12 apps you should download before going to China + bonus tip for Android users

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Embarking on a trip to a new country is always fun and exciting. Good preparation work can help you avoid some of the potential pitfalls and problems along the way - especially when going to China. Why is China being singled out? This country is altogether a different creature when it comes to technology, connectivity and the digital age. Google, Facebook and Instagram are banned. This fact would only sink in when you realize that a huge part of your information bank comes from these sources. This means:
No Google Maps for your directions
No Google for random questions you have along the way (what's the best SIM card?)
No Facebook pages to check out the ratings of shops and restaurants
No Instagram to see the cool location tags that people go to.
For Android users, no Play Store to download any apps when you're there.
😨

Don't fret yet,
because here is a list of all the 12 apps that will keep you well covered for your trip to
China.
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Preparation work starts days before you fly off. Don't wait till you're at the airport before you start downloading them because some of them take quite some time to set up!



1. Baidu Maps η™ΎεΊ¦εœ°ε›Ύ

What is it?
This is your replacement app for Google Maps. Google Maps is essentially useless because it does not have accuracy within China boundaries so your best bet will be Baidu Maps. 

(+) Like Google Maps, Baidu Maps have directions for walking, public transport, and by car, including the duration of time estimated for each route.

(-) If you can't read Chinese words, it will be difficult to navigate as the road names are all in its original Chinese names. Plot your directions beforehand while you still have access to Google maps (which has the names in hanyupinyin / romanized). 



2. Baidu GPS η™ΎεΊ¦ε―Όθˆͺ

What is it?
Do not make the rookie mistake that I did of downloading Baidu GPS thinking it is Baidu Maps. They are 2 different apps. Baidu GPS is a strictly-GPS app for driving directions.

(+) Baidu GPS is good for travellers who intend to rent and self-drive around. It has audio instructions, traffic conditions (vital for traffic-laden cities like Beijing), and offline maps.

(-) You need to download the locality maps in advance for Baidu GPS for it to work offline. This takes up a lot of storage space in your phone, but it is a good backup in case your SIM card runs out of credit or in rare places without connectivity.

3. Baidu

What is it?
You can download the app specially for your search engine choice. You can access Baidu through your browser apps, but if you don't like to keep so many windows open on your browser, get this app! Other than Baidu,com, there's also Sohu.com and Sogou.com. They work similarly.

(+) No Google, but yay for Baidu!

(-) If you can't type in Chinese, you are limited to certain search results which would not be as accurate or informative as the 'local search results' which are often articles or forums in Chinese. Nothing you can do about this unless you learn Chinese beforehand... or if you have this app:


4. Pleco Dictionary

What is it?
Pleco Dictionary is the must-have dictionary and translation app. Even native speakers like us had trouble reading some of the words around - your language skills will be put to the ultimate test. Pleco Dictionary helps to translate Chinese characters for you and tells you how to read them when you 'copy' the character onto the app.


5. Dianping 倧众点评

What is it?
Dianping is the biggest review app in China. You can use it to find out the best cafes/restaurants, massage parlours, karaoke lounges/ cinemas, tourist attractions, beauty salons... and more. It is driven by user-generated content and ratings, but there are some advertised placements as well.

(+) If you've done close to zero research on the city you're going, you can use Dianping for a generally reliable review app by the locals. There are many toggles to narrow down your search: distance from you (especially useful when you're dog-tired from walking), most recommended, price, popularity, environment, service, and more. There are also discounts for many restaurants and cafes (but only applicable if you have an Alipay/ Zhi Fu Bao account).

(-) The available list is not exhaustive nor extensive enough, there are many places that are not ranked. But this app is good enough for what it's worth.




6. WeChat - and set up your WeChat wallet if you can

What is it?
WeChat is the China equivalent of Facebook, Whatsapp, and Browser app all rolled into one.

(+) They are big on QR code scans - you can get discounts, free gifts, perks and bonuses for scanning a QR code at their shop. What scanning does is that it makes you follow their Subscription Account on WeChat (similar to 'liking' their page on Facebook). QR codes also manifest itself in many ways, including at tourist attractions to help you understand more about the place, for more product information. This is the primary reason why WeChat will be useful for a traveller like you.

(+) Moreover, WeChat is the number one social media app that Chinese people use. If you want to keep in touch with anyone you met along the way (networking on the go), offer to 'add their WeChat'. You can add by searching for their user ID or scanning their QR code.

(+) You can use your WeChat wallet for cash-free transactions. The catch is that you need someone with an existing WeChat wallet to help deposit some money in it first to activate it if you're not a local. Not a big deal if you have wads of cash.

(-) WeChat gets lonely if you have no friends on it πŸ˜”


7. Uber

What is it?
Taxi-hailing app.

(+) Uber is the way of life of the younger generation in China, and it is very much used for taxi-hailing. You can attempt to flag down on the streets but it is more expensive and unpredictable. Don't forget to use your own promo code (of your original account) to enjoy RMB10 discount!

(-) You need to get a China number and a China bank card before you can use this.




8. Didi Dache

What is it?
Another taxi-hailing app.

(+) Apparently Didi Dache has more discounts than Uber, around 4.5%.

(-) You need to get a China number and a China bank card before you can use this.


9. MetroMan/ Metro China Subway

What is it?
An app that plans your subway journey. Depending which city you are in, the metro network can be fairly easy or downright confusing.

(+) Tells you what's the fastest way to transfer lines from point A to B.


10. China Trains

What is it?
An app that tells you the train journey timings from city to city.

(+) There are numerous high-speed rail trains D/G/Z/T/K lines running everyday, and this helps to keep you in check on what are the timings available. This should only act as a guide.

(-) For foreigners, you have to head down to the train station's ticket buying booth with your passport, and buy a physical ticket from the counter. Do this in advance (at most 3 days, at least half a day) especially for long-haul rides.



11. Alipay/ Zhi Fu Bao

What is it?
These are online cash wallets. You will encounter many places that ask you if you want to pay by Alipay/ Zhi Fu Bao / WeChat wallet (wei-xin).

(+) At some places, you can enjoy discounts if you use Alipay/ Zhi Fu Bao/ WeChat wallet because of the ease from cashless transactions. Another plus point is that you can disguise as a local.

(-) Setting Alipay as a foreigner is a pain and a whole lot of system roundabouts you need to go through. It is not really worth the trouble - the easier alternative is to set up your WeChat wallet when your friends 'gift you' money red packets.


12. ExpressVPN

What is it?
Your escape from the great firewall of China.

(+) It means you have Google, Facebook and Instagram.

(-) USD$12.95 per month.


Tip Bonus for Android Users:
As Play Store (under Google) is also banned, you cannot download apps that you need but have not downloaded. Search on Baidu for the apk file of the app (Baidu search:"App Name + .apk") and you can download the app as well. Do note that this means your phone will be vulnerable to viruses or trojan horses that you might accidentally download instead.


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I share interesting episodes in life revolving around food, lifestyle, travel and inspirational ideas. If you would like to stay in touch, follow me on my Instagram on @amie.hu and Facebook page!

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