5 Apps You Need to Download Before Visiting China

Quincy Smith ·

About the author:

Quincy is the founder of ESL Authority, a site that focuses on making it easy for anyone to teach English abroad.  He’s been in China for the past 4 years and currently calls Shanghai home.


Convenience is king in China and I am consistently impressed with the number of services I can access strictly by using my phone - it’s taken nearly 4 years of living and traveling, but I finally have a core group of apps that can assist with almost every facet of my daily life.


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(photo by SY)


No matter if you’re backpacking, on a business trip, or simply teaching English in China, the following 5 apps (+1 bonus) will help keep you fed, help you get around any city, and help keep you connected to both China and the outside world.


Wechat

Wechat might be the best app I have ever used and is pretty much a necessity when coming to China thanks to its ability to:


Connect with friends/social media
Pay for food and groceries
Order and pay for taxis
Order and pay for online goods
Send money to friends or split bills

You can set up Wechat outside of China before you arrive and even add money to your online wallet using a service like Swapsy.  Once you arrive, you can connect with people or businesses by scanning their QR code - this will allow you to chat with individuals (or see their social media feed) or access a business’s details like a menu or gym schedule.


Microsoft Translate

After trying numerous translation apps during my time in China, this is the one that I continue to use almost daily for one reason: it allows me to take pictures with the app and translates them on the screen.

This is invaluable for places like restaurants or salons where you can’t read the menu - simply take a picture and the translate text is placed over the image.

I also love this app for its ability to work without a VPN which can speed things up when you’re in a rush at the store trying to find out what milk to buy.


Didi

Didi is the Uber of China and actually bought Uber’s China division in the past year or so.  Now they have a great English app that allows you to summon various types of cars, communicate with the driver using translated messages within the app (like “My location is correct, please meet me ASAP”) and even pay for rides using your Wechat account.

You will need a Chinese number to use Didi but once you get everything setup it really is the easiest way to get around Chinese cities.


JD

For anyone living in China long term, I’ve found JD to be the easiest way to order goods for your apartment thanks to the ability to either pay ‘Cash on Delivery’ or with Wechat.  In comparison, JD’s main competitor, Taobao, allows neither and can be a headache to use.

The main issue with JD is that it is all in Chinese and can be a bit intimidating when you first open the app.  My tip is to translate the item you’re looking for using the aforementioned Microsoft Translator app and simply copy the Chinese term into the JD search box.  It may take a bit of back and forth (for example, it preferred “plate” instead of “dish” when looking for kitchen goods) but it does a great job of suggesting other items and allowing you to browse by picture alone once you find the correct term.

Here is the guide I used when first getting started with JD - it does a great job on how to use the app. (https://www.techinasia.com/jd-mall-english-guide-how-to-tutorial)

JD also does food and groceries through partner Yi Hao Dian - the app is very similar and it’s an easy way to get some of your perishables delivered.


VPN

The Great Firewall is an unfortunate reality when living in China and can prevent you from accessing sites like Facebook, Reddit, and even the New York Times.  Having a VPN allows you to mask your location and therefore get around most of the restrictions (I say most because I’ve never been able to get Netflix to work).

I’ve used Astrill for the past 3 years and have been incredibly happy with it - they have settings designed just for people in China and both the mobile + desktop apps are simple to use.

If you think you will need a VPN I recommend getting it set up before you arrive as many are blocked on the app store once you’re in the country.

Also, VPNs are always worth paying for - there are lots of free VPNs out there but I’ve found them to be unreliable and inconsistent.


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(photo by SY)


Bonus: Bon App

I regrettably only discovered Bon App this past year but it has become a must-have when trying to find places to eat - think of it as the Yelp for food in China.  The app is entirely in English and allows you to filter restaurants and bars by proximity, whether or not they have a deal going on, and even by who delivers (and place an order through the app!).

The downside is that it only works in major cities so if you’re not in Shanghai, Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, or Suzhou then you’re out of luck.