Modern China is setting the benchmark for digitally-integrated societies, with an unparalleled suite of goods and services available from your smartphone.
Whether you’re visiting for a few days, or moving for the foreseeable future, these apps are staples for your time in China.
Note: some of these applications will require you to provide a Chinese mobile number, ID documentation and a Chinese bank account.
These apps have been marked accordingly:
- Mobile Number = M
- ID Required = ID
- Chinese Bank Account = B
Unless a Chinese app has an English version, or you have a high level of Mandarin proficiency, you may have some difficulties navigating the user interfaces. For this, you’ll need Baidu Translate. To make things easier you can now take a screenshot on your phone and upload it directly onto the app, giving you a pretty accurate rendering in English!
Communicating, Making Friends and Staying Informed
WeChat / 微信 (M)
WeChat has become indispensable in almost all facets of life in China and is better understood as an online ‘ecosystem’ rather than a traditional app. Through this app, you can connect with family and friends, subscribe to your favourite official accounts, pay for things, make reservations, play games and more.
Alipay / 支付宝 (M, ID, B)
China is rapidly accelerating its progress towards becoming both a cashless and cardless society. Once you have a Chinese bank card, you can link this to either AliPay or WeChat (in-app WeChat Wallet) in order to make payments and send money over the apps.
AliPay also allows you to manage your finances and assets, pay bills, shop in-app and even process international money transfers. You can even recharge your student card through the app!
Baidu Maps / 百度地图 (M, for full functionality)
Baidu Maps provides the most detailed and up-to-date navigational tool in China, providing real-time updates and traffic monitoring. The app/s integration with the public transport timetable also allows you to plan your trip without needing to cross-reference with dedicated public transport apps.
Didi / 滴滴 (M)
Didi is China’s leading rideshare and taxi-hailing service, with very competitive rates, a sizeable fleet of drivers and a native English version. The best part? You don’t need a Chinese bank card to open an account!
Meituan / 美团 (M, ID, B)
But if you’d like to take in the sights and sounds of your surrounds, in an environmentally-conscious and affordable way, then your best bet is Meituan. Bike-sharing is only one of Meituan’s many services but is worth mentioning here because of its blanket coverage across cities. Simply register an account, scan the QR code on the bike and you’re off! Didi also has a bike function, however, it will only appear once you change the app’s language setting to Chinese.
Eleme / 饿了么 (M, B)
Food delivery in China is heavily tech-driven and supported by a vast network of couriers, making it inexpensive and very convenient to have your favourite meal delivered to your door. Groceries, alcohol, flowers, and medication are all also available on the app.
Taobao / 淘宝 (M, B)
Chinese eCommerce giant Taobao offers millions of goods to suit your every need. The TMALL category demarks products from verified sellers and brands, helping you avoid counterfeit and low-quality goods. You don’t need a Chinese bank card to register either – so enjoy shopping with impunity!
The Chinese app store can be a daunting place, containing everything from behemoth digital ecosystems, all the way to niche service providers within small geographical areas. The above list is by no means exhaustive, but will definitely equip you to make the most of your time in China!