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10 Must-Have Apps For Getting Around And Living In China

Anyone who's lived abroad can tell you it's either an adventure of a lifetime or a period of major inward reflection and growth. For me, it was definitely both. I'm typically a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants kinda girl so I can say, with all honesty, I didn't prepare much for my move to China. Without going too deep, I'll share a few apps I wish I'd familiarized myself with prior to moving to China. I'm considering comprising a list of tips more specifically for plus-sized women of color, but this list is meant to be more general. 

Image result for shenzhen chinaShenzhen, CN

Here's my list of useful apps that can help anyone prepare for their big move to the Red Dragon. 

1. VPN

A VPN, or Virtual Personal Network, is necessary for access to all of your Western apps such as Google, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. There are VPNs available from Chinese companies but I opted to go with Express VPN. They worked pretty well and I only had problems with them when China made some tweaks to their firewalls. 

2. WeChat

WeChat is an absolute must in China since no other social media apps are allowed within the country's internet firewall. It is used for both personal and professional networking and is typically the main means of communication over email in the workplace. It's great for quick and easy contact exchange using QR codes and because EVERYONE uses it almost exclusively, anyone you need to find is just a few clicks away.

3. WeChat Wallet

Just as important as WeChat in China is WeChat Wallet. It's a feature within the app that allows you to use your phone to send and receive payments everywhere. I initially avoided this feature of fear the app stored too much of my personal information. However, I immediately started using the feature after a cab driver gave me fake currency as change. It turned out to be so much more secure and convenient than using cash or cards.

Currently, the feature is only available if you open a WeChat account using a Chinese phone number and bank account/card. The feature is not available to users of the US version of the app (who open an account using a number with a +01 phone code) although some people have claimed to have found loopholes. It's used for everything including shopping, dining, and transportation. You can even pay rent, utilities, and monthly service payments using the feature since most companies allow you to directly link your account within the app. 

4. Ofo or Mobike

Both Ofo and Mobike are bike-sharing apps used throughout every major city in China. I found biking there to be relatively safe because drivers are typically respectful since it's still a popular form of transportation. Its a cheap and convenient way to travel short distances when weather permits. Prices vary between the two bike-sharing apps and specials will often appear during holidays. Some companies have affiliations with one or both of the apps and offer discounted fees to its employees. I personally used Ofo and was impressed by its reasonable fees, ease of use, and convenience as they can be found in every corner of every city. Ofo bikes can even be found in Seattle, WA!

5. Baidu Translate or Google Translate

If you're not fluent in Chinese, Mandarin, or Cantonese, you will need a translation app to get around mainland China. Only about 3% of Chinese citizens speak English and, unless you're living in Beijing, you don't want to be without a reliable translator. Baidu is a popular search engine originally from China so it gives the most accurate translations. Google Translate App is also great because you can use your camera to read and translate Chinese words in real time. I would say the Baidu Translate App is best used when communicating with Chinese speakers and Google Translate works well when you need Chinese to English translation for yourself. Both apps are great to have on your phone. 

6. C-Trip

C-Trip is a travel app based in China that is known worldwide as Trip.com. You can find everything from bus tickets to luxury hotels- all at local or discounted prices. It's super easy to use and the prices are cheaper than western travel websites. Simply download the English version and you're good to go. 

7. Baidu Maps or Google Maps

Getting around China is difficult without knowing the language because street and metro signs are all in Chinese. If you're in a larger city, you'll find some signs are written in pinyin- an English spelling of Chinese words. Still, those are difficult to read if you aren't familiar with the Chinese language. It's always great to have a navigation app on your phone while you're traveling because you may not be able to get help on the street. Google Maps is great to have initially but is not as accurate as Baidu Maps. Baidu is also entirely in Simplified Chinese and Pinyin so it's helpful to have if you still need additional help from a local. You'll especially need Baidu Maps for cab drivers who 'dOn'T kNoW wHeRe ThEy'Re GoInG'.  

8. Taobao or Tmall

Taobao and Tmall are essentially the Amazon and Alibaba of China. Both websites are tricky to use since they're entirely in Chinese, but finding a coworker or friend to translate will save you a lot of money. I also tried to avoid using these websites but shipping products from America proved to be too expensive, so eventually, I gave in. They carry many of the same general products found on Western websites because they come from the same manufactures. Both websites are helpful for setting up in China and getting products you need at reasonable prices- just be wary of products that are unreasonably cheap. 

9. DiDi

DiDi is basically the Uber of China and is needed, in some areas, where cabs or scooters are not available. You can use DiDi through WeChat but English versions are available for iPhones and Androids. I would recommend using it because cab drivers will often avoid turning on their meters or take longer routes when driving foreigners. With the app, you're able to better predict the ETA and price of your ride. 

10. China's Metro App

I didn't take the Metro as much because I lived close to my office but this app was a favorite among expats in China. There are a few apps that track China's transportation systems but the most popular one I've seen is MetroMan. It helps you to navigate the expansive, web-like metro systems of China's biggest cities and gives you timetables for each stop.