Article by Serena Runyan
Being an expat in China isn’t always easy, but there are some things you can do to make life a lot easier for yourself. One of these things is to fully embrace the electronic reality of the new country you’re in and use Chinese apps like a local. Doing this will help you not only logistically, but also to integrate better into modern Chinese society. If you haven’t noticed, phones are kind of a necessity here. Here are the top 5 apps you should add to your phone and to your life immediately.
You can honestly do anything with WeChat (微信, weixin in Chinese). WeChat was developed by Tencent and has hundreds of millions of daily users. It’s most vital use is as a messaging and calling service that you will need if you wish to communicate with anyone, ever. WeChat Moments is similar to Facebook’s News Feed. You can subscribe (like “following”) to official WeChat accounts and can join other users in WeChat groups.
But WeChat is so much more.
WeChat Wallet allows you to pay nearly everywhere with your phone, just by scanning a QR code. (Another very popular mobile-pay app is Alipay [支付宝] zhifubao). You can very easily send and receive money with your contacts and can deposit your WeChat Wallet balance into your linked bank account. You can also pay your phone bill, buy movie tickets, pay utilities, and more.
Didi is China’s answer to Uber and is likely to surpass Uber in value soon, according to CNN. Didi now has full reign of the Chinese market as Uber was driven out and acquired by Didi. This ride-share app can call you a car with a Didi driver or hail an official city taxi for you. You can also reserve a car for a specific time. Drivers are rated and it seems to me that this has resulted in much more cautious driving.
Didi is a wonderful app even if your Chinese isn’t awesome. You type in the location beforehand so your driver knows exactly where to go, and you can write the English name of the place. They all use navigation, so you don’t have to worry about giving directions. Didi has made it really easy to communicate with your driver with preset messages in English that it will send to your driver in Chinese. It will translate any other messages you send as well.
You can link your WeChat account to Didi and select automatic payments for ultimate ease. The app will also start to remember where you tend to go at certain times or on certain days, and suggest the location for you. Some might call this creepy and invasive, but I call it very convenient.
3 Ofo (or Mobike)
Ofo is the bike-share start-up that’s resulted in the unavoidable sea of yellow bicycles on the streets. It was started by a group of students in Beijing, and was followed by other start-ups like Mobike. The app allows you to use any of the Ofo bikes by scanning a QR code. It costs next to nothing, and you can leave the bike anywhere (within reason). Ofo was obviously highly successful in China and is now operating in cities around the world. Using Ofo is a healthy way of getting where you’re going, and is often faster than taking a bus. Plus, you get to join the fleet of scooters and bikes on the street and really feel like a part of the city as you weave through traffic and ring your bike bell obnoxiously.
4 Transportation: Baidu maps and Ctrip
I’m putting two apps here under one roof. Baidu Maps is the Google Maps you wish you could still use here. Times and routes by bus, subway, bike, etc are all provided. It is in Chinese, but the app is well-designed enough that it won’t be too hard for you to get over the hump, and it’s good to be familiar with the Chinese names of places.
Ctrip is a good app for booking train and plane tickets. They’ve just recently launched “Trip”, their international version of the app. The downside of Ctrip previously was that they charged a booking fee for train tickets, but they seem to have stopped recently.
5 Food delivery: choose a waimai app
Baidu Waimai, E Le Me and Meituan are three big waimai companies, and one of them needs to be put on the front page of your phone immediately. If you step outside for more than a minute, you will probably see an employee of a waimai company either riding their scooter or running food to someone’s door, rain or shine, true knights of the modern world. Though the archetype of the “waimai guy” is that they’re usually lost for no discernable reason, and you may have to guide them to you, it is still amazingly easy to get whatever food you want delivered to your door (or at least to your apartment building). Choose a restaurant from the app and select the food your want. Pay with WeChat or Alipay. The app will remember your address and your order history. You can even order things from a supermarket, including items for your kitchen or bathroom.
A non-Chinese app that will also help you immensely: Pleco
Pleco is a free Chinese dictionary app that allows you to search in a variety of useful ways, including drawing characters. It allows you to make flashcards from words you look up. If you add the Pleco screen-reader to your phone, you can look up words it can read on your phone screen (say, if you’re looking at a Chinese website and want to know a certain word).