Before I moved to China, I did a lot of research as to what apps/technology were commonly used there. China is way ahead of the curve in using technology for their daily life. Still, I wasn’t fully prepared for how much I would rely on my phone. Back home, I used my phone to communicate or use social media’ leaving it unattended for hours with no effect on my life. Now? I barely let my phone out of my sight because I need it for practically everything! Hopefully this can help those get a better understanding of what to expect when moving to China. It is a lot to take in and preparation for the changes to come is key!
Before I get started on apps, I wanted to talk about your actual phone first. Will your current phone work in China? I owned a Samsung phone in America and was perfectly happy with it, but we were unable to unlock it. I had other concerns that the Google-based phone would not work here. Google is not able to be used in China and is blocked by the infamous Great Chinese Firewall. I had legitimate concerns that I would not be able to download apps once in China. Because of this, I decided to buy a refurbished 64 GB iPhone 6 from Best Buy in the states. It has worked great here in China! I have been able to use my Chinese SIM card (200 rmb each) and have had no problems.
My husband on the other hand, had other problems regarding his device. We took his Verizon Samsung phone and got it unlocked. They assured us that the phone would work with a Chinese SIM now that the device itself was unlocked. Once we got here, however, we found that was not the case. The SIM card did not work with his phone and we found ourselves without the means to communicate with eachother for the first few weeks in China. We eventually purchased him a Chinese phone for a little over $100 and he really likes it (although many apps come in Chinese only)! He can’t get on any of the apps he is used to in America, but he also uses his other phone on wifi to play his games. My advice is to check in advance if your phone will work in China, especially if it will be your only means of communication to family and friends back home!
WeChat- Free Messaging and Calling App
Once you are in China, you will discover that WeChat is single-handedly the most important app you will use in China. This app does EVERYTHING! The Chinese were geniuses when they created this thing. It video calls and messages friends for free (also translates messages from your Chinese friends), pays your utilities, allows you to pay at the register by scanning a code, and also serves as their social media. It is so simple to use it is no wonder why 1 billion people use it. No one carries around cash because even the tiniest food stall has a QR code hanging on the wall for easy payment. Meet someone cool at the store or in line? Scan their WeChat code and instantly become friends on the app! No one exchanges phone numbers anymore, it is all through code. There are so many more things you can do through this app, I am just listing the most used. I have even purchased train tickets through WeChat. Why don’t all countries have this??
I am sure by now you are chomping at the bit to download this app and get started. But slow down because you are going to find that to be a little difficult. You can download the app, but to begin using WeChat you need to be scanned by someone that already has WeChat. If you have a Chinese number, then you need to be scanned by someone who has had the app one month. If you have a foreign number, you need to be scanned by someone that has had WeChat six months. Worse than that, the WeChat user can only scan in one person in every three months, new users can not scan in new members at all. My family and I had to find strangers on the street to scan us to get us started on the app! This makes WeChat much more exclusive than your typical app and used almost solely in China. But once you have it, you will be amazed by how convenient it is to use!
DiDi- Transportation Company
Didi is essentially the Uber of mainland China. The app is extremely easy to use and is available in English to make it just as valuable for foreigners as the locals. What is different between Didi and Uber is that Didi allows you to pick which kind of driving service you would like. There is a regular taxi, Express, Luxe, and Premier. Express is typically your most common name brand cars and regular drivers and taxis being the official marked cars. Luxe and Premier are more expensive and offer more benefits. Luxe is short for luxury ride. You will typically get picked up by a suave Mercedes or BMW, but this ride typically has to be scheduled in advance. Didi Premier is the fanciest of the options, with little extras like white gloved drivers, water bottles…the one I was in was complete with a fake plant! Especially living in a new city and country, Didi is invaluable. Like WeChat, it can also translate messages with your driver so communication about pickup is easy.
Not only is the app wonderful for getting around but it also helps you to learn the layout of the city! Didi has its moments where it is the only way to travel. Other times though, it is much easier and cheaper to get around by subway. But figuring out which stops or exits you need to get off to where you need to go is tough. Not to mention, Google Maps are not very accurate in China and many other maps are only in Chinese. That is where Didi app comes in! You go about putting in your destination just like usual! But instead of ordering the car, you just zoom in and see where the nearest subway stop and exit are! Once I have gotten off the subway and reached the exit, I type where I want to go into Didi again and use the GPS to find my way to my end point. It has been a lifesaver living in a new city. You can check out my post on Beijing subways if you would like to learn more!
Taobao- Online Shopping
Although Amazon is available in China, it hasn’t reached the popularity that Taobao has. Taobao is the world’s biggest e-commerce website and for good reason. I don’t really like online shopping too much, but there is no doubting how convenient taboo is. I once broke my only iPhone charger at school and was freaking out because I had no extras at home (and I use it for everything, including getting home). My friend said “No problem!” and ordered me a new cord. I asked when it would get to the school and she said it should be around 1pm (it was 11am). I was confused and asked if she meant the next day..nope! It was there 1.5 hours later and the quality was better than my original cord. Even better, with delivery the cost still came out to only $7. I am fairly sure I wouldn’t have received it that cheap or that fast with Amazon back home. We also used Taobao to buy our Harry Potter Halloween costumes. I spent about $50 bucks to get a Ravenclaw robe, scarf, socks, keychain, pin. Once again, I was stunned by how good the quality was! I expected a black sheet with a patch sewn in like most Halloween costumes. I took a look at the tag and finally understood why, it was the EXACT costume they sell for over $200 at Orlando’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter! They make them here in China and then ship them to Orlando.
Like Amazon, they also do discount days where almost everything is on sale. They don’t call it Cyber Monday here though, it is known as Singles Day. It takes place on November 11th (11/11) and most people wait to buy their big items until that day! I wasn’t planning on buying anything because we were just moving and I didn’t need to spend money. But when I saw the deals, I was seduced into splurging on a 55-inch screen TV! It didn’t help that my boss is an enabler (Hi Jamie!). Because it is their busiest day of the year, there was a wait time of 2 weeks but we got it! Taobao is really great for clothing and electronics too. But I would definitely get the help of a local the first few times you use it. There are others that may be more user friendly, like baopals.com and JD.
Meituan- Food Delivery
Honestly, this is my favorite app for obvious reasons. Because Meituan is 100% Chinese, it was a bit difficult to use at first. However, it quickly became worth it when I could order all of the food I wanted straight to my door cheaply. Local and western food is easy to order, you can find familiar names such as Burger King, Papa Johns, McDonalds, etc. My only warning would be to use another phone to translate what you are about to order. Imagine having a hungry family waiting on dinner and finding out you accidentally ordered two small personal pizzas! I am lucky to have my husband’s translator app (will talk about that later) to hold over my phone and figure out what it is before I order! The food is always here within 45 minutes and I have NEVER experienced a problem with them delivering the wrong food or my order being wrong unless I ordered wrong. I have recently started to also order my groceries this way and I love not having to carry my heavy 2-liters anymore!
If you are concerned about using a Chinese-only app then there are other options for you to use. JSS is another food delivery app that you can use that is English-capable. You can even call customer service on the app and speak to an English-speaking person if you have questions or concerns. However, that all comes at a price. I have had to pay as high as 45 rmb for delivery with JSS, with Meituan I have paid as low as 7 rmb. I told my Chinese local friends how much I was paying with JSS and they laughed at me, saying they could get a meal and delivery for less than that fee. They signed me up with Meituan and taught me how to use it, I never looked back. Although, I have heard JSS has lowered their delivery prices to 9 rmb within 3 km since COVID made food delivery even more popular.
Moving to China is intimidating enough, not knowing the language can make things much more difficult. When I am at the store or ordering food at a restaurant, I know that 90% of the time there will not be an English speaker available. I have been able to rely on one app to translate conversations, written text, and even someone’s handwritten notes (if they preferred to write in Chinese characters). My husband and I downloaded the Chinese Simplified language from Google Translate and I don’t need a VPN to make it work (you will need one to download it). We are able to have conversations with the locals with almost no issues. We are able to take a picture of a Chinese menu and then have the whole picture translated into English.
It has made things so much easier! We use it all the time when ordering food off the Meituan app, as I mentioned it before. I also have a Chinese to English dictionary app on my phone called Pleco. Your phone doesn’t need to have cellular or WiFi to make it work, but honestly I don’t use it much. Google Translate is too convenient to use many different apps. Although I do use Pleco sometimes to test my knowledge on Chinese words and learn proper pronunciations.
VPN- Virtual Private Network
I mentioned VPNs before, but I thought I should go into a little more detail if you are planning on visiting or moving here. The Chinese are a little more strict on what content they allow their citizens to view on the internet. You will discover that you will not be able to use Facebook, Instagram, Google, Youtube, Messenger, Netflix, Hulu, Gmail, etc. China has their own versions of these programs and so they make it impossible to use the Western kind without the use of a VPN. A VPN throws your IP address to whichever country you want so that you can view the sites that are available in that country. There are a few free VPNs, but the ones that work reliably are usually $120-150 per year. I have used both ExpressVPN and Astrill this past year and I am definitely a bigger fan of Astrill. Express has become so well-known (especially by the Chinese government) that sometimes it can go a week or so without working. This can be troubling especially since I usually contact my family members with platforms that require a VPN.
If you are spending any serious amount of time here, a VPN is necessary. Check your options but I give Astrill a ringing endorsement. After talking to several other teachers, they all choose it too. If you are not wanting to shell out the money then keep in mind that if you are coming here to teach, your school may have a VPN already. This is only in a small percentage of schools, but if they have a significant amount of foreign staff then there is a possibilty. Ask your school beforehand and it can help influence your decision. Either way, you will be effectively cut off from the rest of the world without a VPN.
IQAir AirVisual- Air Quality App
Sometimes, air quality is a concern in China. Especially for children and those with asthma, it is extremely important for them to know how much pollution is in the air. AirVisual can measure CO2 levels all over China and the world. I typically use it when I notice it is looking a little muggy outside and I can’t tell whether it is fog or smog. The app will actually tell you whether or not the air is unhealthy or bad enough for sensitive groups. Then I can ensure that my family and I are wearing our filtered masks before we go out for the day. It also helps that the app separates by cities district to give you a better idea of air in your area. It gives you a 7-day weather forecast too so that saves a step. Maybe not everyone will use this app, but I thought it was best to make it available for those that need it.
Mobike- Bike Sharing App
There are bikes EVERYWHERE in China because they are such a cheap mode of transportation. I saw something similar in the states about six months before I moved to China, but nothing near this scale. You will find these bikes near subways stations, outside malls, and next to bus stops. Mobike is one of the many businesses currently doing this, but their bikes are distinguishable with their orange and silver colors. There are many different bike apps but I have only used Mobike, mostly because Mobike’s menu is available in English which makes it all the more convenient. Just scan the code on the bike and then you go! It costs less than a few rmb and if one bike doesn’t look safe and reliable, just pick another one! Like I said, they are everywhere and a great source of daily exercise.
Skype- Calling Internationally
One problem I did not anticipate was calling internationally. I had a problem with a bank account back home and needed to contact them immediately. I quickly discovered that my Chinese phone plan did not allow international calls (even to the bank’s international number) and I was pretty stuck on what to do. My enabler Jamie told me that he used Skype to make those kind of calls and it was free! I already had Skype downloaded on my computer from interviews, so I plugged in the number and was so relieved when it worked. It was such a lifesaver and I have used Skype to contact American Airlines and my banks on a number of occasions.
From what I can tell, 1-800 numbers are free to use on Skype but you may need to pay money for personal phone calls. I have had other family members just create a Skype account if they don’t have FaceTime (Apple products) and it is another easy way to keep track of family members. We have been here 8 months and I have not had to put any money on my Skype account so it has been a great help. I use it every week, but keep in mind you will need a VPN to make it work.
Alipay- Online and Mobile Payments
I don’t personally have this app yet, but that might change at the rate things are going. Alipay is another online and mobile payment platform that I consider closely related to PayPal. While WeChat is still the most popular, I am beginning to see more and more Alipay signs wherever I go. In fact, my grocery store has those scan-it-yourself machines that are common in the states. I went to use them because the lines were significantly shorter and found that the machines only accepted Alipay. This is one of those apps that you may want to sign up for if you are only visiting China or won’t be getting a Chinese bank account. As I said, I don’t have an Alipay account but that may have to change soon if I want to keep up with Chinese technology!