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11 seriously useful smartphone apps for China

Make your time in China easier with these essential apps. 

If you've been in China for a while you might take for granted things you've learned long ago that make your life easier. How to deal with your cellphone company or bank, how to order food, rent a bike, or shop online, for example.



I remember when I first moved to Shenzhen I needed to buy some small item like a bottle opener or a plunger, and I couldn't find it. One day I asked a friend who had been in China for years for help:

"Oh, you know, you can get those everywhere."
"No you can't!" I replied in half desperation, "I've been looking all over for a week! Please just tell me exactly where to buy it!"

Today I would immediately go online to Taobao, find the item, pay for it with Alipay, and have it shipped to my house within a couple of days while I went about my other business.

Some people just need the simplest of information to really make a difference in their day-to-day life.

Sometimes it takes meeting a newcomer to China to remind me of my past self who couldn't find that plunger  - then I realize there are many people who are in the same position that I was.

So with that said, I want to bring it back to basics for this post and highlight a few key apps everyone should have on their smartphone. If you've been here a while, these won't be any great revelation, but they're great for beginners!

This isn't a detailed tutorial on how to use each one. I just want to put these apps on your radar and you can go investigate them. There are plenty of great user guides online. 

WeChat 


For everything. This one should go without saying (you're reading this on WeChat after all, aren't you?) The first app you should install when you get to China. Messaging, voice/video chat, mobile payment, the list goes on and on.

Zhifubao/Alipay


Mobile payment. The alternative mobile payment method to WeChat. Add your bank card and pay for purchases online or in person. With this and WeChat, you almost never need cash in China.

Pleco



Dictionary. The best smartphone Chinese-English dictionary I've ever used. Actually, the best Chinese-English dictionary period (I wish there was a web interface). Indispensible for Chinese learners at any level. One of my favourite features is the ability to copy and paste large chunks of Chinese text into Pleco and then tap on any word for an instant pop-up definition/translation.

Mobike/Ofo


Public bike sharing. Great for solving the last mile problem in bigger cities. The quality of the bikes varies so not ideal for a longer commute, but great for short trips. When you're finished, you can leave the bike almost anywhere on the side of the road in a designated area. You should probably get both apps as you could find yourself in a sea of yellow Ofos when all you have is Mobike.

Didi



Ride hailing. The alternative to Uber, and now in English! Although the driver might call you, in which case I hope you can speak some Mandarin! Try using the pre-set green dot virtual taxi stops in the app to avoid the confusion of trying to explain where you are.

Baidu Maps

Map/transit directions. All in Chinese, but if you get a someone to help you with it once or twice, you'll get the hang of it. I have illiterate (at least in China) friends who use it all the time for transit directions.

Ctrip


Travel. You can book airplane and train tickets, hotels, etc. through Ctrip. I actually prefer the mobile interface to the website version. The app might only be in Chinese, though.

Ele ma/Meituan
  
Food delivery and so much more. They can deliver your water jugs, toiletries, etc.

Taobao


Online shopping. You can find just about anything on Taobao and its sister site, TMall. There are other online retailers too like Jing Dong (JD.com) but Taobao is still the king. If you can't read Chinese, there's also a third-party English app called Bao Palsthat some of my friends swear by.


There are many more useful apps for music and video streaming, restaurant reviews, event listings, buying/selling second hand items, etc. but I wanted to keep the list short and focused. If I left out your favorite killer app, let me know!