When I first came to China last year, I quickly discovered that smartphone apps could make life a lot easier. Everything from communicating with my homestay mother to watching foreign TV shows is made possible with the right apps. Here are some of the best apps to get if you’re new to China.
Sometimes knowing just one more word of Chinese makes the difference between whether or not you're understood. I’ve found Pleco to be the best Chinese-English dictionary available for your smartphone. It’s simple, fast, and works offline. It even offers audio pronunciation (very helpful for getting the tones right). For the best functionality, be sure to add Chinese keyboards for pinyin and handwriting to your phone.
WeChat is big in China. Very big. It’s the go to method for communication. Basically it’s a text based messaging service (it offers several other social functions as well). I live in a homestay, and use it to communicate with my host mother. While I am still a beginner with Chinese, with the help of Pleco I am usually able to get my point across in a WeChat, but the problems start with the replies. They are long and I recognize little more than “谢谢” or “你好”. Luckily WeChat has a translate function built in. All you have to do is tap and hold the message and a menu appears with the option to translate. The translations are not great, but they're usually enough to understand the meaning.
Waygo automatically recognizes Chinese characters through your phone’s camera and translates them in realtime without an internet connection. It’s great for restaurant menus (especially if you want to avoid a certain type of meat).
A subway map is always a good thing to have, especially if you're on a crowded train and don’t know which stop to push your way off at. I recommend mxData’s app. It’s available for Beijing and Shanghai.
Sometimes I miss home, and a little western TV is just what I need, but Netflix and YouTube don’t work in China without a fast VPN. China’s alternative is Youku. The user interface is entirely in characters, but simply type names of western TV shows into the search bar and you’ll be surprised by how much you can find.
iPhones automatically load different maps through the built in “Maps” app while connected to the internet in China, and they’re actually quite good (Apple uses data from a Chinese company). For Android users, or those without cellular data I recommend maps from Ulmon (there are different versions for Beijing and Shanghai). It’s a great offline map with English and characters that also has information preloaded from Wikipedia about points of interest.
Written By Austin Bliss - CSA Intern Summer 2015