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25 Essential China Survival Apps

We loved the list of tips and tricks for living in Beijing that Kaiser Kuo wrote on Quora.  We agree with them all (especially the last one).  Not being able to top such comprehensive and impassioned advice, we thought we’d go a different route.  Since we (YJ excluded) confess to occasionally both whining AND bitching, we’ve come to rely on a few simple hacks to avoid unnecessary bad China days.  

Which ones did we miss? Leave us a comment and let us know your top survival apps!

Language Skills

Pleco
The indispensable dictionary app. The free included dictionary is pretty good, while for more heavy-duty purposes, serious language learners (or “grownups,” as Brendan calls them) can purchase add-ons including dictionaries, optical character recognition, flashcards, and more. The ABC Chinese-English dictionary is particularly useful, and more advanced users will find the Xiandai Hanyu Guifan Cidian (现代汉语规范词典) indispensable.
Homepage Android iOS

Waygo Visual Translator
Too lazy and/or stupid to learn Chinese? Or perhaps you just want to be able to order a meal without having to learn the world’s dumbest writing system first? Waygo Visual Translator has got your back: the free app offers remarkably good OCR for menus and street signs. Point your iPhone at a menu and get an instantaneous (and mostly pretty accurate) translation of dish names. Brendan used to recommend that anyone coming to China pick up a copy of James D. McCawley’s The Eater’s Guide to Chinese Characters; Waygo renders that excellent book more or less obsolete. So this is what living in the future is going to be like!
Homepage iOS

Xiaoma Hanzi (小马词典)
A nice little character study app that lets you quiz yourself on the pronunciation and meaning of random characters and search by stroke order, though not as comprehensive as Pleco.
Homepage Android

Sogou Pinyin Input (搜狗手机输入法)
China’s most ubiquitous pinyin input software, developed by internet giant Sohu (also good for watching American TV shows, see below), Sogou Pinyin keeps up with the latest memes, brands and names, so when you enter a pinyin string more often than not the first one is the right one. Also not bad: Google Pinyin.
Homepage Android iOS

Shopping & Eating

Taobao (淘宝)
Russian MIGs and everything else made by the hand of man, plus rent-a-boyfriends.
Homepage Android iOS

Etao (一淘)
Great for comparison shopping across e-commerce sites in China and abroad (including Amazon.com).
Homepage Android iOS

Alipay (支付宝钱包)
Want that MIG? This is how you pay for it.
Homepage Android iOS

Dazhong Dianping (大众点评)
Find restaurants by location, cuisine, price, or user reviews.
Homepage Android iOS

MTime (时光电影)
Find movie theaters and showtimes in your area.
Homepage Android iOS

Wochacha (我查查)
Scan barcodes on books, food, or other stuff and compare prices at supermarkets in your area and e-commerce sites.
Homepage Android iOS

Social

Sina Weibo (新浪微博)
Keep your finger on the pulse of China’s netizens, follow the latest celebrity gossip, and if you’re really lucky, become popular enough that people notice when you’re banned. There’s also Tencent Weibo, but we’ve never met someone who intentionally posts anything there.
Homepage Android iOS

WeChat (微信)
Hot on the heels of Weibo, Tencent’s annointed successor to the omnipresent QQ Instant Messenger features an impressive array of ways to waste time chatting with your friends.
Homepage Android iOS

Music

xiamiXiami (虾米)
Streaming music service, keeps up with China, UK, Billboard charts and searchable for that song you’ve got to hear right now. Also lets you save 50 songs on your phone for offline playback. Click the album cover and follow along on the lyrics (they’re not available for every song though, its hit or miss).
Homepage Android iOS

doubanfmDouban FM (豆瓣FM)
Internet radio station like Pandora. Develops a personalized station based on your favorites, also saves your latest favorites to the phone for offline playback. Particularly interesting are theme stations like those tailor for 80后 and 90后 generation listeners, playing nostalgic classics from their childhoods as well as new music popular with their peers.
Homepage Android iOS

Video

Youku (优酷)
Youku devoured their rival Tudou last year and has an impressive collection of legal, HD films and TV shows from around the world, plus a whole lot of other films and TV shows that may not be quite as legal or high-quality.
Homepage Android iOS

Sohu Video (搜狐视频)
Need to see Mad Men, Dexter, Homeland, Breaking Bad, or Big Bang Theory? Sohu licenses some of the US megahits that Chinese viewers really dig.
Homepage Android iOS

iQiyi (爱奇艺)
Baidu’s online video platform offers a number of films and TV shows not available on Sohu or Youku.
Homepage Android iOS

funshionFunshion (风行)
I’ve not used Funshion yet, but I hear good things, and they have Downton Abbey – good start.
Homepage Android iOS

Kascend (开迅视频)
Great for searching across multiple video platforms.
Homepage Android iOS

Flvshow (视频飞搜)
A good rule of thumb is to never download Android apps from outside the Android app store unless its directly from the official company website (like the Xiami links above), but this app came pre-installed on a nano PC I bought and its a pretty good aggregator of all the video sites, like Kascend. Download at your own risk – the link below is from phone manufacturer Meizu’s app store:
Android

CNTV CBox (国网络电视台Cbox)
CNTV is CCTV’s online arm, and the CBox app lets you watch CCTV stations live – good for catching that NBA game on CCTV-5.
Homepage Android iOS

Travel

Ctrip
Find and reserve air and rail tickets, hotel rooms, and travel packages.
Homepage Android iOS

UMeTrip (航旅纵横)
Track flight departures, arrivals and delays at mainland China airports.
Homepage Android iOS

Yidao Yongche (易到用车)
Stuck in Guomao and have dinner plans near Sanlitun? Fees average about 2-3 times the cost of a cab, but this GPS-based pay-as-you-go car service is great for those times when you really need to get somewhere but can’t count on a taxi being available.
Homepage Android iOS

Utilities

全国空气污染指数 (National Air Pollution Index)
Check the PM 2.5 levels before you leave the house so you know whether to pack your filter mask/gas mask/stay in and cry.
Homepage Android iOS

Conversion Apps
Americans in particular need help learning to think about distance and weight the way most humans do, so an app like ConvertPad for Android or Converter Plus for iOS.

Helpful Tips

  • Want 3G but don’t know which Chinese carrier to use? If you use AT&T or T-Mobile (WCDMA), you need China Unicom. If you use Verizon (EV-DO), you need China Telecom. You can only use China Mobile’s local flavor of 3G if you buy a phone from China Mobile, because its a homegrown standard that hasn’t caught on globally. 4G? Not here yet.
  • Don’t use HiMarket or other Chinese app store versions of apps on an Android device with a SIM card or your personal info.
  • Guess what? English names of apps, movies, TV shows, companies, etc. are either translated or phoneticized, so if you want to find Hobo with a Shotgun, pop the English into Baidu (Android and iOS apps available) and usually it’ll spit back the Chinese name (持枪流浪汉), and maybe even links to watch.

 

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  • msittig

    “Don’t use HiMarket or other Chinese app store versions of apps on an Android device with a SIM card or your personal info.”

    Can you explain this? My phone is a little 国产 domestic dual-SIM that didn’t come with Google Play, and the manufacturer’s installed market doesn’t have the depth of selection that HiMarket does. I try to install directly from the developer, but many of the more professional apps don’t offer this option.

  • http://www.qualityinspection.org/ Renaud Anjoran

    Great list! Now I have a long to-try list.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/elliott.bernstein Elliott Bernstein

    any way to flash your device and install a custom rom? even if not, if you can get a custom recovery tool like TWRP or clockworkmod into your phone and flash an appropriate version of the google apps zip (usually called gapps), then you can get the play store onto your phone.

    one big reason you don’t want to install software from sources other than the play store is that the installation might include code that steals your information, monitors your phone, or creates other security exploits or backdoors into your device.

    if all else fails, just be careful and don’t randomly download APKs to install on your phone.

  • http://twitter.com/davesgonechina davesgonechina

    Yes, what Elliott said. I should’ve expanded on that – Chinese app markets sometimes traffic in apps that have been modified to capture your personal information or rack up invisible data or SMS charges. My impression of HiMarket is that it is probably safe, but I err on the side of caution.

    Since Android is open source, handset manufacturers are free to change them however they want, including removing things like the VPN option, Google Play, etc. You can flash a new version of Android – MIUI is a popular option, and there’s an English edition if you don’t want it in Chinese. I believe your local handset tinkerer/illegal app trader can hook you up with that, or you can do it yourself.

    I should point out that Google Play is available on HiMarket: http://static.apk.hiapk.com/html/2012/05/574291.html?module=64&info=

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.millward Steven Millward

    a very nice list. for general traveling and commuting I’d also recommend:

    Baidu Maps
    Explore Shanghai (for subway; other cities available)
    8684地铁
    8684火车
    8684公交

    For those with Android phones containing no Google Play app (yes, never buy
    an Android phone that’s pre-flashed in China), you could – at your own
    risk of malware-infected apps – try out Baidu App Store, AppChina, or
    Wandoujia. That latter one also does PC-Android syncing and now has an
    English app version called PeaPod.

    For social, I’d add that Weico is much better than Sina Weibo’s own apps. On a different topic, for location/venue check-ins (and potential freebies/deals), try out
    Jiepang.

  • http://www.facebook.com/steven.millward Steven Millward

    the Amazon AppStore is a good and totally legit alternative. if you just want free apps but don’t live in Amazon’s support AppStore countries, there’s a good (but sneaky) way to sign up and get just the free apps that you can find by Googling.

    GetJar is another resource for free-only apps.

    As for the Chinese stores, things like AppChina should be safe, but always be alert.

  • Joe Maher

    I want to put in a good word for Skritter. I had and used the excellent Pleco flashcard add-on for about a year (this was before Anki had an app version) and it was awesome for definitions and pinyin. I’ve been subscribed to Skritter for 6 months now, and while it is much more expensive than either Anki or Pleco, its interface is awesome, it has a nice extensive selection of word lists, it charts your improvement on easy to view graphs (which is very motivational for me), and it is awesome for definitions, pinyin, AND writing. The writing part is key here. I have never had an app that has handled writing so well. Plus it ties in with Pleco! Anyway, they got me with their free week-long trial period and I’m subscribed for a year with no regrets halfway through. Certainly beats writing in those little character practice notebooks thousands of times over.

    I also second Weico.

    And these are kind of regional, but Shenzhen has an AWESOME free subway app that’s just called 深圳地铁 and Hong Kong MTR’s is even better.

    Finally, you can’t have an English language China Survival App list without a way to stay in contact with your family and friends back home. Groupme lets me group text all of my friends back in the US. Actually its kinda similar to Weixin i suppose, but without all of the voice stuff that nobody uses.

  • http://twitter.com/TeaWithCarl Carl Levinson

    Thanks.

  • msittig

    Thanks! It’s a dual-SIM phone, and it doesn’t seem like there are ROMs that support that? Also, about Amazon, it’s a great market and I can buy apps, but it does require a US credit card even for the free apps which might be limiting for some people. I’ll check out the android pit market next.

  • msittig

    That’s exactly the reasoning I was looking for, which is good to know. I’m not sure I trust HiMarket either, so when I have data that’s worth protecting I’ll start erring on the side of caution as well!

  • Ian

    Great post, many thanks. I’d caution, though, that Sogo sends tons of aggressive cookies to monitor everything you do. I think it’s not necessary anymore as most built-in Chinese language software is pretty good nowadays.

  • Evan Jones

    I tried to find the xiami (music app), I put in the pinyin and the characters, no luck. I did see an app called DuoMi that was a music app. Anyone know how to get the xiami app?

  • http://twitter.com/davesgonechina davesgonechina

    Thanks Ian. Yes, Sogou and Google Pinyin (and most third-party predictive text apps) collect statistics on word usage from their users. That is, after all, how they have that new slang word or the name of that popular TV show ready for you as the first choice. The Sogou and Google privacy agreements are nearly identical: even if you don’t have a user account, each install has a unique ID; both have network sync options; and both mention a “Yes, I agree to let you collect statistics” checkbox that I cannot find in the settings of the mobile app. If you are a journalist, activist, or Gene Hackman in The Conversation, you probably want to be using Google, or the default keyboard from the manufacturer, though in that case you should still do your homework. If you’re a civilian, however, I wouldn’t be as worried. They claim they are collecting statistics, not personal data, and Chinese users are very sensitive about data privacy issues. If they are collecting everyone’s data, they won’t survive the scandal when it comes.

    Fun fact: Google got caught stealing Sogou’s dictionary back in 2007. http://www.pcworld.com/article/130502/article.html

  • http://twitter.com/davesgonechina davesgonechina

    Evan, the link in the post goes to Xiami’s official webpage, where you can download the Android apk or go to the app in iTunes. The Android app hasn’t shown up on Google Play yet. If you’re on iTunes, either use the link, or search for “虾米音乐”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/elliott.bernstein Elliott Bernstein

    reposting a facebook comment for people looking for more apps: qunar’s app isn’t anything special but has much better selection and prices than ctrip. of course requires chinese language skills and payment method. i’ve never used momo but certainly some adventurous young expats will be wanting to give it a spin. people seem to be enjoying fourtones lately (music/language). don’t konw if they count as apps but VPN software can be crucial… openvpn for android works with a bunch of services. it’s been a long time since i used ios but what about those chinese jailbreak/app pirating services? i still can’t figure out who would want to steal a bunch of 99 cent items personally.

  • http://magazeta.com/ Александр Мальцев

    Thanks for the list! We did Russian translation for “Magazeta” with a link to the original post. http://magazeta.com/2013/02/25china-apps/

  • http://twitter.com/mdevens Marc Devens

    The Xiami and Douban apps seem to only work in the Chinese iTunes store. Is there any way around this if my account is registered to the US store?

  • Rowan

    I would also recommend an app called FOODragon. It’s kind of smart menu which suggest common chinese dishes to you based on what kind of food you ask for. It’s useful. It also has a blog about chinese food (http://www.foodragon.com/blog/)

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