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Whether you’re heading to China for a week or a year, there are a few apps you’re definitely going to need on your phone.
Due to China’s internet censorship (among other things), most of the apps you’re used to using back home or on your travels just don’t work in China! Uber, Google Maps, Facebook – sorry, but don’t count on these in the PRC!
So get your app store open, because there are a lot of app downloads in your future!
Apps For China Travelers and Expats
Whether you’re a traveler or expat in China, there are a few apps you’ll definitely need on your phone to survive!
WeChat is everything in China. A combination of Whatsapp, Facebook, Instagram, Venmo, and more, you can do pretty much anything on this app.
As a traveler, you’ll probably want to download Wechat just because everything happens here. You’ll be able to message the people you meet, scan QR codes for discounts, or even use it to find out about local events.
If you’re an expat, this is the #1 app you need to have on your phone. Everyone uses Wechat to message one another. You can join giant groups of up to 500 people covering any topic imaginable: women in business, local expat neighborhood groups, nightlife, housing, even cat owners in your city! Seriously.
You can also hook WeChat up to your Chinese bank account and pay for anything under the sun using the app! Want a $1 Jianbing pancake? Just scan the QR code using your app and pay with your phone! You can also top up your phone plan through Wechat, send money to your friends, split a bill in a group chat, and more!
Share your thoughts and photos on their social media “Moments” feed. Book flights and train tickets. Hail a taxi… seriously, this app has EVERYTHING.
THIS is why you text them immediately (they might still call though)
2. Didi Dache
Didi Dache is China’s version of Uber. Thankfully they now have an English version of the app, so you can hail a taxi without Chinese. You can even add foreign credit cards now!
This app pretty much works just like Uber. You type in your destination (in English!) and check the location on the map to make sure it looks accurate. Then you’ll be sent the info of a driver.
I 100% recommend using one of their pre-written options to tell the taxi driver you’re already at the location waiting for him. If you don’t do this, the driver will CALL you and that’s never fun. They might call you anyway, and if that’s the case, just message him and tell him you don’t speak Chinese.
The app auto-translates English to Chinese, so as long as you type something very basic, the driver should be able to understand.
This app is GOLD for travelers and expats because oftentimes taxi drivers are
racist hesitant to pick up foreign passengers. Most Chinese people use Didi to hail taxis now as well (it’s one of the options), so even Chinese people have trouble hailing a taxi without an app now!
The app also allows you to select your destination in both English or Pinyin (romanized Chinese) making it SUPER easy to select where you want to go.
While I’m not typically one to pay for apps, this is one of those times where it’s necessary. Pleco is AMAZING and all of my friends and I use this app.
Pleco is a Chinese-English dictionary in app form that you can access without internet (which is a godsend for travelers and expats alike).
You can type in English and it will give you the result in both Chinese and Pinyin! This means that you can pronounce the word yourself (if you dare), or you can just show the Chinese character translation to someone!
This app is perfect for short translations, however, doesn’t really work for full sentences. If you need to translate one word, this is your absolute go-to.
4. Baidu Translate
Now, if you need to translate full sentences, Baidu Translate is the second app you need. It’s basically exactly the same as Google Translate, but it’s not blocked in China. Yay!
I use this to translate long strings of text or the inevitable super-long Chinese text message I get from my bank or phone company. It actually does the job pretty well!
5. Express VPN
EVERYTHING is blocked in China. Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Google, Gmail, Google maps, Google docs… basically anything with the word “Google” in it…
When you come to China, you 100% need a VPN. I recommend Express VPN because that’s the VPN I personally use. It works great, they have excellent customer service, and they stay on top of all of the Chinese censorship updates.
If you’re an expat in China, be sure to grab their 1-year plan. But if you’re just traveling, they have pretty affordable 1-month plans too!
Once you buy your VPN plan, you’ll get very easy to follow instructions on how to download the program on your computer. You’ll then need to download the Express VPN app where you can use your purchase code to access your VPN on your phone too.
Now you can Instagram your coffee on the go!
Are you worried about China’s pollution? Never fear, Airpocalypse is here!
With Airpocalypse you can check the AQI (Air Quality Index) of your city before venturing outside. As a long-time China resident, I typically wear a pollution mask if the AQI is over 200, but if you’re just traveling for a few weeks, I wouldn’t worry about it unless it’s over 400. A few days of pollution are definitely not going to kill you.
Airpocalypse is great because it tells you when you should avoid outdoor exercise and when you should wear a mask using little jokes. This makes it super easy to know when you should take precautions.
In China, I check the AQI every morning like a normal person checks the weather!
7. Baidu Maps
Since Google Maps is blocked, you’ll need to use another mapping app. If you have Apple Maps, you can use that to make sure you don’t get lost. However, I know most people hate Apple Maps, so even if you do have a built-in mapping system, you’ll probably want Baidu Maps.
If you haven’t already noticed, Baidu is the Chinese Google. Baidu search engine, Baidu Translate, Baidu Maps… it’s basically just Google Maps but for China.
Apps For China Travelers
Travelers and expats in China have vastly different needs, so for the last three items on the list, I’ve decided to give each group their own recommended downloads! Three traveler apps, and three expat apps!
These apps are my go-to travel apps regardless of where I am, but they work in China too and I highly recommend them to any traveler!
Skyscanner is my go-to app and booking site when it comes to finding cheap flights all over the world! The best part about Skyscanner is that it checks all of the budget Chinese booking sites (like Ctrip and Elong) for you so you don’t have to check them individually anymore!
When in China, your browser might change you to a site called Qunar. This is the Chinese version of Skyscanner and is literally exactly the same. You can change back to the English version for Skyscanner, or you can just download the Skyscanner app!
2. Booking.com and Hostelworld
I used Hostelworld religiously when I traveled solo, but now that I travel with my fiance Chris, I exclusively use Booking.com. Thankfully, both sites work GREAT in China. These sites and apps are what I use to book hostels and hotels in China, and I never have any issues.
While there are other Chinese booking sites, you’ll probably end up at a hotel that either 1) doesn’t have English-speaking staff, B) can’t legally host foreign guests (yes, that’s a thing), or C) both.
Just use Booking.com and thank me later.
3. Xe Currency Converter
This is my go-to currency conversion app. I use it constantly when I travel, and I highly suggest downloading it for any trip. This way you don’t have to remember that $1 is 6.2 RMB (or whatever it happens to be this week).
This app also works without internet. Just download the currencies you need and do your converting on the go!
Apps Just For China Expats
While the three above don’t really apply to you as an expat (unless you’re planning a trip!), the next three apps are MUST-HAVES for every expat in China. I used them ALL the time and they will make your expat life so much better.
1. Food Delivery: Waimai and Eleme
As an expat in China, you’ll probably want to get food delivered. Well, lucky for you, getting food delivered can actually be CHEAPER than going to a restaurant because apps like Waimai and Eleme actually give incredible discounts constantly.
With tiny $.50 cent delivery fees that are usually covered by a discount, what’s to lose? Yes, these apps are in Chinese, but they’re super easy to navigate. Just click around until you find a restaurant that looks good, and use the pictures to order familiar dishes. Easy!
You might want a Chinese friend to help you set up your address in the app, but otherwise, you should be able to use this app without speaking Chinese.
PS- Download Meitun for SUPER CHEAP movie tickets and other awesome deals!
2. Online Shopping: Taobao and JD
If you love Amazon, you’ll be obsessed with Taobao and JD!! Both of these online shopping sites are actually incredible.
I use JD.com (Jing Dong) to order high-quality products like electronics, appliances, and things that tend to be on the more expensive side. JD does a lot of quality control and has great return policies. Think of it like ordering directly from the Amazon store. I’ve bought a GoPro, Rode Podcaster Microphone, cat food, and really nice rice cookers, pans, and more from JD.
Want a bowl that allows you to cut lettuce and veggies for salad? I bought one on Taobao for about $1 USD. Want a nice desk for your room? I bought one for $15 USD. Want potted plants? I bought those too.
While you can access these websites in English by using Google Chrome’s auto-translate, I also like having the apps because I find them super user-friendly (even if they are in Chinese), and I can use them to track my orders and find old orders much more easily than the website.
Again, just have a Chinese friend or coworker help you set up an account.
3. Bikeshare: Mobike and Ofo
Bikeshare in China is AMAZING. Seriously, you can’t even walk five feet without seeing a bike for rent. I love how convenient the system is, and that I can literally leave my bike wherever I want! I’ve grabbed a bike at my subway stop and taken it home for literal pennies. I can grab a bike when I’m out and about to get from a shop to a restaurant that’s not quite within walking distance – it’s amazing!
These apps are great because all you need to do is put a deposit (usually 200 RMB) into the app, create an account and you can get a bike whenever wherever! The app will give you an unlock code, and then you just pay for the bike once you’re done. I’ve literally never paid more than $1 USD.
Want to know the best part? These apps are in English!
Do You Need More Help Getting To China?
Whether you’re moving to China or heading there for a week or two, the PRC can be super intimidating. Thankfully I’ve created a few awesome resources to help you get started!
Travelers: Get Your Ultimate China Survival Guide!
I’ve created a 6,000-word FREE ebook survival guide for your trip to China! We’ll cover everything from possible itineraries, to food, to getting around without speaking Chinese and more!
Future Expats: Free Teach Abroad Mini Course!
Do you want to work in China but don’t know where to start? I’ve created an incredible free 5-Lesson mini-course for all you future China expats to help you get started!
Join My Facebook Community!
Whether you’re a current teacher or just want to teach in China in the future, come join my China Teach Abroad Community Facebook Group! This is where all the action happens and I’m (quite literally) in there every single day answering questions, posting awesome info, and encouraging meetups!
What Do You Think?
Did I miss any apps? Did you learn anything new? Which apps will you be downloading? Be sure to let me know in a comment below!
Seriously, I’m always checking back for new comments and questions, so if you leave a comment below, I’ll be sure to get back to you ASAP!