You just arrived in China and all of a sudden you discover your most beloved apps stopped working. Why? The Chinese Great Firewall! Surely something you’ve heard about before. What many people don’t realize though is that it not only blocks websites, but all content which the Chinese government deems inappropriate, including mobile apps. Due to the government’s efforts to create a sort of Chinese intranet, Chinese tech companies have been able to develop and experiment relatively freely without Western tech heavyweights like Facebook and Google looming above. Now, the Chinese mobile app business and internet companies in general are thriving, and the West is starting to take notice.
We’ve taken the time to sum up some of China’s most popular, creative and up-and-coming apps to help you with all your needs when living or traveling in China. Below you will find part 1 of this series. Stay tuned for our next installment!
1. WeChat (微信)
WeChat is arguably the Rolls Royce of all China-based apps. What started as a copycat version of WhatsApp, is now the number one messaging app in China with 762 million MAU (monthly active users) worldwide. Even though WeChat is still a messaging app at its core, it has grown to be much more, and might I say, indispensible for your life in China.
WeChat is all about communicating with your friends and local community. Send (voice) messages or call for free via audio/video chat. Create group chats and chew the fat with friends, family or people from the same apartment complex. But, WeChat offers more possibilities than just instant messaging, such as location sharing, translation, and sharing your own private moments and photos on a Facebook-like newsfeed. Play games and shop inside the WeChat app, read the news, check the weather and subscribe to your favorite official accounts.
What truly makes WeChat a unique all-in-one app are the WeChat Wallet and the integrated third-party O2O-services. Connect your WeChat account with your bank card and use WeChat to make in-and-out-of-app payments, transfer money or send ‘red envelopes’ to your family, friends and coworkers. Access the third-party service platform where you can hail a taxi, book train tickets, order a cleaning lady or buy movie tickets.
China’s most favorite app has also become one of the preferred advertising channels for companies both Chinese and foreign. Companies can sign up for a service account and start promoting their products or services. They can build in-app web shops and hand out special discounts to their WeChat followers.
The possibilities of WeChat seem to be endless and more functions are still added on a regular basis. In the past you would exchange name cards when meeting someone new, now you scan each other’s WeChat QR code. Truly, WeChat has become a cultural phenomenon in China and is slowly starting to venture into other markets. Non-Chinese speakers can download the international (English) version but be aware that many of the services listed above will not be available to you.
2. Baidu Maps (百度地图)
What once started as a Google search engine imitation has developed into one of the biggest players in the China tech industry, with investments in ridesharing, food delivery, games and much more. Like Google, Baidu has become a household name. In China you don’t Google thinks, you Baidu them! One of their most popular products is Baidu Maps.
If you don’t want to get lost in China’s concrete jungles, or just find something fun to do in your area, then Baidu Maps is your go-to mobile app. Similarly to Google Maps you can find directions by public transport, car, walking, or bicycle. You can also order an Uber or a Baidu Private Car, which tends to be cheaper than Uber. And if you’re looking for a nearby supermarket, hospital, ATM or even a hairdresser, simply search for nearby services. Life hasn’t been more convenient!
Apart from the core functions that Baidu Maps boasts, it also has a few very useful features that tend to be overlooked. One of which is the ‘traffic situation’ function, which enables you to check for traffic jams and slow moving traffic due to construction. Another is the ‘travel mode’, which, when switched on, shows must-see scenic spots and buildings, transportation hubs, hotels, restaurants, etc. This definitely would come in handy if you forget to bring your Lonely Planet with you!
Pleco should be a mandatory app for every expat in China. It’s one of the best digital Chinese dictionaries around and it’s free. Pleco is a versatile dictionary app suitable for searching single entries in English, pinyin or Chinese characters; mind you it’s not equipped for unscrambling the meaning of entire sentences. I find the app extremely helpful for serious language learners who strive to unlock the mysteries of the Chinese language. Listen to pronunciation, discover the meaning of individual characters, explore word combinations and study its usage. Don’t forget to create flashcards for further learning, practice handwriting and memorize the radicals that make up each character. Possibly the neatest function is Pleco’s optical character recognition software though. Simply scan a character and know all about it. You can upgrade your demo version for the full version for only $9.99.
4. Qunar (去哪儿), CTrip (携程), Elong (艺龙)
Ctrip and Qunar together take up about 65% of the online travel market, with Ctrip being a little bit bigger. They are the most popular travel apps amongst a myriad of other travel apps. Both app make it easy to find and book hotels, flights, train tickets. Furthermore, you can find useful information about your destination that can help you plot out your travel route.
Personally, I prefer to use another travel app when discovering the vastness of China: Elong. Although Elong is one of the earliest China online travel agencies, it has been steadily losing its position in the market (in 2015 it had only 2.6% market share). Still, I prefer using Elong because they’re cheaper than Ctrip and often offer discounts. Additionally, when booking certain hotels Elong will pay you some money back, which you can either use in-app, or transfer into your bank account hassle-free, unlike Ctrip’s similar system.
That being said, if you don’t speak Chinese, then Ctrip would be the best option for your travels in China, since the app is also available in English and allows foreign cards to be used to book hotels and purchase tickets. Useful tip: always check or call ahead to see if they allow foreigners in the hotel, you wouldn’t want to begin looking for another hotel in the middle of the night!