With the Great Chinese Firewall blocking influential foreign services like Google, Youtube, and Facebook, you will definitely need a good backup plan. Fortunately, I will show you 6 essential apps for China in this article.
Wechat – 微信 (free)
The MOST ESSENTIAL App in China is Wechat without any doubt. Chinese use Wechat as Whatsapp+Facebook+Dropbox. Why?
It is because Facebook, Dropbox, and Whatsapp are all blocked by the Great Chinese Firewall. In the beginning, people start to use Wechat as a Chat program like Whatsapp. But then it became bigger when there is no real replacement for Facebook. Basically, all the people who would have used the Chinese Version of Facebook start to use Wechat because there is no Chinese Copy of Facebook that is really successful! After that, people start to use it as a business tool because everyone can receive and send files without further registration on another platform like Dropbox. The result is what Wechat became today: A multipurpose social network tool for China.
And it even gets better.
Use Wechat as a payment tool in China
Tencent and Alibaba have now conquered the whole China with their digital online payment tools Wechat Pay and Alipay. 70% of all transactions in China are made digital. It is crazy how things have changed in the last 10 years. Nowhere in the world has adopted the digital payment so well like China. Today, you can pay everything with Wechat or Alipay from insurance, street food, taxi bill, hotels, flights to cars.
But wait, Wechat can do more.
Use Wechat as a translator to Chinese people
The one thing I really love about Wechat is the translation function. In a chat conversation, you can simply click on any sentence and let it translated to your device language. This function allows you to speak to non-English speakers in China.
Use Mini-programs in Wechat
Since the last two years, Wechat has now gained the function of being a host for other mini-programs. This means that you can use other apps on your phone without installing it!
Let me explain.
It is like a playing browser game on Facebook in the earlier days. You don’t need to install the apps, Facebook will act as a host and load them for you.
Wechat not only allows you to play hosted games but also use real apps like Didi and Uber to call cars without installation. It is because Wechat has gained such a big influence in China, every app is voluntary to integrate their program on what to gain more users. The downside of this function is that Wechat itself will require a lot of storage. My Wechat has about 350 mb of usage which is quite big for a Chat app. Not all mini-programs are translated into English yet, but we surely can expect more updates coming in the next few years.
Wechat is definitely the ultimate app you need to install in order to conquer China. You can easily connect people on social media, pay digitally, use hosted apps, and receive
Alipay – 支付宝 (free)
Alipay is a digital payment tool allowing us to handle all transactions similar to Wechat. It is also similar to Paypal, but it is better integrated into other Alibaba’s ecosystems and provides more nice-to-have functions.
If you are going to stay in China for a while, it is almost certain that you will buy something from Alibaba at some point.
Today, Alibaba offers many dedicated platforms for online shopping. For instance, Tmall is for branded products. Alibaba is for wholesales, Xianyu is for secondhand selling. By having Alipay installed on your phone, you can benefit from the all Alibaba infrastructure such as package tracking information, directly chat with vendors centralized in one app.
Alipay and Wechat offer concurring services. Most of the third party companies have already have joined either Alibaba or Tencent as an alliance. It is hence recommended to have them both installed so you can always choose the best from the competition. Here is another cool fact about Alipay.
Ok, but what if I don’t shop at all during my visit to China. Do I still need Alipay?
Use Hello Bike as a mini-program under Alipay
As I said before, mini-programs are the reason why you still need to install Wechat and Alipay. And probably one of the most useful mini-app is Hello Bike – 哈罗单车, currently the best sharing bike brand.
There are just so many bikes in China that it already becomes a problem. According to Statista, the Chinese City Wuhan has 10 times more sharing bikes than London. Using one of these to travel through short or medium distance seems just perfect.
Unlike sharing bikes in western countries, there is no strictly defined position for parking which results in a massive problem for public usage. The good thing about this: you can always find a bike near you.
ExpressVPN is considered by many people the best commercial VPN out there for breaking the Chinese wall. Although it will have connectivity issues during great political events like 70 Years national day, it is rather reliable and works most of the time.
Back in the day, there were many VPN providers on the market. But since China start to strictly prohibit VPNs in 2014, many domestic providers have been forced to shut down. Even if you find a good domestic provider that works, it is very likely that the service will be closed in the next half year.
As that said, foreign providers simply have a huge advantage over domestic providers. My advice: Don’t go for free VPN because they never work properly in the long run.
ExpressVPN hosts a service Tor network. It also offers UDP and TCP protocols which are simply better than L2TP and PPTP protocols.
The best part is: you can even use it outside China because surfing anonymously on the web is always a good idea.
Amap – 高德地图 (free)
Google Maps is blocked in China. If you are on an iPhone, chances are your default map is not accurate either. You will especially have difficulties in dense city areas or in the rural region finding proper navigation.
I have experienced all the struggle myself. Believe me, Amap is the best map for China. Why?
Amap ist part of the Alibaba group. Now this doesn‘t necessarily a good app quality, but they usually provide more updates and have more resources to invest in.
I have teste Tencent Map but decided to stay with Amap.
It also has a nice function where you can call taxi and cars across different platforms like Didi (滴滴叫车), Caocao(曹操出行), Car inc.(神州出租). It saves time me a lot of waiting time, which is very handy!
Google Translate – 谷歌翻译 (free)
Wait… Google is blocked in China isnt it?
Yes, but Google Translate is not. In case it gets blocked in the future, you can still use its offline service by downloading all the packages to your phone before traveling to China.
This is a secret most people don’t know about. You don’t need to swap to a third-party app you are not used to. Just stick with the good old Google Translate.
Let’s be real, most Chinese people won’t understand English. A good translation program is essential in case you get in some difficult situations like ordering food or talking to your hotel service.
Google Translate is the most comprehensive tool you will find inside and outside China. It simply has no competitor.
Wifi Master Key – Wifi万能钥匙 (free)
Wifi Master key is a real secret among pro users. It allows you to connect to public Wifis by providing the right password. But how?
This apps gathers user information and reads all the passwords stored in the users’ phones. It then creates a database of frequently used Wifis and serves all people who use the app.
If you are in a restaurant near the train station, in a movie theater or in a big shopping mall, chances are there is one function Wifi around you. Wifi Master Key provides passwords so you can save your data and battery.
Upside: You have access to major wifi places in big cities since they are shared among many users.
Downside: Not working in rural areas.
The Great Chinese Firewall makes live inside China more difficult for all. Wechat and Alipay are probably the two most essential apps for China. All the 7 apps provided in the article can be used without VPN. But it is recommended to install them before going to China since Google Play service is not available.
Pro Tip: You can gain access to your blocked service in China if you use to connect the internet via an international mobile sim card. The connection might be slow sometimes but it will be a backup solution. Here are 5 more technique that help you to bypass the Great Firewall in China.