On Friday, the Commerce Department finally announced the details on how a Trump administration order on Aug. 6 banning the two apps will be executed. As of Sunday, Apple and Google’s app stores will no longer be allowed to offer TikTok and WeChat to users because the Trump administration says they pose an alleged national security risk. And the United States will ban any provision of Internet hosting services, or other network services, that allows the apps to function in the United States starting Sunday for WeChat. (The ban on Internet hosting for TikTok takes effect Nov. 12.)
What does the international standoff mean for regular WeChat users? Here’s what they should know and do before Sunday’s looming deadline.
Is WeChat a big deal?
In a word, yes. The app, which goes by Weixin inside China, is owned by Chinese company Tencent and has over a billion users worldwide. As of August, it had 3.3 million active monthly users in the U.S., according to analytics provider App Annie. The WeChat app has been installed nearly 22 million times through the Apple App Store and Google Play United States since January 2014, according to Sensor Tower, another analytics firm.
It is hard to overstate WeChat’s role in China’s digital ecosystem and in connecting China to the rest of the world. For Chinese users, it is a super app that serves as a phone book, messaging service, photo album, payment system and news feed in one.
Because China’s Internet is fenced off, WeChat also serves as a crucial link between China and the rest of the world. Facebook, Instagram and many U.S. media outlets are blocked in China, giving people few options when it comes to staying connected with those outside the People’s Republic. Chinese Americans use it to keep in touch with family members back home and American businesses use it to sell products in China. It is a digital bridge.
WeChat is used by families to stay in touch in inexpensive ways that are not easily replicated by text messages and phone calls. For many users, especially older generations, pivoting to a new app or using workarounds could be a difficult switch to make. The ban could cut them off, at least temporarily, from loved ones.
Can I still use WeChat?
If you already have WeChat installed on your phone, the app could remain there, but we still don’t know how well it will work and for how long.
People will no longer be able to make financial transactions through the app, which is a massive payments platform in addition to a messaging tool. Being kicked out of the app stores also effectively ends any updates for the app, including critical security patches. That could make WeChat less safe to use as time goes on, and key features could stop working.
The order could also force Internet service providers to block access to Internet traffic, and other behind-the-scenes companies like hosting services would be required to end their support to WeChat. If that happens, it would be impossible to send messages even if you installed the app before it was banned.
What are the government’s security concerns?
WeChat’s ubiquity makes it an effective censorship and surveillance tool. Within China, WeChat is heavily censored. Posts about Chinese politics — and many other topics — disappear from the app. Even an emoji can be intercepted as you send it.
When Chinese speakers abroad use the app to read news, they are reading and browsing in a heavily censored news ecosystem, helping Beijing shape communities and conversations. Chinese security personnel also use WeChat to contact, harass and surveil dissidents and exiles, including those in the United States. The Trump administration said the app collects “vast swaths of information from its users,” which could “allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans’ personal and proprietary information."
In a statement Friday, Tencent spokesperson Meredith Julian defended the company’s security, saying it “has always incorporated the highest standards of user privacy and data security.”
It is also used by China’s vast domestic security apparatus to track and surveil citizens. In 2016, a team at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab tested 26,000 keywords on WeChat accounts registered in China, Canada and the United States. It found nearly 200 words that triggered censorship in accounts linked to Chinese phone numbers.
What are the alternatives?
Most popular communication apps used in the U.S. are banned in China, including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Telegram. Encrypted chat app Signal still works in both countries, and another Tencent app called QQ might be unaffected for now.
It’s unknown if going through a VPN will allow WeChat to continue working in its current state on phones in the US. Users in other countries like India that have banned TikTok have effectively used tools like VPNs and switching SIM cards to continue using that app.
There are other more technical options dedicated WeChat users could attempt, like installing the app through non app-store channels, called sideloading. It’s easier to do on an Android phone than an iOS device, but on either platform it comes with increased security risks and is not recommended.
A U.S. government official told The Washington Post the administration does not intend to prosecute anyone for finding new ways to use the apps.
What should WeChat users do now
The safest thing to do is back up all contacts and important information from WeChat before the end of the day Saturday. Save contact names, email addresses and phone numbers your phone’s contacts app or even in a spreadsheet. Save any important chats or content that doesn’t exist elsewhere, even if that means just taking screenshots.
If you aren’t able to easily find people’s contact info, ask everyone to send you their phone numbers now. Let them know what is happening and share the best way to reach you if the app ceases to work.