5 Essential Apps for Living in China
My iPhone is always in my pocket and has become an invaluable tool for life in Chengdu. I’ve used it for learning Chinese, managing daily tasks, finding my way in China, and so much more. As each year passes, it becomes more and more capable, but the truth is that it’s nothing without the apps that I have installed on it.
I’ve tried and tested hundreds of apps which which make life in Chengdu easier, and these are the cream of the crop. My essential China apps. Most of these are universal apps that work for both iPhone and iPad, and they’re all free. Nearly all of the apps listed below are on Android as well, with the exception of the China Air Pollution Index app.
#1: Pleco Chinese Dictionary
This is the absolute best Chinese dictionary app you will ever find. There simply is no greater. It’s available for free, with paid add-ons which add dictionaries or features like intelligent flashcards, the unbelievable OCR feature (which I’ve written about before), and much more.
Pleco is easy to use and includes features like color-coded characters which help you remember tones. It’s in simplified and traditional Chinese and its feature list includes everything you really need.
If you study Chinese and have an iPhone save your time and skip every other dictionary and go straight to Pleco.
#2: China Air Pollution Index
The pollution in Chengdu is no joke, and the air quality data published by the US Consulate in Chengdu is considered the most authoritative. This app delivers that information in a beautiful interface, for free.
I’ve tried half a dozen other apps which report pollution in China (on Android and iOS) and none of them come close to the level of polish in this app. It shows current air quality values for all major Chinese cities and gives you the option of displaying Chinese government data, US Consulate data, or both. I have mine set up to show current US Consulate data for Chengdu pollution as it compares to Beijing and Guangzhou.
On days that it’s really bad, I think twice about cycling across the city. At one time the pollution level dictated whether or not I wore my Respro mask, but now I wear it whenever I cycle anywhere.
Ads appear inside this app, which can be removed by donating a dollar. I hate ads so donating a dollar was a no-brainer.
The app which connects you to one of the largest marketplaces in the world. You can find virtually anything on Taobao and have it shipped straight to your door.
On Taobao I’ve bought things that would be difficult or impossible to find anywhere else in China – a Japanese coffee grinder, Sriracha hot sauce, Hormel bacon, and much more. Since dozens or hundreds of vendors are competing for the same customers, you will find the lowest prices on Taobao.
Here’s why the iPhone app rocks: it doesn’t have any of the bloat of the actual Taobao website. If you have online payment processor Zhifubao configured (think Chinese Paypal), you can send payment via the Taobao app with a few taps. Your mailing address is saved with your account info and you won’t need to do anything else.
You should exercise caution when purchasing items on Taobao, but I have never had a problem after purchasing from dozens of vendors. Search results can be organized by “reputation” (rén qì 人气) and there are numerous buyer-protection systems present on Taobao.
The iPad version of the Taobao app was updated recently and it’s outstanding. The Taobao website follows most of the Chinese web design guidelines – many advertisements, constant popup windows, and hundeds of links per page. You’ll have to send payment using Internet Explorer. Once you have the Taobao app installed, you might not want to visit the Taobao website again.
You probably already know that Weibo currently dominates China’s social network landscape. Everyone is on Weibo, and much of the meaningful discussion on China happens here. What you might not know is the official Weibo app is completely outclassed by a third party client called Weico.
Weico features a level of polish that you won’t find in the official app. Aside from the app being free, it features a handful of different themes you can select as well as some paid themes. All of the essential Weibo features are here, and Weico features none of the bloat of the actual Weibo website. Hooray.
If you’ve used WhatsApp before, WeChat (called wéi xìn 微信 in Chinese) is basically the same thing, with a few additional features. Send voice messages, images, and more to friends no matter where they are, for free. The power of WeChat is that since it’s available for iOS and Android, almost everyone is on it. Since everyone is on WeChat, I rarely even send or receive calls and text messages. WeChat is just better.
Some cool features of WeChat
- There’s a “moments” section that works exactly like an Instagram feed. Post a photo and all your friends on WeChat can like it and leave comments
- There’s a “find people near me” feature that allows you to stalk – sorry, befriend – nearby strangers.
- WeChat supports animated GIFS and allows you to import them. Hilarity ensues.
These are the five essentials that I use on a regular basis. These are some that are very handy and worth checking out as well:
- Momo – a social network for
stalkingfinding people near you. It has a reputation for being for one night stands. You might find it funny, as I did, that Momo specifically says it’s not meant to be used for one night stands (called yī yè qíng 一夜情 in Chinese). Link
- Apple Maps – a lot of attention was drawn to the deficiencies of Apple Maps earlier this year when it was released, but Apple Maps in China is solid. This is because the map data is licensed from a Chinese company called AutoNavi.
- Dianping – like Yelp for China. Hundreds of restaurant reviews, including features like showing highly rated restaurants near you. Link
- Douban Events – Great for finding out what’s going on this weekend. Lists local events like concerts, art shows, and more. Link
Anything I’ve missed in this list? Let me know in the comments below. I’m not very knowledgeable on must-have Android apps for expats in China, but share that info if you have it!