Nowadays everyone is glued to their phones and it’s no different in China, the mobile phone is an indispensable tool and something we just cannot live without. Hands up if it’s one of the last things you see at night and the first thing you look at in the morning? I knew it! Coming to China, a very different country with a different culture and language, your phone becomes even more vital as it is one thing that makes you feel like you’re at home and keeps you connected to it.
So you’re coming to China. No VPN? Don’t worry! To make sure you settle down as quickly as possible we have come up with our list of useful apps you should use whilst you’re in China, ones that you can use without a VPN on your phone. Let’s get started.
WeChat is literally a one-stop social media platform for absolutely everything, and I’m not exaggerating. It’s one that you need to integrate yourself into Chinese society. If you’re planning on staying here for the long haul, it’s worth installing. Once you get used to its various functions you will find that it is just so damn convenient and useful.
Fun fact: In 2018 WeChat’s monthly active users passed the 1 billion threshold putting its company, Tencent Holdings, above Facebook as one of the most valuable companies in the worlhttps: //www.businessinsider.com/wechat-has-hit-1-billion-monthly-active-users-2018-3
Although not always completely accurate this app is nevertheless a lifesaver, you can use this without data and a VPN too. Though some functions do require a VPN, in terms of translating text it’s pretty useful I have to say. Without any grasp of the Chinese language it is likely you will encounter situations where you can’t get what you’re trying to say across and are unable to communicate with a native Chinese.
This app will go some way in helping. When you walk into a restaurant and you can’t read the menu and there are no juicy and succulent pictures what do you do? Well, you can flip out your phone, go to Google Translate and use the camera function. The function is a little gimmicky and has some issues but you can get the gist of most listings on the menu i.e. “rice”, “noodles”, “pork”, “fish”, etc.
Better still you can scan an image of the menu or whatever your looking to read and then translate it. When you go to the doctor or pharmacy you can just type in the sentence “I have a sore throat’ and let Google Translate do the rest then show this to the doctor. Lifesaver! Better still, learn the Mandarin Chinese language.
Fun fact: According to K-International’s Language blog, ‘Google Translate’ translates more than 100 billion words per day.
If you’re finding it difficult to order food in a Chinese restaurant, there is another option besides Google Translate. For convenience and ease you can just download the E Le Me app. E Le Me literally translates as ‘Are you hungry?’ in Chinese and this app allows you to order takeout food and get it delivered straight to your address. This is the lazy option.
However one thing to take note is that E Le Me does not have an English version, so you will need a Chinese friend to help you get used to using it and then familiarise yourself with the steps and then hey presto. There will definitely be those succulent pictures on this app. That being said, we would recommend you not to do this too often and also not to buy too many pots of instant noodles as we don’t want you to miss out on all the original and delicious Chinese cuisine that is out there.
Be brave! Eating well in China doesn’t have to be expensive.
*Note: If the delivery guy/girl is not exactly sure of your address you will get a phone call. So make sure your address is correct and accurate when you’re inputting it on the app. Otherwise brush up on your Mandarin Chinese speaking.
Fun fact: In 2018 E Le Me was bought by Alibaba Group who started Taobao (see later) and who are owned by one of the richest men in China — Jack Ma.
Getting lost in China, it happens, you don’t have to be afraid. I landed in Chengdu, and the first full day I was here, I walked nearly to death from 9am in the morning till 10pm in the evening moving from one inner city tourist hotspot to another then finally spending hours trying to find the right bus stop back home. I got back eventually.
That was literally the first full day and was a little disorienting. I have to say that once you settle down after a couple of weeks everything will be fine, trust me. As long as you have downloaded a few map apps. Google Maps is the obvious choice but unusable without a VPN. WeChat also has a map and includes the very useful sharing location function so that a friend can find you.
Maps.me is also worth considering but Baidu Maps is probably the best one with the most accurate maps, although it is all in Chinese you need to relax, all you got to do is look around and match the Chinese characters from the map to the street and there you go. Good way to improve your Chinese reading too. Enormously helpful when trying to find your way to or from your accommodation.
Fun fact: Baidu Maps is so detailed that you can also see the interior of famous Chinese tourist hotspots such as the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven etc, mapped out.
China’s equivalent to Amazon, Taobao is an online shopping website and the biggest ecommerce site in the world. Whatever you need you can order from Taobao and at unbelievably great and affordable prices, right to your doorstep. Again though, Taobao does not have an English version so you may need a Chinese friend to help you navigate but if you have the Google Chrome web browser on your phone you can access Taobao that way and translate it.
Well worth doing in order to reach some cheap and handy goods. In no time you will spend all your money away with the tap of your phone.
*Small tip here, don’t let anyone tell you Google Chrome web browser doesn’t work in China, yes, it’s a fact that many Google products are blocked in China but you can still use Google Chrome to go on all sites which are not blocked, i.e. not the Google search engine.
Fun Fact: Taobao is the 8th most visited website according to Alexa. https://www.alexa.com/topsites
Especially if you’re in the city, transportation is usually very convenient in most of the big cities in China with metro and bus stations plus share bikes. You can always hail a taxi too, local taxi drivers are very friendly, you can get some Chinese practice in there too. But don’t forget about China’s version of Uber, called ‘Didi’, they even have an English version for their app.
Very convenient indeed especially if your claustrophobic and need to get somewhere quickly but trying to avoid the crowded Chinese rush hour period.
*Like E Le Me, the Didi driver may give you a phone call if they can’t find you, so make sure you’re standing in the right spot and lookout for the right license plate of the car that matches to that on your phone screen.
Fun fact: According to the Business Insider, as of 2016, Didi completes 1.5 million trips each day in China
There’s no two ways about it as a foreigner in China you will ride the metro here, it is not only convenient but also very cheap. The metro links in most major cities in China are great, you can get from A to Z very quickly. Here in Chengdu the metro is literally brand new and expanding with new lines, and dare I say it one of the most convenient.
Anyway, one of the best apps to download is Metro China Subway (Aka Metro Man), this app is useful in any major city in China from Beijing to Shanghai to Shenzhen and Chengdu, so great for travelling. You can easily map out your metro journey routes, choose which line and metro station you’re starting from then where you’re getting off, it will let you know the best route to get there, the train times, how much it costs, and how long it takes, taking into account line transfers too.
Also with a super cool name like ‘Metro Man’, it should be one of the first apps you download before you get to China.
Fun fact: As of 2018 China has a Subway in 31 cities with a total of 133 lines covering 2700 miles. 20 of those systems and 100 of those lines were built in the past decade.
Stats from citylab.com
On a budget? Want to save some money and not purchase a VPN? Then you need to download and install these apps beforehand as the Google Play Store and Apple Store are both blocked by the Great Firewall of China. There are Chinese alternatives app stores though such as ‘Tencent MyApp’.
If you’re not willing to embrace Chinese culture and Chinese way of life to the fullest or you’re not interested in a lengthy social media detox in the far east haha, then I’m going to be honest, you will need to download a Virtual Private Network (VPN) whilst you’re in China.
That is if you really need to feed your Facebook, Instagram and YouTube addiction, or you’re used to using Google for absolutely everything. Otherwise you can use the Baidu search engine as a different option but it will be limited. Most of these apps are or have aspects that function as communication tools to help you cross that language barrier.
So we just want to say you can make things easier for yourself just by learning Chinese! You can do it online too. If you need any help we’re right here to do so at Instant Mandarin.
Well, that’s it, here’s our seven, based on our experience. Do you agree with our list? Please let us know below if we’ve missed anything out.
Last but not least, we just want say, you are or will be in China! You shouldn’t be glued to your phone screen, you should be out there, seeing all that China has to offer, “sail away from the safe harbour, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Just getting into Mark Twain mode at the end hehe.