Is it possible to use Google Maps to navigate while traveling around China? Although all Google products are currently blocked in China, there are still some creative ways to use Google Maps in China. There are also plenty of alternative China map apps from which to choose. In this article, I’d like to explain both options for you and let you decide what’s best for your trip.
Being able to navigate around a city and use public transportation can be a huge advantage when traveling around a foreign country like China. Apps like Google Maps make this possible and allow you as an independent traveler to move around with confidence.
As you’re probably already aware, China’s censorship of the internet we affectionately call “The Great Firewall” means that it’s difficult to access Gmail in China, watch YouTube videos in China or use any other Google app. This includes Google Maps.
And before you ask the question: yes, that also includes Apple Maps, which doesn’t work well in China.
So what are your options? Below I’m going to first share with you the way that I access Google Maps in China and then provide you with some alternatives to Google Maps that work well in China.
Note: This article contains affiliate links, which means that at no extra cost to you, I will be compensated if you use some of these services I recommend. The good news is that in many cases, such as this link to ExpressVPN, I’ve negotiated special deals to get you 3 months of free service.
Using Google Maps in China: Problems and Solutions
It’s funny: I actually remember walking around China with a physical map back in the day. It’s amazing how far we’ve come in just a decade. I mean, I can’t remember the last time I saw a traveler in China pull out a map! Our phones are just too darn accurate, up-to-date, and convenient.
An actual map? Good luck with that, Magellan 😉
However, when it comes to using something like Google Maps in China, or even Apple Maps, there are two primary problems that you have to overcome:
- Data Access on Your Phone: Unless you only plan to use Google Maps in China while connected to Wifi, you’ll need to consider the need for data access on your phone. This will allow you to use your phone, and view maps, while you’re out and about.
- Access to Blocked Services: As I’ve already stated, China blocks services like Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Google Maps in China. It sucks, but that’s reality. Once you connect to a network, you’ll need to find a way to circumvent this blocking…or use another service.
Before I run you through the alternative app choices (and why they’re both good and bad options), let me share with you the solutions to the above problems:
- SOLUTION – Data Access: There are three different ways I recommend to get data access on your phone in China. The easiest is to purchase international roaming on your existing mobile plan. It works well but is usually expensive. The second option is to purchase a China SIM card, which is cheaper but requires more time and know-how to set up. The final option is a compromise between the two: you can rent a China phone to use during your travels. Some travelers prefer this because they have security and privacy concerns about connecting their personal mobile phone to China’s network.
- SOLUTION – Blocked: As with any blocked websites and applications, the most common solution is something known as a Virtual Private Network or “VPN” for short. Connecting to a VPN on your phone is a legal way to bypass censorship and allow you to use Google Maps in China. Personally, I use and recommend ExpressVPN (think includes a special bonus of 3 free months).
If you’ve never used a VPN before, it’s basically a cheap piece of software that any expat in China uses on a daily basis (I subscribe to three different services, personally). I highly recommend you check out ExpressVPN if you’ll be heading to China – and not just for Google Maps.
Aside from the added privacy and security that a VPN adds (which helps lower your risk of being hacked while on a public Wifi network), using a VPN on your phone allows you to use email, share photos on Instagram and make calls using Skype – all of which are impossible without a VPN.
There are hundreds of VPN options, but frankly not all of them work well in China. If you’re looking for a few different options, I’ve listed out the top China VPN options here.
Best Google Maps Alternatives in China (Pros & Cons)
Of course, there are some people who would rather not mess around with network connections and VPNs. Instead of trying to find an easy way to access Google Maps in China, you’d rather just download an unblocked maps alternative.
Important Note: Even with these alternatives, unless you plan to only use these map apps while connected to Wi-fi or download offline maps, you’re still going to need to find a way to get data access on your phone.
Below are the best Google Maps alternatives in China along with the pros and cons of each.
Alternative #1: Baidu Maps
The most reliable and best Google Maps alternative in China is Baidu Maps. This is the app that most Chinese people use.
- Baidu Maps Advantages: Baidu Maps is the most up-to-date maps app for China. It’s also free! Directions are as accurate as possible (for China) and include both walking directions and public transportation options for all cities throughout China.
- Baidu Maps Disadvantages: Baidu Maps only offers maps in Chinese, so this might be a non-starter. You can often search in English, but all streets and POIs will be in Chinese.
Alternative #2: OsmAnd Maps
OsmAnd maps is another viable alternative to Google Maps in China, although it certainly has its limitations.
- OsmAnd Advantages: You can download maps to use offline, eliminating the need for network access while in China. This also includes access to Wikipedia POIs. The entire app is in English, which is also a plus.
- OsmAnd Disadvantages: While the app is free, downloading Asia maps comes at a small price. Also, since the app is natively Chinese, the maps and any traffic information won’t be 100% accurate or up-to-date.
Alternative #3: City-Specific
Another option is to use city-specific apps that allow you to access English subway maps offline.
- Explore Metro Pros: Detailed subway maps in English for the biggest cities in China (Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong & Shenzhen). These maps can be downloaded and accessed offline.
- Explore Metro Cons: It is only available for limited cities within China. Also, each of the apps costs money and are only able help with subway navigation, not any roads or buses.
View available cities:
There are a number of other alternatives to Google Maps in China, but they all face the same problems: they cost money, they’re in Chinese or they require network access. It’s for this reason that I prefer to revert to Google Maps through a VPN.
Conclusion | Using Google Maps in China
Hopefully at this point you feel much better equipped to navigate China’s roads and subways during your travels! In my opinion, the best option is to get access to Google Maps in China through a VPN. I personally use ExpressVPN but there are plenty of other options out there.
If you’d rather go with something that isn’t blocked, the best alternative is Baidu Maps. The only problem is that Baidu Maps is only in Chinese, so you either need to be able to read Chinese or choose a lesser alternative that can download offline maps in English.
Do you have another Google Map alternative that you’ve used? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below.