For both first time travellers in China and seasoned expats, Apple and Android applications are life savers. These handy apps can make travel and life easier by translating for you, telling you when your train or plane leaves, putting you in touch with your friends, show you how bad the air is that you are breathing and MUCH more.
Listed below are the recommended top 10 applications for travellers and expats in China. All of these applications are free and available on both Apple’s iPhones and iPads and on Android phones and tablets.
3G Networks – If you have just arrived in China, one of the first things you need to do is get connected with a Chinese SIM card. 4G networks are available in some of China’s eastern cities with blistering download speeds that can deliver a 10 meg file in two seconds. These networks are limited though and restricted to commercial use so stick to 3G networks.
China Unicom (Zhong Guo Lian Tong 中国联通) – The best place to get a SIM card is from China Unicom and they have a number of prepaid SIM cards ideal for travellers and good contracts for expats. Be warned though that with the prepaid cards, when your credit runs out, you can’t receive calls or messages.
3G Solutions has an excellent reputation for delivering prepaid 3G sim cards. You can buy your 3G SIM card from them online and have it delivered to your hotel in China or to your home address before you start your holiday.
Locked Phones – If your iPhone is locked and cannot be used with Chinese service companies, you will need to jailbreak it and unlock it. You can easily jailbreak your iPhone in 6 or 7 steps. If you are not keen on doing your own jailbreaking, go to any electronics/computer/mobile phone market and pay 40-50RMB or a bit more to have it jailbroken professionally.
1 – China Air Pollution Index – Most of China’s major cities have extremely bad air pollution so this application is extremely useful. It provides up to date stats for air pollution in 120 Chinese cities. This application can use data from Chinese government sources (questionable) or from the US embassy and consulates. Once you have this application you’ll know why you having breathing problems, suffering from asthma for the first time and coughing up grey muck. This app will indicate when the pollution is particularly bad so you know when not to go out or when to wear a mask.
2 – XE Currency Exchange – When you first arrive in China, getting used to a different currency can be difficult and expensive. This application can quickly convert RMB and any other currency into your home currency. This app is also useful when you meet tourists from different countries who talk in a confusing mix of Euros, pound, yen, Aussie dollar and more. A handy function is this application stores exchange rates so you can still do conversions even when not connected.
3 – QQ – QQ is a live chat and messenger system like ICQ, MSN Messenger, Yahoo messenger and used by EVERY ONE. In China everyone has a name, email address, telephone number and QQ number. If you want to interact with locals digitally, you need a QQ account and this application. You can easily swap between using QQ on your PC/laptop to QQ on your iPhone/iPad or android.
4 – Pleco – This is THE best Chinese dictionary and translator application and a must have for anyone with less than perfect Chinese. It is great for learning Chinese, holding conversations with locals and translating the most difficult and obscure Chinese (and English) phrases. The basic version is free and there are a number of upgrades you can pay for such as an optical character recognizer.
5 – Dongdong Trip – This is an amazing application for booking hotels and flights AND looking up train schedules. Train stations are full of locals using this application to check timetables as they queue to buy their train tickets. It is extremely helpful for planning how to get from one city to the next by train. Nothing like being able to plan your trip while on the road.
6 – WeChat – Also called WeXin (微信) in Chinese, this application allows you to send voice messages, images and other stuff to your friends and contacts for free. Like facebook you can share photos to your WeChat friends from your profile and update your status for all to see. It also has the Find People Near Me function which is a great way to
stalk meet people. Very popular with the one night stand crowd.
7 – Google Maps – If you don't have this app already, download now. Getting hopelessly lost during your travel in China can now be a thing of the past with this life saving application. Google maps have received a lot of bad publicity but don’t worry. In China this application uses maps from a Chinese company called AutoNavi that are reliable and high quality.
8 – China Daily – This is the official English language Chinese newspaper. It is full of interesting, censored and pro party articles and stories that can provide a fascinating insight to the lives of locals. Also interesting to see what international news Chinese media considers news worthy. Plenty of pictures and a decent sports section but not much in the way of cartoons.
9 – Taobao – Taobao is an online marketplace like Ebay only bigger and better and this application plugs you right into Taobao. You can buy anything and everything on Taobao and it is especially ideal for items that are normally difficult to buy in China such as good cheese, genuine coffee, foreign cooking ingredients and medicine.
Even when you are buying goods commonly available in China, Taobao is good to use because the prices are normally the lowest and your order is delivered to your door with no fuss or bother. Not a very useful application for travellers in China but a godsend for expats.
This application is easy to use and allows you to choose your goodies, use online payment and complete your order with just a few finger swipes. Like any online marketplace, you do need to be careful but there are a number of very effective buyer protection systems in place on Taobao and you can choose to buy from sellers who have high reputation scores.
10 – Explore Metro Guide – This application is a fantastic guide for the subways that make travel in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong so cheap and easy. These subways can be a nightmare to navigate so this application can save you a lot of time and stress. It has user friendly maps of all the subways, station profiles, can plan your routes, give travel times and costs. It even has maps of the streets around the subway stations so you don’t get lost finding or leaving the subway.
This list is far from complete so if you have any iPhone or Android apps that you find useful for travel or living in China, please share them here.