With over 25 years of experience in China, we understand how crucial it is to come prepared for your program. Downloading these apps before you arrive will help avoid many obstacles and challenges. From communication and language, to food and travel, we’ve selected the top 10 most useful apps you should download.
WeChat should be the very first app you download when planning a trip to China. Almost everyone you meet in China will use it as a sole means of communication. It’s most useful for those staying in China for a longer period of time, since most coworkers/Chinese friends will insist on using it as a main form of communication, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone go to China without it. WeChat is essentially all social medias and messaging apps balled up into one, which is why you shouldn’t be without it on your trip.
Baidu & Baidu Maps
Although you can get VPN to access your google and google maps, it can be risky to rely on it 100% of the time. You should download Baidu and Baidu maps, which are like China’s version of Google and Google Maps, and get comfortable with them before your trip. Being familiar with these apps will make you much more self-sufficient, and help you to avoid the very scary situation of being lost in a foreign country. Besides working as just a backup for Google, we find that Baidu maps is usually more accurate in China than Google Maps, so if you it really is worth the time you put in.
Because Google and Facebook are blocked in China, most foreigners in China use VPN to regain access to those apps that are unavailable in China. It can be a complete and utter godsend — since without it you’re unable to use Facebook, Instagram, Google, Spotify, or any other Western apps you might use. There is a lot of different VPN companies out there, and Express VPN is the one we always recommend. The price is competitive and it’s extremely reliable.
While it might seem like a pain to have it as an extra expense, it is without a doubt worth every penny. (The only problem Express VPN does not solve is access to online streaming websites, like Netflix and Hulu. This isn’t usually a big deal for short term travel in China, but those on a program for a longer period of time might want to consider a more expensive VPN provider that can access streaming websites). https://startuplivingchina.com/best-vpn-for-china/ will usually have discount codes listed for the various providers.
Timeout (Beijing, Hong Kong, Macau, Shanghai, Taipei/Taiwan)
Timeout is one of the best travel websites for Asia. It’s our number one recommendation for finding restaurants, bars, concerts, and shopping while staying in a city. It has extremely good recommendations and is always up to date, which is important in China, where places can close and open faster than most blogs can keep up. Timeout can offer some alternatives to the basic tourist locations and help you find more local/underground locations, something that a lot of young travellers in China are constantly searching for.
Ofo – Biking
These rent-a-bike apps are much less complicated to explain than they used to be, since they can be found in a lot of Western cities now. Every Chinese city has tons and tons of these rentable bikes, and they are a really effective and inexpensive way of getting around. So long as you are comfortable biking with traffic and navigating your way, it’s one of our top recommendations for traveling through bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing. There is a bunch of different companies, we recommend Ofo because they are popular and reliable, and the app is very foreigner friendly.
Formally known as the infamous C-trip, this well-known China travel company has recently rebranded and updated their services. Trip.com offers a lot of different services, from plane and train tickets to tours, hotel and car services. Because they are marketed towards foreigners, the prices can be a little bit on the high side, which is why we only recommend a few of the services they provide. It’s not necessary to buy plane tickets from them, but it is a great place to buy train tickets, as well as book tours (Although I would say that Airbnb probably has more competitive pricing and variety). It is one of the most frequently used apps for those traveling in China to buy train tickets, since the process can be daunting to foreigners without it.
Metro China Subway
China has one of the best metro systems we have ever seen. It’s the way most locals get around, and it’s a great way to save money since the tickets are cheap. This app is beautifully straightforward, containing the maps of all major Chinese cities (including Hong Kong and Taipei). You can also put in the stops you want to get in and off at, and the app will tell you the cost of the ride and how many transfers you might need to make. While Chinese metro systems are usually fairly uncomplicated, this app makes it even simpler. Learning the metro in China is one of the best recommendations we can make for first time travellers, and this app is a huge help.
Airbnb / Booking.com
It’s nice to be able to use apps and companies you’re familiar with when you can in China, since the amount of things that feel foreign and unfamiliar can be overwhelming at times. For booking hotels and places to stay when you’re travelling on the weekends or days off, there’s not really any need to look beyond Airbnb or Booking.com. They have listings in nearly any city you can imagine at a wide range of prices. Airbnb can also be a pretty inexpensive alternative for longer stays, especially in the bigger cities like Shanghai and Beijing, and also gives you an opportunity to have a more unique stay.
Booking.com and Airbnb are also another great place to find events and tours while in China. Your Airbnb host usually recommend various activities if you ask, and will help you buy and set them up during your stay.
Pleco is the most useful for those who are learning Chinese and trying to make the most of it during their time in China. It is like Google translate, but a million times more accurate, and updated with modern slang and vocabulary. Those who don’t speak or learn Chinese can also make use of its services, especially when trying to decipher restaurant menus or talk with locals. Where google translate falls short, Pleco almost always is able to pick up the slack.
Ele.me – Hungry now?
Ele.me is an app that offers fast online food delivery service, a must on those days you don’t feel like cooking. Millions of local Chinese people use this app to order lunch and dinner! Despite the app being in Chinese, you don’t need to necessarily be proficient in Chinese to order from this app. Just follow the instructions from this blog post. There is a huge variety of dishes to choose from and they also range from drinks and dessert, to snacks and full meals.