Which apps to get before you move to Shanghai
Moving to Shanghai can be daunting at first, but these apps will make your transition to life in China much easier.
Ten years ago, many expats in China wouldn’t leave the house without their “survival kit” filled with stuff like English-Chinese dictionaries, maps, guidebooks and endless business cards with the Chinese addresses of local bars and restaurants.
Thankfully, these days all you really need is your phone.
Here are 10 apps that you can download before your move to Shanghai that’ll start making your life easier from the moment your flight touches down in Pudong International, plus a couple more to get after you arrive.
WeChat is China’s most popular social media platform by a country mile: According to its parent company Tencent, it has more than 950 million monthly active users, the vast majority of which are based in China.
In effect, that means that pretty much everyone you meet in China will be on WeChat, and WeChat will almost certainly be his or her preferred way of contacting you.
The app started as a WhatsApp-like instant messaging platform, but has since evolved to become much more. Its Moments feed allows users to share text, photos and videos with their network in a similar way to Facebook, while its official accounts feature functions much like a Facebook page, allowing companies to publish content and build a network of followers.
What’s more, WeChat has an entire array of extra features linked to its WeChat Wallet digital payment service, which allows users to connect their bank card to the app and then make payments directly through WeChat. For a more detailed explanation of how this works, see the final section of this article.
Unfortunately, as with Alipay, you need to have a Chinese bank account to use WeChat Wallet. It is possible to set up a Chinese bank account before moving to China, but it is not easy (we will explain this topic in more detail in a separate post). So you will probably have to wait until after you have arrived in Shanghai to set up WeChat Wallet and Alipay.
However, you can set up a WeChat account before moving to China and use the social media aspects of the app quite easily. All you have to do is download the app and set up an account linked to your current cell phone number in your home country.
Then, after you have moved to China and acquired a Chinese SIM card, you can link your WeChat account to your new Chinese cell phone number by tapping Settings, then Account Security, then Phone, then Change Mobile, and then inputting your new Chinese number.
2. Google Translate
Google Translate will even recognize the most simple drawn characters for you.
Unless you’ve already acquired a decent level of Chinese, the biggest issue you’re going to face in your first few weeks and months in Shanghai is simply finding your way around and communicating with people.
Most major roads, buildings, public transport and tourist sites have English signs, but there are still going to be plenty of times when you’re faced by a wall of Chinese characters or a person who doesn’t speak a word of English.
Google Translate can be an absolute godsend in these situations, a kind of last resort for overcoming the language gap.
Google has been blocked in China since 2010, and almost all of its products including Docs, Drive, Gmail and YouTube are still only accessible with a VPN. But for some reason this is not the case for the Google Translate app—it works perfectly without a VPN.
The app is by far the best translation tool out there, much better than Baidu Fanyi or websites such as Babel.
If you want to use it to translate English into Chinese to show to a local person, it’s still best to keep it simple, but it can be useful for asking for simple directions.
It’s also great for translating Chinese SMS, WeChat messages and website content into English.
Finally, it has an excellent feature that allows you to draw characters manually by hand. This can be very useful if there is a Chinese character you see printed somewhere that you want to translate. Even if you struggle at writing characters, it’s amazing how often the app suggests the correct one.
3. Didi Chuxing (滴滴出行)
Didi now has a full English version of its app and added international payments.
Didi Chuxing, or simply Didi, is China’s answer to Uber, although it also allows you to book licensed taxis and schedule trips in advance.
They have worked hard to make its service more foreigner-friendly in recent months. It now has an English-language app, which allows you to set up an account using a foreign cell phone number (countries covered include the US, UK, Australia, Canada and several others).
There are also options to pay fares using an international credit card or cash (if you’re travelling in a licensed cab), so you can starting using the app even before you’ve set up a Chinese bank account or got a Chinese SIM card.
If your driver is struggling to find you, the app will even help you communicate with them by allowing you to send them a series of pre-programmed messages, which it will then translate automatically into Chinese.
4. Trip.com (by Ctrip)
You can use Trip.com to book hotels, flights and train tickets.
If you’re traveling further afield, Trip.com. will help you book a train, flight or hotel room really easily.
Like Didi, the Trip.com app has a full English version and payments can be made using international credit cards, so you can start using it even before you’ve got your Chinese bank account and phone number set up.
Paying with a foreign card can sometimes cause problems, but Trip.com also has an English-language call center and they can usually fix any issues for you fairly easily.
The company also seems to be making improvements to its system—users report much fewer problems with bookings these days compared to two or three years ago.
Sherpa’s allows you to get food from Shanghai’s top restaurants delivered to your door in just a few minutes.
Expat-friendly food delivery service Sherpa’s has been a lifeline for new arrivals to Shanghai for years.
Similar in concept to apps like Grubhub or Deliveroo, Sherpa’s allows you to order food from dozens of restaurants across Shanghai and have your meal delivered to your door within an hour.
It’s more expensive than its Chinese competitors Ele.me or Meituan, but it’s worth paying the higher delivery fees.
Sherpa’s’ entire app is geared toward expats, so everything is in English and you can pay for your order in cash on delivery, meaning that there’s no need to have Alipay or WeChat Wallet set up already.
The company also places a huge emphasis on quality. It selects the restaurants it works with and drops any outlets receiving a high number of complaints, as opposed to its competitors, which seem to allow anyone with a wok to start selling food through their platforms.
Because of the higher delivery fees, the restaurants are also willing to deliver much further afield, so you can order a pizza from your favorite place in Jingan even if you live all the way out in Pudong.
Epermarket will deliver groceries within a two-hour time slot, unlike most competitors in Shanghai.
Similar to Sherpa’s, but for groceries. Epermarket will deliver anything you’d want to get from the supermarket to your door the next day, or any other day over the next week.
Like Sherpa’s, it’s more expensive than competitors like YiHaoDian and Carrefour, but the added convenience is worth the extra fees.
Firstly, you can select a two-hour time slot for your delivery, whereas YiHaoDian and Carrefour orders can arrive any time between 8 am and 8 pm.
Epermarket also has a great range of imported products—high quality steaks from Australia, craft beer from Japan, etc.—that are not easy to find even on Carrefour.
And even more importantly, you can pay on delivery, so there’s no need to have a Chinese bank account already set up.
7. Smart Shanghai (SmSH)
Smart Shanghai has a directory of thousands of venues with the address in English and Chinese.
Smart Shanghai has been helping expats find their way around Shanghai for nearly a decade.
It’s got a huge directory of hundreds of bars, restaurants, stores, hotels, and much more, with the Chinese address for each entry written in nice big characters to show a taxi driver.
There are drawbacks, though. Although they work hard to keep their directory up-to-date, some venues that have closed are still listed, so it’s worth double-checking the venue is still open before making a reservation.
Also, be warned that scam artists have been known to rip off expats through Smart Shanghai’s apartments, jobs and buy & sell boards, so be very careful when dealing with anyone through the site.
Pleco is by far the best free English-Chinese dictionary out there.
Pleco is the best Chinese-English dictionary you’ll ever own, and it’s free! It does everything you’d expect, translating Chinese words into English and vice-versa, plus providing plenty of examples of how each word is used.
Like Google Translate, it also allows you to draw Chinese characters manually, allowing you to translate a tricky character you’ve never encountered before and lets you use the camera for text recognition with live translation.
Meetup helps you find people in Shanghai that share the same hobbies and interests.
Meetup is great for finding groups of people that share similar interests. Unlike Craigslist, which is dead apart from the jobs and language teaching feeds, Shanghai’s Meetup scene is fairly active, with lots of groups for everything from language exchanges to sports to cosplaying.
10. Bon App!
Bon App! is an online community for foodies in Shanghai and other Asian cities.
Bon App! is more than a restaurant guide; it’s more like an online community for food lovers in Shanghai.
It contains detailed info on dozens of restaurants across the city, most of which are at the gourmet end of the spectrum. But it also has lots of other handy features, including curated lists of great places to try, daily deals, and even a Meetup-style events section where users can set up brunch clubs and tastings, etc.
A few other things to consider
1. Make sure you sort out a VPN before your move
We will introduce VPNs in more detail elsewhere on the site, but it’s worth quickly mentioning again here that you should definitely sort out a VPN before you arrive in Shanghai.
A VPN, or virtual private network, is a piece of software that disguises your location while you are online, enabling you to get around China’s “Great Firewall” and access blocked sites like Google, YouTube and Facebook.
Obviously, the Chinese government also does its best to block the websites of major VPN providers, so it is much more difficult to set up a VPN after you have arrived in China.
Indeed, China’s internet censorship has become even stricter in recent months, so setting up a VPN before arriving in China is likely to become even more important in the future.
We will provide a detailed guide on how to set up a VPN and which VPN provider to choose in a separate article.
2. But what about Alipay and WeChat Wallet?
WeChat Wallet and Alipay are China’s answer to contactless debit cards.
Sadly, the two most useful things of all—WeChat Wallet and Alipay—are the most difficult to set up from outside China.
Alipay and WeChat Wallet are mobile payment services. By linking your bank card to the apps, you effectively turn your phone into a contactless debit card, enabling you to pay at store checkouts or restaurants simply by scanning a QR code or having a member of staff scan your phone.
What’s more, the two apps also have a bewildering array of digital payments features, helping you to quickly make purchases. You can top up your cell phone credit, book flights and train tickets, pay your utility bills, buy movie tickets, donate to charity, and transfer money to your contacts (extremely useful for splitting checks or paying the rent), among many other things.
It’s difficult to overstate how ubiquitous Alipay and its competitor WeChat Wallet have now become in China. In a recent survey cited by social media experts China Channel, more than a quarter of Alipay and WeChat users said that they often don’t carry cash at all any more, as they pay for everything through the two apps.
Because both services work by being synced to a Chinese bank account, it is very difficult (but not impossible) to set them up from outside China. We will explain how you could go about setting up Alipay or WeChat Wallet before your arrival in China in our guides to the two apps.
If you do have to wait until you arrive in Shanghai to get Alipay or WeChat Wallet, it’s not a big deal. Again, be sure to check out our other posts for step-by-step instructions on how to start using them.