot transfer funds from your credit card to your WeChat account. It is only used for identification. You must load your account with additional Hongbaos (red envelopes) that you can send to your friends.
What other functions does WeChat have?
WeChat also has a number of features that may be of interest to you as a traveler.
Built-in dating platform: If you want to get to know other people on your China trip, there are two functions available. With “Lookaround” you can find other people within a radius of 20 kilometers who also want to get to know someone. These services are also useful to easily find someone for a coffee. Recently, however, rather sleazy offers have been piling up.
The Timeline: Similar to Facebook or Instagram, WeChat also has a timeline where you can upload your photos and status reports. You can “like” or comment on the pictures of your contacts with a heart. Strict privacy is worth mentioning: when you comment on a photo of a friend, only your mutual friends can read it. This gives the comment function a more familiar atmosphere.
Hidden advanced features of WeChat
Although we are enthusiastic about WeChat overall, we find the app somewhat difficult to use, especially at the beginning, since there is no correct user guide.
Chat on the computer: If you don’t feel like typing your messages on your phone, you can open https://web.wechat.com/ in your browser. A QR code will appear on your computer. Go to “Discover” in WeChat, then select “Scan” and correct the camera to the code.
Use WeChat as DropBox: If you are looking for a simple option to move data between your phone and computer (because DropBox is locked in China), you can use WeChat. Start the webchat as described above. A file folder appears on the screen between the contacts. It is titled “File Transfer”, on the computer it is called the Chinese equivalent. Now you can simply copy the files from your mobile phone into this folder and within a few seconds they will also appear on your computer.
Text Post: We mentioned the WeChat timeline above. Go to Explore > Moments and press the camera briefly if you want to share a photo of yourself. However, if you simply want to post a status update in the form of a text, you have to hold the camera button down for a long time. Then a simple text entry field appears.
Status updates by group: If after a while you have a larger friend list and regularly share pictures on your wall, you may not want everyone to see every post. In this case, you tag your acquaintances with tags. To do this, go to their profile, click on the three dots at the top and define suitable tags (groups) under “Comments and tags”. If you now share a post, you can decide under “Share with” whether everyone should see your post or only certain groups.
Show only the latest status messages: If you want your friends to be unable to see your old posts after a while, go to Me > Settings > Privacy. There you choose under “Visible to others” whether your posts should always be displayed for 6 months or 3 days.
Erase unnecessary data: If you use WeChat for a long time, a lot of data will accumulate, of which you will no longer need a lot. To delete them, go to Me > Settings > General > Manage Storage. Here you can delete pictures, videos and other sent files sorted by contacts. Note: The pictures you send are always a copy that you can easily remove.
Delete your WeChat account
If you simply delete the app from your mobile phone, your account with all the data remains on Tencent’s servers. There is no ready-to-use option to delete the account with just a few clicks. For a complete deletion, you have to write an email to [email protected] You can find letter templates on the Internet. Personally, we would save ourselves the trouble, since there is ultimately no way to check whether everything has really been removed anyway.
WeChat & Data protection
In a transparency rating from Amnesty International, WeChat manufacturer Tencent did not receive a single point out of a possible hundred. For comparison: the controversial Facebook achieved a level of 73 points in the same rating.
It’s no secret that Tencent is working with the Chinese government and sharing data. Certain terms are also censored. If you want to convince yourself of the automatic censorship, send a message in which you name the Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. The message will never get on the other device.
You should also be aware that WeChat is getting extensive permissions on your phone. According to our technical understanding, WeChat can not only monitor your chats but theoretically also search the data that is stored on your cell phone, such as address lists – but this also applies to Whatsapp and Co.
So if you have highly sensitive company data or similar on your smartphone, you should install WeChat on a separate phone.