Top 7 apps in China you should use in China without a VPN
Nowadays everyone is glued to their phones and it’s no different in China, a mobile phone is an indispensable tool and something we just cannot live without. Hands up if it’s one of the last things you see at night and the first thing you look at in the morning? I knew it! Coming to teach English in China, a very different country with a different culture and language, your phone becomes even more vital as it is one thing that makes you feel like you’re at home and keeps you connected to it, even for us responsible TEFL teachers.
So you’re coming to China. No VPN? Don’t worry! To make sure you settle down as quickly as possible we have come up with our list of top apps you should use whilst you’re in China, ones that you can use without a VPN on your phone. Let’s get started.
Number 1: WeChat
WeChat is literally a one-stop social media platform for absolutely everything, and I’m not exaggerating. It’s one that you need to integrate yourself into Chinese society if teaching English in China is for you and you’re planning on staying here for the long haul, it’s worth installing. Once you get used to its various functions you will find that it is just so damn convenient and useful. If we had to choose only one app then WeChat would be our choice of the Top 7 apps in China.
- Firstly it’s a great communication tool, and not just to speak to your Chinese friends and colleagues. If you’re stalling on whether to purchase a VPN, and you land in China without one, and you can’t make contact with your family or your friends without high calling fees and can’t get on WhatsApp, make sure to get your close ones to install WeChat (it’s free) so you can tell them how safe and well you are, and tell them all about your adventures in China. Otherwise good old fashion email is your best free option (sorry Gmail users!!!).
- Like Facebook and Instagram, WeChat also has WeChat moments a place where you can post pictures and share your experiences with your friendship circle. This is a bit of fun you can dabble in. Get ready to post your selfies.
- The emergence of WeChat and Alipay (the other huge multipurpose online payment app) has meant China is moving towards a paperless social credit system. You will be hard-pressed to find any Chinese person carrying around a wallet these days. Once you attach your Chinese bank account to your WeChat, you’ll be able to pay for almost anything in a shop with the scan of their QR code. You can even top up your phone.
- Extras: You can even share your location to others if you are lost, buy cinema tickets on here, and much more. WeChat also features mini-programs so you don’t have to download certain Chinese apps as you can access them through WeChat, e.g. Mobike. You can access this online bike-sharing app, find a Mobike bicycle near you, scan the QR code to unlock and ride (only a 200RMB deposit). This is why WeChat is so powerful and the number one app for foreigners in China.
Fun fact: According to two posts from businessinsider.com, in 2018 WeChat’s monthly active users passed the 1 billion thresholds putting its company, Tencent Holdings above Facebook as one of the most valuable companies in the world (businessinsider.com).
Number 2: Google Translate
Although not always completely accurate this app is nevertheless a lifesaver, you can use this without data and a VPN too. Though some functions do require a VPN in terms of translating text it’s pretty useful I have to say. Without any grasp of the Chinese language, it is likely you will encounter situations where you can’t get what you’re trying to say across and are unable to communicate with a native Chinese. This app will go some way in helping. When you walk into a restaurant and you can’t read the menu and there are no juicy and succulent pictures what do you do? Well, you can flip out your phone, go to Google Translate and use the camera function. The function is a little gimmicky and has some issues but you can get the gist of most listings on the menu i.e. “rice”, “noodles”, “pork”, “fish”, etc. Better still you can scan an image of the menu or whatever you’re looking to read and then translate it. When you go to the doctor or pharmacy you can just type in the sentence “I have a sore throat’ and let Google Translate do the rest then show this to the doctor. Lifesaver!
Fun fact: According to K-International’s Language blog, Google Translate translates more than 100 billion words per day.
Number 3: E Le Me
If you’re finding it difficult to order food in a Chinese restaurant, there is another option besides Google Translate. For convenience and ease, you can just download the E Le Me app. E Le Me literally translates as ‘Are you hungry?’ in Chinese and this app allows you to order takeout food and get it delivered straight to your address. This is the lazy option but sometimes in life after a hard day’s work of ESL teaching, this is the way to go. However one thing to take note is that E Le Me does not have an English version, so you will need a Chinese friend to help you get used to using it and then familiarise yourself with the steps and then hey presto. There will definitely be those succulent pictures on this app. That being said, we would recommend you not to do this too often and also not to buy too many pots of instant noodles as we don’t want you to miss out on all the original and delicious Sichuan/Chinese cuisine that is out there. Be brave! Eating well in Sichuan doesn’t have to be expensive.
*Note: If the delivery guy/girl is not exactly sure of your address you will get a phone call. So make sure your address is correct and accurate. Otherwise, brush up on your Chinese speaking.
Fun fact: In 2018 E Le Me was bought by Alibaba Group who started Taobao (see later) and who are owned by one of the richest men in China – Jack Ma.
Number 4: Baidu Maps
Getting lost in China, it happens, you don’t have to be afraid. I landed in Chengdu, and the first full day I was here, I walked nearly to death from 9am in the morning till 10pm in the evening moving from one inner-city tourist hotspot to another then finally spending hours trying to find the right bus stop back home. I got back eventually. That was literally the first full day and was a little disorienting. I have to say that once you settle down after a couple of weeks everything will be fine, trust me. As long as you have downloaded a few map apps. Google Maps is the obvious choice but unusable without a VPN. WeChat also has a map and includes the very useful sharing location function so that a friend can find you. Maps.me is also worth considering but Baidu Maps is probably the best one with the most accurate maps, although it is all in Chinese you need to relax, all you got to do is look around and match the Chinese characters from the map to the street and there you go. Good way to improve your Chinese reading too. Enormously helpful when trying to find your way from your accommodation to your school or traveling.
Fun fact: Baidu Maps is so detailed that you can also see the interior of famous Chinese tourist hotspots such as the Forbidden City, Summer Palace and Temple of Heaven, etc, mapped out.
Number 5: Taobao
China’s equivalent to Amazon, Taobao is an online shopping website and the biggest eCommerce site in the world. Whatever you need you can order from Taobao and at unbelievably great and affordable prices, right to your doorstep. Again though, Taobao does not have an English version so you may need a Chinese friend to help you navigate but if you have the Google Chrome web browser on your phone you can access Taobao that way and translate it. Well worth doing in order to reach some cheap and handy goods. In no time you will spend all your TEFL salary away with the tap of your phone.
*Small tip here, don’t let anyone tell you Google Chrome web browser doesn’t work in China, yes, it’s a fact that many Google products are blocked in China but you can still use Google Chrome to go on all sites which are not blocked, e.g. not the Google search engine.
Fun Fact: Taobao is the 8th most visited website according to Alexa.
Number 6: Didi
Especially if you’re in the city, transportation is usually very convenient in most of the big cities in China with metro and bus stations plus share bikes. You can always hail a taxi too, local taxi drivers are very friendly, you can get some Chinese practice in there too. But don’t forget about China’s version of Uber, called ‘Didi’, they even have an English version for their app. Very convenient indeed especially if your claustrophobic and need to get somewhere quickly but trying to avoid the crowded Chinese rush hour period. *Like E Le Me, the Didi driver may give you a phone call if they can’t find you, so make sure you’re standing in the right spot and lookout for the right license plate of the car that matches to that on your phone screen.
Fun fact: According to the Business Insider, as of 2016, Didi completes 1.5 million trips each day in China
Number 7: Metro China Subway (Aka Metro Man)
So the last of our Top 7 apps in China and trust us, you need this. There are no two ways about it as a foreigner in China you will ride the metro here, it is not only convenient but also very cheap. The metro links in most major cities in China are great, you can get from A to Z very quickly. Here in Chengdu the metro is literally brand new and expanding with new lines, and dare I say it one of the most convenient. Anyway, one of the best apps to download is Metro China Subway (Aka Metro Man), this app is useful in any major city in China from Beijing to Shanghai to Shenzhen and Chengdu, so great for traveling. You can easily map out your metro journey routes, choose which line and metro station you’re starting from, then where you’re getting off, it will let you know the best route to get there, the train times, how much it costs, and how long it takes, taking into account line transfers too. Also with a super cool name like ‘Metro Man’, it should be one of the first apps you download before you get to China.
Fun fact: As of 2018 China has a Subway in 31 cities with a total of 133 lines covering 2700 miles. 20 of those systems and 100 of those lines were built in the past decade. Stats from citylab.com.
Last word about Top 7 apps in China
On a budget? Want to save some money and not purchase a VPN? Then you need to download and install these apps beforehand as the Google Play Store and Apple Store are both blocked by the Great Firewall of China. There are Chinese alternatives app stores though such as ‘Tencent MyApp’.
If you’re not willing to embrace Chinese culture and the Chinese way of life to the fullest or you’re not interested in a lengthy social media detox in the far east haha, then I’m going, to be honest, you will need to download a Virtual Private Network (VPN) whilst you’re in China. That is if you really need to feed your Facebook, Instagram and YouTube addiction, or you’re used to using Google for absolutely everything up to researching and getting learning materials and lesson plans for your English classes. Otherwise, you can use the Baidu search engine as a different option but it will be limited.
Well, that’s it, here’s our top 7apps in China, based on our experience and also that of our teachers. Do you agree with our list? Please let us know below if we’ve missed anything out.
Last but not least, we just want to say, whether you are or will be in China! You shouldn’t be glued to your phone screen, you should be out there, seeing all that China has to offer, “Sail away from the safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Just getting into Mark Twain mode at the end.
For more topics read all our posts here: TDC’s TEFL Blog