China, land of wonders, a mystery for many and clearly still one for us! If you are visiting soon or maybe even settling in, then be aware that your mobile phone will be your greatest ally in the challenges and triumphs to come. Sure it will help you for translations but that’s the least of it. In China today every facet of of life is now pervaded by these devices and you’ll need to know how to make the most of them.
We’ve compiled a list of 10 apps for visitors and 5 more apps that we cannot do without when living in China. So here are 15 must-have apps in China.
Probably the most essential tool on this list, and one you’ll want to download ahead of your arrival. As you’re no doubt aware Chinese internet restrictions (often dubbed the ‘Great Firewall’) prevent access to many internet sites that people in western countries consider essential, such as Facebook, Google (including all of it’s tools and services, so no Google maps, Google play store or Gmail either), Youtube, Twitter, and numerous others.
The most common workaround for this is called a virtual private network or ‘VPN’. These apps allow you to route your traffic through another country and thereby access unrestricted content. There are many VPN services to choose from, some free (like Lantern which has a free version with limited data) and others with a paid subscription (Astrill is one but hasn’t been very successful for us in Sichuan, some of our friends though have had no problems), the one we’ve had the most success with is Express VPN. While not the cheapest VPN out there, it is easy to use, has no bandwidth or download limits and allows you to choose from VPN locations in dozens of countries around the world. This also has the added benefit of giving you access to certain location-specific services in other countries. For example, if you want to use Hulu (a free tv streaming site normally only available in the mainland USA) then hook up your VPN to New York or Los Angeles and away you go.
Word of advice: set up your VPN before you come to China, as you might find the VPN download sites are also blocked.
2. WeChat – Free – Social Media – 微信
This is another must! THE app of all apps in China. Everyone you’re going to meet uses WeChat and you’ll definitely want it too. It’s often considered to be China’s answer to Facebook but in reality, it’s so much more than that. In addition to the chat and photo/status sharing, Wechat is also used for payments, whether you want to lend your friend a little money, shop online, or settle your bar tab, it’s as simple as scanning a QR code on the Wechat app. It’s fast, avoids carrying too much change (we all hate those one yuan coins that seem to accumulate in our pockets) and is used everywhere. You could also use it to rent a bike in Chengdu!
Wechat also supports real-time translations, meaning you can have a conversation with someone in which they read and write in Chinese and you do so in English (or French, or German, or whatever else). This is so easy to use that I’ve actually bought a motorcycle, including going through all of the registration and insurance process, using nothing more than the Wechat chat function, translating questions and details back and forth.
Wechat is called Weixin in China (pronounced ‘way-shin’) and you can expect to hear the word from everyone you meet, as it’s the ultimate way to keep in touch and chat, in spite of language barriers.
3. Air Matters – Free – Health / Pollution
Sure the air quality has been improving lately in China but it’s always good to be able to keep an eye on the current API to know whether it might be better to stay indoors.
The app allows you to add a few different cities and gives you recommendations on what to do depending on the current pollution levels. If it gets red, purple or black then you might want to reconsider that walk around town and head to an indoor attraction instead.
One of the two translations apps I will recommend on this list. This one is a lot more precise than my next choice but only works with one word at a time. You will get access to a few medical words in there (could be useful if you need Ibuprofen or Paracetamol ! ) and it will help if you are stuck for a word or two.
This might be a better choice for people residing in China ( even more with the add-ons that will be helpful if you want to practice your writing ) but is still worth the download if you are visiting for a few weeks and have some basic Mandarin.
5. Microsoft Translator – Free – Translator
Another translator that works in many languages. Surprisingly the Chinese translator is pretty efficient, although it’s rarely a hundred per cent accurate. Not only can you type, but you can talk to it and the software will read the translated message aloud. This works both ways so you can speak to it in your own language and another person can reply in oral Chinese. Again, the combination of speech recognition and translation software can sometime yield hilarious results (the time it translated the words of a taxi driver as “I think the taste of your spleen will be bad” is certainly one that sticks in the memory!). Potentially cannibalistic cab drivers aside, 95% of the time this oral translation system gets your point across adequately.
The real party piece of this app however is the photo translation, which allows you to take a picture of chinese text and simply overlays the image with the translated English. This is far more effective than I’d ever expected (and occasionally feels one short step away from outright witchcraft) and is an absolute godsend when it comes to restaurant menus.
There are very few downsides to this app, it’s free and you can even download entire language packs which allow you to use it’s full range of services while offline.
6. Didi – Free – Transportation
Taxis are a way of life in China, and prices are outrageously cheap for those of us used to transport costs in Europe, But if you live outside of the city centre, it can often be a pain to track one down.
Didi is China’s answer to Uber, and also operates in a number of other Asian countries. For a long time, Didi was only available in Chinese, and limited to Chinese payment methods, thus making it pretty inaccessible for foreigners. But recently Didi has begun rolling out the English version of it’s app and now takes payment from foreign credit and debit cards, making it a great choice for expats and tourists alike.
It’s interface will be familiar to Uber users and it functions in the same way, you type your destination in, wait for a driver and pay via the app, which shows your drivers location on the map and gives estimated arrival times.
Be aware that the driver will often try to contact you after accepting your trip, so you might want to ask some help at your hotel or prepare a message in Chinese to send directly to him.
Uber is also available here but was recently bought out by Didi, and is currently being revamped for the Chinese market so for now, Didi is easier to use and much more widespread.
7. XE Currency – Free – Converter
I am really bad at getting my head around currency rates, even more so when they are constantly changing and the numbers are just so different.
I have been using Currency for a while simply because I can constantly have different currencies right under my eyes. Easy to keep an eye on the Pound, Euro, Japanese Yen and Chinese Yuan at the same time!
If you need to book flights, trains or hotels in China this is the application that has got them all. Sure I still use Agoda and Booking like we all do, but Ctrip being home-grown has the advantage of having every single hotel you can think of available on there. If you are planning a trip to a remote area of China then this will be the app that will find you an existing hotel nearby.
We’ve found Ctrip to be significantly cheaper than the western sites for booking travel around China, especially long-distance trains and internal flights. There is an English and a Chinese version, the first one is a lot more convenient and accepts foreign cards, the second one is cheaper but you will need a local card for payment.
9. Alipay – Free – Finance / Payment
Don’t have a Chinese card? Then chances are you cannot use WeChat Wallet (at least as of now, May 2017), but worry not: Alipay is there! With the option to add foreign cards you will be able to pay with your phone as well!
You can also use Alipay to top up your phone, transfer money, rent a bike and probably a lot more that I’ve not figured out yet. There isn’t a lot more to add: as mentioned before almost everything in China can be paid with your phone so you will see options for Wechat / Alipay in most places you will go to in the country.
10. TripIt – Free (Demo version) – Travel Organiser
One you can use in any country really and that I’ve used extensively when visiting Japan is Tripit. By searching your email this app registers your hotel bookings, your train and plane tickets and any activities you might have booked.
So if you book things in advance you will be able to access the address of your hotel in the local language even offline. The free demo version has been more than enough for me so far and it keeps me from quite a bit of stress when on the road.
Bonus round : Apps for people settling in China.
If you are just visiting China then you can skip this part, the few applications I am about to name are mainly useful to people that have settled here. If you’ve just moved in, keep reading because oh boy are these life savers!
11. Taobao – Free – Shopping – 淘宝
In our few years in China Miss Marie-Carmen has earned the nickname of “Taobao Queen” in our circle of friends. This app has made our lives a lot more comfortable over the years and it will probably be the same for you.
Taobao is what Amazon and Ebay dream of being, on their most optimistic days. It’s an online shopping site with prices, choices, and delivery speeds that leave those western giants looking like like crippled old dinosaurs by comparison. We can order a single packet of sausages from a German butcher in Shanghai and it’ll be on our doorstep in Sichuan, in a chilled container the next morning. And even including postage and packaging (which is generally either free or laughably cheap) the cost will be less than at a local supermarket in Europe.
And Taobao sells everything. Not just the expected things like clothes, furniture, and electrical appliances, I mean, EVERYTHING! Cars, dogs, houses, fresh food from all corners of the globe, prescription medication, rare bottles of vintage malt whiskey, fireworks, a herd of buffalo, all those things that regulations prevent from being sold online back home can be acquired here at the click of a button. Basically, if it’s legal to own it in China, it’s for sale on Taobao. No exceptions.
The only issue you’ll find is, it only works in Chinese. If you switch to English you’ll be redirected to ‘world.taobao’ which a pale imitation of the real thing. It might be daunting at the beginning and I would recommend making a small order for your first try, but spend an hour or two getting to understand the system and I guarantee the payback will be worth it’s weight in gold when those shipments of Columbian coffee and Belgian beer start arriving at your door.
12. JD – Free – Shopping
With a similar principle as Taobao, JD offers the convenient option of paying in cash, on delivery. There is maybe a bit less choice but I would recommend using it over Taobao for large electronic goods and furniture.
Where Taobao ships with third party postal and courier services, JD has their own delivery service and purchases generally include ‘installation’, which means when you order that gigantic sofa or cast-iron bathtub, it’s someone else’s job to haul it up the stairs to your apartment and wrangle it through the door.
13. QQ – Free – Social Media
QQ as well as Weibo are great options once you’ve been settling in for a while. They are the local Twitter and Facebook analogues for those who can’t get enough of social media.
If only to keep your Wechat for close friends, use QQ for colleagues, students, and random people you are not particularly interested in having in your inner circle. It’s alright, we all do it.
14. Meituan – Free – Coupons – 美团
Meituan is an app that allows you to find promotions near you on restaurants, bars, tours, etc… I use this app for other reasons: to see what restaurants exist near me.
Let’s be honest: tripadvisor doesn’t have much of a presence in China, it’s used almost entirely by foreigners rather than locals, which makes it a good resource for tracking down a burger shop in down-town Shanghai, but of little use out in the sticks. So turn on Meituan, activate geo-localisation and see what delights pop up in your immediate area.
We’ve been able to find some awesome local barbecue joints thanks to this app and use it every time we get to a new city.
15. Waimai by Meituan – Free – Food delivery – 美团外卖
While Meituan offers you promotions when you go to the restaurant in person, Waimai offers you deliveries!
If you live in Shanghai or Beijing then you might not be interested since you’ve got Sherpas but if, like us, that’s not an option then try your hand with Waimai. It’s a classic food delivery app but perfect when you just can’t be bothered to cook or go out.
Sure I’ve probably left a few out of the list, some might be particular to a city, useful in different areas but things move fast and who knows, there might be something new next year! Just looking at our list from 2014 it is easy to see how things have changed since then! But if you are travelling or moving to China those few should do the trick!
Have you tried any of those applications? Did you like them? Would you add anything else to the list?
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