12 Essential Apps for Living in China

April 26, 2022

As technology continues to take over society, our reliance on apps increases daily. At Culture Yard, we decided to compile a list of the 12 most essential Chinese apps for life in China.

Unfortunately, many newbies to the Middle Kingdom are faced with a problem: the Great Firewall of China. The firewall has been in place since 2006 and is designed to control which sites are accessible to the public within the mainland.

As a result, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are blocked, and will likely remain so, no matter how hard Mark Zuckerberg pleads. Google is also a no-go, which means YouTube is unavailable, too.

SIGH…

However, it is not all doom and gloom. There are plenty of useful, popular apps in China that can make any expat’s life more comfortable and fun.

Here’s a look at the 12 essential apps you may need. While each app has a specific purpose, many of the apps listed below are multi-purpose apps (just in case you want to have more phone storage available for the millions of photos you can never get yourself to delete).

1. Best Multipurpose Chinese App: WeChat (微信)

WeChat

If you do not have WeChat downloaded, then you are already one step behind your fellow expats!

WeChat is the most popular app in China, and rightfully so. What started as a messaging service has developed over the years since its creation in 2011 to be the most essential app of them all. WeChat is used for messaging, voice/video calls, paying bills, calling taxis, and many more everyday tasks.

WeChat services

It is a little trickier for those who aren’t in China to register for the app, but not impossible. You will need to be invited by an existing user who will send you a code. Once you receive that, you’re good to go.

Once you set up WeChat, make sure you set up your WeChat wallet to be able to use WeChat for payments. If you need help, check out this guide on how to set up WeChat for payment

    Available in English: Yes
    Overseas Equivalent: There is no other app like this one!

2. Best VPN for China

best vpn app for china

When you arrive in China, other expats and locals will tell you to never mention the letters V. P. N., as it is a huge thorn in the side of the Chinese firewall. However, as an expat, a VPN service will allow you to access the aforementioned blocked apps and websites we all love.

There are plenty of free VPNs available, but they will lead to an increase in stress levels and pulled-out hair. Simply put, they don’t work.

If you like your hair the way it is and want to remain calm, then look at ExpressVPN or Astrill VPN. These two are the best, most consistent VPN options on the market for China at the moment.

Express VPN can be paid monthly ($12.95), bi-annually ($59.95), or annually ($99.95).

Express vpn

Astrill VPN has monthly ($9.99) and annual ($99.99) options but provides plenty of add-ons including a multiple device option.

Astrill

Both Express and Astrill are great choices and well worth the money, especially if you can’t live without YouTube and Netflix!

    Available in English: Yes
    Overseas Equivalent: N/A

3. Best Chinese App for Payment: Alipay (支付宝)

Alipay logo small

Alipay is used globally by over 1.2 billion people most commonly for financial reasons such as payments, insurance, and keeping track of finances thanks to its security.

Alipay also has options for plenty of other services from booking travel tickets and transportation to shopping. With such activities, you will usually be directed to a more specialist third-party provider, some of which we list in this article below.

Whoever you are, there is no escaping the importance of Alipay, especially in China. However, the app does have limitations, one of which being that only Chinese citizens are allowed to use Alipay abroad.

Note: If you happen to be outside of Mainland China, you can still use your Union Pay card in most countries.

If you need help getting started with Alipay, check out our guide on how to setup Alipay for payment

    Available in English: Yes
    Overseas Equivalent: Apple pay/Venmo

4. Best Chinese Shopping Apps: JD (京东) and Taobao (淘宝)

Jingdong and taobao Chinese shopping apps

Jingdong (JD) and Taobao are the two best shopping apps in China to use for your shopping needs.

Both apps are your typical online marketplace. You can search for a product, sift through options, communicate with the provider (in Chinese), and purchase. You can then track the whereabouts of said product until it reaches you.

If you are worried about the quality or delivery of your purchase, then head to JD. Although you’re not going to find as many options for niche items, it is possible to buy most items, from technology to overseas products. If an item needs to be shipped from abroad, then you will need a Chinese ID cardholder to help you.

If you cannot find what you are looking for on JD, no matter how obscure, Taobao will undoubtedly have it. In fact, stop reading right now, download the Taobao app, and search for anything—you’ll see. Although quality can be an issue on Taobao, with the help of reviews it should be possible to find what you need.

    Available in English: No (can search in English for some items)
    Overseas Equivalent: Amazon

5. Best Chinese Translation App: Pleco

Pleco is the most in-depth free Chinese-English translation app ever created. Whether you are a Chinese local trying to learn English, or an expat attempting to master Mandarin, Pleco can help.

Type the word or phrase in the search bar and Pleco will do the rest. The app provides all potential translations for the searched word or phrase.

pleco chinese dictionary app 1

When you see the translation you like, click on it.

pleco chinese dictionary app 2

You can then see the characters which make up the word, words and phrases using the word, and for some entries, an example sentence using the word.

pleco chinese dictionary app 3

pleco chinese dictionary app 4

If you require access to additional features, you can buy upgrades.

Pleco packages

There is also a function that allows you to hear the word or phrase, which is vital for pronunciation purposes. Although the app is no substitute for a teacher, it is an excellent learning aid.

    Available in English: Yes
    Overseas Equivalent: A combination of Google translate and a dictionary.

6. Best Chinese App for Music: QQ Music

QQ music Chinese app

QQ Music is by far the best music app in China. The free version does limit the number of songs you have available, but you can pay RMB168 for the yearly subscription (not bad, considering how often you will be using this app daily).

Paying for the membership doesn’t mean you will find every song you are looking for, but you will be able to listen to all the songs that QQ Music has available.

Even with limited Mandarin skills, QQ Music is a very easy app to use. It is as simple as signing in using WeChat, searching for a song, and selecting the version you want.

QQ chinese music app

    Available in English: No (can search for songs in other languages, though)
    Overseas Equivalent: Spotify

7. Best Chinese Navigation App: Gaode Maps (高德地图)

Gaode Chinese map app

Gaode Maps, aka AMap, is the best Chinese map app for navigation with up-to-date traffic news, and, in some cases, information regarding how far the next bus is from the bus stop. (That latter function is not even available on Google Maps.)

As long you know the name of your desired destination, Gaode will give you all the possible methods of transport including going by public transport, on foot, or by bike.

The app also allows users to call a car, but most members of the public prefer to do that using Didi (see below).

To get full use out of the app, you will need to have a pretty solid grasp of Mandarin.

    Available in English: No
    Overseas Equivalent: Google Maps

8. Best Chinese Car Hailing App: Didi (嘀嘀)

Didi ride hailing app

Didi is the best car-hailing app in China. Without this app, you will be waiting a long time by the side of the street. With options for taxis as well as private cars, it is easy to see why Didi is so well regarded by all mainland residents. In the occurrence of a dispute, expats can contact customer services via the help chat which is available completely in English, including communication with the customer service agent.

Didi, like most car-hailing apps, has its frustrations, such as long queues and taxi drivers that leave without warning if you haven’t arrived or contacted them within five minutes of them arriving at the pick-up location. Nevertheless, without this app, you will find it impossible to hail a cab just by waving your arm around frantically.

    Available in English: Yes
    Overseas Equivalent: Uber

9. Best Chinese Travel App: Ctrip (携程集团)

With flights to 5000+ cities, hotels in many countries worldwide, options to purchase tickets for trains, tours, and even to rent cars, Ctrip has placed itself very high on the list of needed apps for expats and travelers alike.

Trip chinese travel booking app

Ctrip - also known as trip.com - is the most complete popular travel app that you can download, especially as it reaches beyond China.

When it comes to booking flights however, price and availability change rapidly. It can be frustrating to find out the flight you are trying to book wasn’t available, and while you were trying to book that flight, the price for a similar flight jumped. Fight through the urge to give up and cry, as this app really is the one to have.

In the case of delays or cancellations, Ctrip provides updates via email and text and has a helpline reachable from plenty of countries worldwide.

    Available in English: Yes
    Overseas Equivalent: This is a worldwide app

10. Best Food Delivery Apps in China: Meituan (美团) and Sherpas

Meituan and Sherpa-s food delivery apps China

Like many of the apps above, Meituan tries to do more than its primary purpose, which is food delivery. It is as simple as finding a restaurant, ordering your food, and waiting for it to arrive.

Upon loading the app, the nearest eateries appear, but you can search for a more specific restaurant or food if you prefer. By using this app, you will also improve your knowledge of Chinese food names as a vast majority are solely in Mandarin.

If that feels overwhelming, then head to Sherpas.

Sherpas has an English app and is the best food delivery app in China for homesick expats ordering from all of the western restaurants (only in Beijing, Shanghai, and Suzhou for now). Delivery, depending on your location, can be quite expensive, so don’t be surprised at checkout.

    Available in English: No (Meituan) / Yes (Sherpas)
    Overseas Equivalent: Deliveroo, Uber Eats, Door Dash, etc.

11. Best Chinese Streaming Apps: iQiyi (爱奇艺) and Bilibili

Bilibili and iqiyi chinese streaming sites

iQiyi provides a great selection of dramas and movies for a reasonable price. The content has been altered to meet Chinese censorship laws which can be frustrating if you’re looking for original versions, but it is something all expats eventually get used to.

It is possible to access some content for free, but the sheer number of advertisements makes having a membership worth it.

Although iQiyi does offer anime, Bilibili is what the young kids prefer for the genre (and let’s be honest, they know what’s best when it comes to anime).

    Available in English: Yes (iQiyi) / No (Bilibili)
    Overseas Equivalent: Netflix

12. Best Chinese Restaurant Review App: Dazhong Dianping (大众点评)

Dazhongdianping chinese review app

Dazhong Dianping is another popular multi-purpose Chinese app most famous for restaurant reviews and listings. This is the app you need if you want to try a new restaurant or review of the restaurant your friend wants to take you to.

Users can see nearby food options and how they compare according to locals and fellow foodies, which can be vital for people with dietary needs or high expectations.

Dazhong Dianping is also a good resource when looking for cinemas, pool halls, gyms, and more. For places that require bookings or tickets, such as the cinema, you can purchase your tickets via this app, too.

    Available in English: Yes
    Overseas Equivalent: Yelp

Post and app screenshots contributed by Mehmet Dogan