• Shanghai Expat Associatio

App-solutely Indespensible

Updated: Jun 5, 2019

By Danielle LeClerc


In 2008, practicing my “yi, er, san” as the train rolled into Shanghai Railway Station, I was more than a little intimidated. How was I going to communicate with anyone? My Motorola flip phone was… just a phone. Two years later, smart phones transformed the city for locals and expats alike. Now, any newly-minted Shanghai Ren is spoiled by the rainbow of free, handy apps, designed to make your Shanghai experience not just smooth, but fun, too. Charge your phone, add yi bai (100 CNY) to your China Mobile account, and download these must-have (and nice-to-have) apps for easy living in Shanghai.


Talking the Talk

Whether you just want a boost, or a comprehensive learning experience, try one of these apps to bring your foreign language fantasy closer to reality.


DuoLingo



Want to practice your Chinese on your own time? The Duolingo app, with its game-like interface, helps you to practice daily. Collect achievements, compete with others, and even connect with other users in language clubs. Duolingo’s strengths include flashcards to review words, exercises for reading characters, and study reminder notifications. It's a great place to start for people actually trying to learn Chinese.


Who it’s for: Everyone

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: Wide range of languages available

Cost: Free with ads, 95 CNY for one month, 68 CNY per month for one year

Must-haveness: Useful


Pleco



This is a great little pocket dictionary for Chinese. Scan some text you need to read, type in a bit of pinyin, draw a character you saw somewhere, or repeat a phrase you heard someone say. Pleco will translate any input to English. And, it works just as well in reverse. Pleco's main function is a dictionary. For translating full sentences or paragraphs, try Google Translate.


Who it’s for: Everyone

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: English, Mandarin, and Cantonese

Cost: Free for the basic version, fancy (and pricey) add-ons are available

Must-haveness: Very handy indeed


Google Translate



What does that sign say? How can I text this delivery driver that I'll be home in ten minutes? Google Translate has the answers to these questions. It's an all-in-one translation app that can translate written and spoken Chinese to and from any language. Type, copy and paste, speak, or scan words in Chinese, then share the translation in another app or even have your phone say the words for you. Download the Chinese language pack for easier access (given Google’s status in China).

Who it’s for: Everyone

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: All

Cost: Free

Must-haveness: Essential


Point A to Point B:

Whether it’s the driver’s day off, or exploring on your own is the norm, we all need to get around town. These apps will make sure you don't get hopelessly lost.


Didi



Need to get to the airport but no taxis in sight? Standing in the pouring rain as every taxi passes by? Enter DiDi. This app calls a driver to pick you up, providing an expected wait time, and estimated cost. Some extra features include choosing a metered taxi or Uber-style driver, selecting the car size, and saving money by carpooling. Payment can be linked to a Chinese bank card via Ali-pay. Most drivers do not speak English but the app translates text messages.

Who it’s for: Everyone

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: Chinese and English

Cost: Free

Must-haveness: Essential


Bike Shares: Mobike & Ofo



Going somewhere that’s too far to walk but not far enough to take a taxi? Bike shares were made for this. Shanghai is as flat as a jianbing (Chinese pancake), so it’s a great town for pedaling around. Download either, or both, the Mobike (orange) and Ofo (yellow) apps then follow the steps to register and start riding. Once the account is approved, scan a bike's QR code to unlock the bike and start its meter, and your ride. Be careful out there!

Who it’s for: The able-bodied and fearless

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: English and Chinese

Cost: 100-200 CNY deposit via WeChat or Alipay, 1-5 CNY per ride

Must-haveness: Very handy indeed


Metroman’s Metro China Subway



Shanghai has one of the biggest and best metro systems in the world. It doesn’t take long to become a pro at zipping across town. Metro China makes it easy and includes downloads for several other regional cities. This app has everything you need to know about the metro: an excellent map in English and Chinese, station information, timetables, a route planner, the time and distance travelled, and the total fare.


Who it’s for: New and frequent metro users

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: English, Chinese, and other languages

Cost: Free

Must-haveness: Useful


Another highly recommended metro app is: Explore Metro Shanghai



Maps.me



For those who have trouble getting their Google Maps to work, or those who have spotty phone service, a good alternative is Maps.me which is designed for offline use.


Who it’s for: Everyone

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: English, Chinese, and other languages

Cost: Free (paid upgrade available for Maps.me)

Must-haveness: Very handy indeed


Apple Maps



Just a mention here. It doesn’t require a v** to work. Some say it’s the most useful app here in China, accurate, and reliable.


Flight Aware



Flight Aware tracks flights, provides delay and cancellation information, shows activity at airports worldwide, and even provides a view all scheduled flight paths in the area. This app has all the information a plane traveler could possibly need, and a lot more. If only it could get us free upgrades.


Who it’s for: Frequent fliers, people waiting for guests to arrive, and airplane enthusiasts

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: English

Cost: Free

Must-haviness: Useful


M is for Money:

Shanghai is one of the most expensive cities in the world so you won't get far without money. Make sure you have it and pay attention to how much you spend.


Alipay and WeChat pay



These payment apps have quickly become nearly essential for life in China. You can shop online (using Taobao), pay bills, transfer money to people (like your friend, your landlord, your hummus supplier), as well as shop all over China. Many ex-pats have both Alipay and WeChat pay set up with their Chinese bank, to give them more flexibility, and potentially better (English) customer support and security than brick-and-mortar banks. A word of warning: These apps require many permissions during setup, are considered by some as data privacy risks. Editor’s Note: Alipay is the only mobile payment accepted in Disneyland.


Who it’s for: All adults

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: English and Chinese

Cost: Free for friend transfers

Must-haviness: Very handy indeed


Oanda Currency Converter



Until converting to RMB becomes second nature, Oanda is a simple and easy-to-use app that converts every currency, from the Albanian Lek to the Zimbabwean Dollar. It doesn’t require an internet connection, making it great for travel. Although more serious bankers might use the app Xe which can also transfer money, the Chinese yuan is not yet one of the available currencies.


Who it’s for: People still getting used to Chinese currency or who travel often

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: English

Cost: Free

Must-haveness: Useful


Getting Your Shop On:

Whether you're furnishing your new home, buying souvenirs, or guilty pleasures, these apps will get you everything you ever dreamed of, and more.


Taobao



Taobao changed expat life in Shanghai forever. Want a potato masher? Taobao has it. Although difficult to set up and all in Chinese, everything else gets easier. The desktop version is even easier to use than the app, especially paired with Google Translate. It's also a great price comparison tool when shopping at a market and something seems a little too expensive.


Who it’s for: Everyone

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: Chinese only

Cost: Free, but you are going to shop your accounts dry, guaranteed

Must-haviness: Essential


Baopals


You might think of Baopals as Taobao "lite." No app yet, but there is an easy Wechat link.


CamCard



Remember where that great tailor was located? CamCard to the rescue! It's a virtual Rolodex for business cards. Scan a mingpian to clearly store the name, address, and phone numbers, and include notes. CamCard is also a good networking tool. Organize professional contacts, share a business card, and even chat and email with people in your network.

Who it’s for: Anyone who’s ever lost a business card

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: Operating system available in several languages, “reads” cards in even more.

Cost: Free for the basic version, 4.50USD/month for premium

Must-haveness: Very handy indeed


What’s for Dinner:

Everybody eats and Shanghai has something for every palette. These apps will make your food choices easier and more convenient.


Sherpas



Ahh Sherpas, the comfort-food mainstay of busy families and hungover English teachers alike. You can use the Sherpas app or website to order food from dozens of mostly non-Chinese restaurants. The reason to have the app on your phone is so you can order dinner on your long commute and have it arrive five minutes after you get home. Now that’s the Shanghai life!


Who it’s for: People who don’t mind spending a little more

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: English and Chinese

Cost: Free (15-55 CNY fee per order)

Must-haveness: Very handy indeed


BonApp



Shanghai is nothing short of a food mecca where new eateries rise out of the ash of others at a breakneck rate. So how do you stay up to speed? There's BonApp for that. Search for restaurants nearby while you're running around town, find great deals, and even make a reservation through a collaboration with Chope app. Get all the details, like prices, menus, photos, and reviews, for many restaurants in Shanghai and other cities around China, too.


Who it’s for: Foodies and people who eat at restaurants

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: Wide range of languages

Cost: Free

Must-haveness: Very handy indeed


Just Plain Living:

With these apps, there's no need to fear the great, unknown outside world. Find out what's happening beyond your compound walls without leaving them.


Air Matters



When monitoring stations around Shanghai report varying levels of air quality, use Air Matters to find your closest match. This app reports the level of PM2.5 and PM10 particles in the air, plus various potentially irritating gases. It also provides an allergen index, temperature, humidity, and wind speed, too. You can use it to check on the air in just about any city in the world.


Who it’s for: People with kids, breathing problems, or the health conscious

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: English

Cost: Free with ads, 8 CNY per year without ads

Must-haveness: Useful


LQ



When you move to a new country, there are a lot of things you need to find. One essential that the lists often miss is finding a community. If you are looking for a very open and accepting group, check out this Shanghai-grown app called LQ. It keeps you up to date on events in the LGBTQ community and guides you to LGBTQ-friendly businesses in town. Even if you don't normally move in this circle, dropping in on an LGBTQ event is sure to make you feel accepted, no matter your age, appearance, culture, or gender identity.


Who it’s for: People who identify as LGBTQ or are looking for an open-minded community

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: English, Chinese, Spanish

Cost: Free

Must-haveness: Helpful


WeChat



It cannot be overstated: you need Wechat to live in China. Its original function is social networking but it now has endless mini apps that let you pay for anything (like Alipay), purchase tickets, check in to a movie theater, and so much more. Scan a QR code to connect with someone, follow their social moments, or send them money. Need to tell your baoan that a large piece of furniture is being delivered and you won't be home to receive it? No problem! Message him in your language of choice and WeChat will translate it into Chinese.

Who it’s for: Everyone

Platforms: Apple and Android

Languages: English and Chinese with message translation in many languages

Cost: Free

Must-haveness: So essential that if you don't have it, you might not be able to live in China


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About the author: Canadian Danielle LeClerc is a long-time resident of Shanghai, where she teaches, writes, and entertains. Her stories, poems, and articles can be found around town. ShanghaiMouth@gmail.com


Original Courier publish date: September, 2018

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