Whether it’s temporary or permanent, moving abroad to China can be an overwhelming wave encompassing culture, food and language. To prepare yourself beforehand, download this starter pack of essential apps to start your acclimation to the Chinese lifestyle.
Lay the groundwork by downloading WeChat and a good VPN to both your phone and laptop. For staying updated with current events, accessing social media, a reliable VPN is needed – I used Express VPN and didn’t have any major issues. Inevitably, with a VPN you’ll find the internet connection frustratingly slow at times (although forces a great detox from social media; the circle buffer of death appears so often you just give up), which is probably an issue with VPN providers alike. With increasing government crackdown on VPNs, it’s best not to rely on the free one you found in the app store, but purchase one instead.
Meanwhile, WeChat is how you’ll keep in touch with anyone in China. From group chats with friends, work assignments and transactions, WeChat is the Swiss army knife of the app world. In fact, the prevalent use of WeChat in business environments is one of the downsides to working in China. Blurring the line between work and personal time, it can become pretty impossible to escape the office. Interestingly, read receipts aren’t a service WeChat provides, citing the importance of user privacy (really.) for the absence of such a feature.
You’ve downloaded the basics, let’s move on to specifics. A favourite amongst Chinese language learners, Pleco is a great dictionary app that works offline for situations where only one word is needed – points at phone: ‘salt?’ (salt is a mysteriously rare condiment, even in fast food chains). For trickier times, Baidu Translate (Apple, Android) remains superior than its Google (Apple, Android) counterpart and is also usable without a VPN – according to some friends, using a VPN doubles the amount of data used. While no translation app is yet perfect, I found that Baidu churns out somewhat less mangled translations.
For navigation, I found Apple maps a great way to navigate around the city, with input options in either English and Chinese. For those without an iPhone, Baidu Maps is an alternative navigation option, but unfortunately does not have an English interface. Maps.me (Apple, Android) offers downloadable city maps for offline use, but from past experience have found it useless for public transport information.
Another way to navigate around the city is via bike-sharing apps. Mobike and Ofo are the two major players in this arena and at time of writing, is basically free to use. You’ll need a bank account to put down the 250 RMB deposit, or alternatively find a willing friend to hijack their account.
For monolingual foodies, Bon App is a great way to navigate your surroundings by landmark restaurants. With English reviews, menus, price-points and Wi-Fi passwords, deciding where to eat becomes simultaneously easier and harder. While I found a lot of great restaurants and cafes using the app, it is slightly skewed to western tastes and cuisine. If your Mandarin is good enough, Dianping is popularly used by locals and presents a much more reliable indicator of a good eatery, not to mention you’ll find cheaper restaurants here too!
Keeping with food, there will most definitely come a time of pure hunger and laziness, wherein the only option is to order in. China excels in this arena, but for those with sub-par Mandarin skills, navigation of Chinese apps may prove a difficult challenge. Luckily, Sherpa’s is one especially for expats, with an English interface and the option to pay in cash. Food options are not as extensive when compared to ordering from Chinese apps, although will provide a good variety of Western cuisine. Due to this, ordering in will be slightly more expensive than eating out and a delivery cost of around 15rmb is added on top.
By no means a comprehensive list of apps you’ll find useful in China, these make up the fundamental building blocks. Let me know in the comments what apps you use!