China is enormous and confusing, particularly if you don’t speak the language. When I first came here as a tourist and non-Chinese speaker my iPhone stayed at the bottom of my suitcase. Big mistake. If I’d known about these 10 apps my journey would have been a lot easier. If you’re living in China or planning a trip here soon, make sure these free apps are loaded onto your smartphone.
Most online or smartphone dictionaries are dreadful. Pleco, on the other hand, is a gift to all Chinese language learners. The dictionary part is superb, and you can even draw characters onto your phone and Pleco will translate them for you. This is a lifesaver when eating in small Chinese restaurants, as sometimes it’s nice to know what you’re eating before you order (this feature costs extra, but the dictionary is free).
Baffled by characters on a menu or a street sign? WayGo is a visual translator that reads Chinese characters and translates them into English for you. It’s a great way to navigate the mysterious world of Chinese characters if you’re completely new to the language. If you’re a serious language learner, however, Pleco is the way to go.
Apple Maps (Not Kidding)
Apple Maps has had its fair share of bad press, but in China, it comes in handy. Apple Maps in China are better than Apple Maps in the US. The information is super detailed, and even surprisingly accurate given China’s constantly changing cities. At my University in Chengdu, for example, the app even showed the locations of various classrooms on campus.
China’s railway network can be intimidating to the outsider. The “China Trains” app will help you plan your journey online so you know the quickest and cheapest way to get from A to B. You can check the availability of tickets (things sell out fast in this country, especially during public holidays) and connect with experienced travellers to get transit advice and insider tips.
Many Chinese cities are blessed with smart, fast and clean metros that make getting around and dodging traffic a cinch. Explore Metro’s Shanghai and Beijing apps will help you figure out how to get from where you are to where you need to be, without spending hours staring at enormous maps in the crowded metro station.=
The answer to China’s Uber. Didi is essential to getting around in China. While oftentimes cheaper than a traditional taxi, you’ll be thanking yourself that you downloaded Didi when you’re rolling back from Found 158 at 3 AM and a taxi driver is trying to charge you 300 RMB to drive home.
In Shanghai? Download Bon App. It’s like Yelp but aimed at expats in Shanghai. The food in this city is incredible, but with 20,000 restaurants in this town, it’s often hard to know where to go. Bon App to the rescue. With listings and reviews of popular places, this will help you stay full and well-fed during your time in the big city.
Keeping in Touch
In a country where Facebook, Snapchat and Google are blocked, how do people keep in touch? WeChat is China’s solution to the Great Firewall. Create an account on this ubiquitous app and you’ll make friends for life. When meeting someone new, you simply scan their QR code with yours (they call this 扫, Sǎo) and you have a new WeChat contact.
Pinching the Pennies
China can be a bargain hunter’s dream come true, but as a Westerner, you’re an easy target for scams and swindlers. Miraculously prices on everything from fruit to accommodation tend to jump up as soon as a 老外 walks into a store. XE Currency Exchange will make sure you always know exactly what you’re paying.
Air pollution in China’s biggest cities can be abominable. The ‘Air Quality’ app will give you alerts when things get bad. This way you’ll know when it’s best to stay indoors with the windows shut, and when it’s safe to go for a jog.