Before you may be able to use some of these apps you may need a Chinese bank account and/or Chinese mobile number. If you think there is anything that we have missed then leave a comment below and we will update the list accordingly.
NOTE: For iOS users you may need to change your account to China to see some of these apps on the app store.
The #1 undisputed most important app in China is WeChat. This is used in daily life for everything from buying a meal at a restaurant, to communicating with your friends and colleagues, to ordering a taxi, or buying a train/plane ticket.
It is almost impossible to live without this app. There really is too much to talk about this one app which is why we have made a separate post detailing a lot more about the WeChat app. You can find it here.
Didi works in the same way as the app "Uber" allowing users the ability to order a taxi directly to their current location via an app. Didi supports an English version of the app that allows you the ability to communicate to your taxi driver (via translated text messages). The rates for Didi vary depending on each city and is much cheaper than getting a taxi in your home country. Didi handles all of the payments directly in the app so cash doesn't need to be exchanged with the driver, and the app allows you to enter pinyin (English format) addresses.
If you want to learn to speak Chinese fluently or you just want to know enough to order a bowl of noodles in a restaurant downloading the Chinese dictionary app "Pleco" is a must. The app allows you to enter a word in English and see all of the corresponding words in Chinese with the definitions and usages for each. Pleco also provides a number of sentence examples for each word and labels the tones (click here to read more about tones). Pleco provides audio for each of the words, and words can be translated from Chinese back to English.
Food delivery Apps (Elema, Meituan, Sherpas)
Food takeaway known as waimai (spelt as 外卖) is the Chinese name for takeaways/food delivery/home delivery. Waimai in China works similar to that of the company deliveroo in the UK. Waimai companies have thousands of on-call electric scooter drivers that wait on call across each city in China. To make an order you simply open one of the waimai apps and then select a restaurant within a radius of your location. Once you have placed your order the food is paid for directly within the app that you use. Your chosen waimai app will then send one of their drivers to collect your food from the restaurant and bring it directly to your apartment.
Waimai apps are typically very reliable and often deliver to your home in 30 minutes or less. The total cost of the food is generally much lower than of using in the U.K. with the cost of delivery typically being around 0-6RMB (depending on app and/or promotions), while the food can also be as low as 5RMB for a meal. That means that at certain times and using specific promotions you can often get a meal for 5-20RMB (including delivery). If you are in a big city these apps will also include a number of western restaurants for you to order from with the cost being around double that of what a Chinese restaurant will charge.
NOTE: Most waimai applications rarely support English meaning that you will have to navigate the app completely in Chinese. For your initial setup you may want to ask a Chinese friend or somebody from your school to setup your app so that your food is delivered to the correct home address. Once you have the hang of how to order in the app it is pretty straight forward and many of the foods listed have pictures displayed at the side of the menu item. On occasions delivery drivers may also call you ahead of time to tell you when they will arrive, but it is rare for these drivers to speak English.
EXTRA: If you live Beijing, Shanghai, or Suzhou there is an extra app out there for you called 'Sherpas'. Sherpas works in just the same way as the other three applications, however the advantage of Sherpas is that it is designed for foreigners and therefore fully supports English. Sherpas does charge a higher fee for deliveries than its Chinese counterparts.
Bike Sharing (Meituan, Hello Bike)
China has an abundance of cheap transportation options. One popular method is via bike sharing. Bike sharing is available in many different cities from a number of different sharing platforms. To use the bike sharing app you simply open the app and then scan the QR code on the bike, which will unlock the bike.
When you have finished with the bike you simply lift the lock switch down, the bike will lock and you will be charged accordingly. Shared bikes usually cost around 1-2RMB for 2 hours of usage, and many applications offer special monthly passes for 5-20RMB which allow for unlimited usage of the bikes.
In many cities the bikes can be found on almost any street and unlike the bikes in London and other cities the bikes don't need to be parked into bike docs, instead they can be parked on almost any pavement/sidewalk.
The two most popular bike sharing apps are Meituan and Hello Bike, depending on the city that you are in other bikes may be available. The OFO app only supports the Chinese language while Meituan has full support for English.
WiFi Key Unlocker
A very useful app in China is the WiFi app. This app works by bypassing some WiFi networks that require a WiFi password. It can be especially useful if you are in a coffee shop, or waiting a long time in a shopping centre for a table at a busy restaurant.
If you are coming to China for the first time you may be a little short on cash and want to withdraw some of your foreign money in China. If you already have a Chinese bank account setup then this process can be quite easy. Either by using the TransferWise app or by going to their website here you can create a profile and enter the amount of money that you want to transfer from your home country. TransferWise will then tell you the exact amount that you will receive in RMB and the charges associated with the transfer. A benefit of TransferWise over using banks is its low fee for transferring as the app transfers against realtime exchange rates shown on google.
Online Movie & TV Streaming
China has an abundance of cheap TV and Movie streaming platforms that are cheap and don't require a VPN. These include iQIY, QQ Movies, BiliBili, Mango TV, and Youku. Many of these platforms provide very affordable streaming of popular movies & TV shows both in China & overseas. The price of these streaming services can vary from FREE to 20RMB a month.
Chinese Language Learning
If you are looking to improve your Chinese language skills in China. You may look to use Chinese language apps to supplement your language learning in China. These days there are an abundance of good apps and online resources to improve your Chinese. Skritter is good for improving your handwriting, Duolingo can help improve your daily grammar and vocabulary practice, HelloTalk for finding language partners in your city to communicate with, and Anki to memorise vocabulary quickly and effectively.