If you’re moving to China or have just recently settled in your new city, there are several apps that will make your transition so much smoother. Some of these I discovered right away, but others I didn’t know about until my co-workers shared their experiences. I’ve broken the apps down into categories—language, health, travel, shopping and food, and communication—with one or two helpful options in each.
1 – Language: First, you’re going to want to download an app for translating. Most of my co-workers and I use an app called Pleco—it’s really easy to use, and it seems to be the most accurate for daily use. With Pleco, you can search for words English-Chinese or Chinese-English (using pinyin OR, if you’re a little more advanced, by drawing the characters straight onto your smartphone screen). After you search for a word, the app gives you more information about the characters as well as different words and sentences for you to get a better sense of how the term is used. You can also bookmark dictionary entries which is really helpful if you want to easily access them later. Another great app for language is Baidu Translate. In addition to being a dictionary like Pleco, Baidu Translate allows you to scan texts—with this you can conveniently translate entire menus or signs while you’re out and about.
2 – Health: Next, you’ll want to download a weather app that includes a measure of the air quality (AQI) in your city. Since air pollution is such a prevalent issue throughout most of China, this is something I check every day in my small town as well as when I’m traveling around the country. I use Simple AQI, but there are several other free options that offer similar information, such as Global Air Quality and All of these apps will provide you with updated information on the current AQI and let you know when it’s time to don that attractive face mask on your way to work.
3 – Travel: When you’re traveling, you’ll need a handy app likeme. This app offers you directions worldwide even when you’re offline—an especially helpful feature when you’ve been hopping from Starbucks to Starbucks to catch enough wifi to figure out directions. Maps.me provides you with reliable maps that allow you to save your phone data while navigating busy Chinese streets on a rented scooter or bicycle.
4 – Shopping and Food: If you’ve been in China already for any length of time, you’ll have heard about the online shopping platform by the name of Taobao. On this site you can find EVERYTHING, ranging from cheap clothes to expensive electronics. While shopping, you’ll definitely want to keep your pleco app handy, since the site is in Chinese and you’ll get thousands more options if you search for items in the national language. Additionally, if you’re tired of your school cafeteria food or don’t feel like wandering around in search of dinner, Meituan is a great app for ordering food. You can search through dozens of local restaurants that all deliver straight to your doorstep. Again, the site functions in Chinese, but you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly.
5 – Communication: If you’re not ready to give up all access to social media, you’ll want to download a VPN (virtual private network) to access on your phone. While a subscription is usually required for use on your laptop, there are many free apps for your phone that work pretty consistently. My favorite is VPN Proxy Master, but I’ve also used Best VPN and Snap VPN—different VPN apps typically work better in different places, so you’ll probably need to test out a few to see which is best in your area. Last, but certainly not least, is WeChat. This will likely be your most used app, as it offers a myriad of other services in addition to texting and group messaging. With WeChat, you can post photos and updates (a little similar to Facebook) as well as pay for purchases through a feature called WeChat Just within the last year, more and more business and restaurants allow customers to pay by scanning a QR code through WeChat. As long as you set up online banking, you can transfer money to your WeChat account and basically never worry about carrying cash again. WeChat texting is also the most common form of communicating around China—you’ll soon find that it’s the only consistent way to keep in touch with your co-workers and/or students.
Of course there are many more apps that can help you adjust to life in China, but this list sums up the ones I use the most. These smartphone apps have kept me from getting lost on my way to a new restaurant or translated my frantic questions to the train conductor during my first few months here—and I hope they make your own experiences a little easier!