Top apps you need in Shanghai

Top apps you need in Shanghai

Android to Apple

When I moved to Shanghai, I also changed the platform for my phone: For the first time in my life I am using an iPhone. That’s because of one simple reason: The great Chinese (fire) wall. You cannot really access google’s services and I wasn’t sure about the availability of high quality alternatives. Since the phone is about to replace credit cards here, safe sources for apps were my biggest concern.

I still have my old Android phone, and it feels you need a constant VPN connection for it to work properly. Keeping your apps up-to-date is not fun. (Why is a minor incremental app update several hundred megabytes large anyway?!?)

A lot of people here use Android, especially on phones of Chinese companies like Xiaomi, Huawei or Oppo. It works, somehow, but I wasn’t willing to take that risk.

But, without further ado: Here are the top apps you need in Shanghai:



The most important app for people to stay in contact is WeChat. It’s hard to categorize it at all, because it has an abundance of features. It can be used for individual or group chats, send files, custom stickers (the collection grows bigger the longer you are here) and voice or video calls over data.

You can follow official accounts and stay updated (read: get spam), play games and share photos and videos with your network. You can also use it to pay at restaurants and transfer money to your friends. People can be added by scanning their personal QR code. One of the most frequently asked question when you meet new people is: ‘Do you scan me or do I scan you?’


Mobike and Ofo

In bigger cities like Shanghai, you will see thousands and thousands of bicycles by all kinds of different brands. There are small ones, and there are even e-bikes. The apps most frequently used are Mobike and Ofo. While Mobike is in English, Ofo is Chinese only, but still easy enough to use. Before you can use any of these you need some form of local payment method, because you need to provide a small deposit. If you have done that, you are good to go. You’ll find those bikes everywhere.

I tried to test others, but you’ll need a Chinese apple ID to download the e-bike app for example. It’s not available on other iTunes Stores.

Metro Shanghai

Shanghai has a massive metro system, and you’ll need help finding your way around – especially finding the right exit at the metro station. Leaving the metro on the wrong side costs you 15 minutes of walking one or two blocks easily. I use Metro Shanghai, it allows you to find the best route and has maps for the stations available.


Since google services do not work, you’ll need a map alternative. Apple Maps is just fine, Here is great as well. [Here only works with VPN. The problem with most apps is that they do not let you create offline maps on your phone. I think I’ll give OpenStreetMap a try next.]  But do not forget: These maps are in English and Pinyin, no taxi driver will be able to understand where you want to go when you show him (rarely her) a map.

Shanghai Taxi Cards

Because of the previously mentioned problem of communicating with Taxi drivers, there are apps like Shanghai Taxi Cards. They provide a selection of popular places and most of the streets in Chinese letters and Pinyin. The app displays it large enough for every one to read, too. (Yes, that’s a problem.) Download the content before your trip and you are good to go.

Didi Taxi

Uber has been acquired by Didi Taxi recently, and they are planning to release an English version, soon. Currently, it’s only available in Chinese and rather difficult to use. A colleague helped me to set up home and work address, but I still find it to confusing. I’ll just wait for the English version and in the mean time I’ve to stand, wave and wait like everyone else. Well, actually, like no one else. Everyone is using this app.


Bank of China

I have a bank account with the Bank of China. Not that I really had a choice, but the app they provide is great. It’s English, has two factor authorization with an additional tan generator and provides a lot of features. But… I’ve never used it for anything else but check my account balance, other apps are far easier to use.


There are two ways to pay with Alipay – scan the payees code, or get scanned. If you get scanned there is nothing you have to do but authorize the payment (with your fingerprint). If you scan, you’ll have to put in the amount first and then authorize. You might need help to set it up, because it’s not fully available in English. Once set up, you can also use it to send money to friends. You can can only connect it to a Chinese bank account, but I haven’t tried transferring money from another Alipay account as a from of pre-paid credit yet. Might be worth a try.

WeChat – again

Similar to Alipay and completely available an English. Once I connected it to my bank account, I was able to pay everywhere and also send money to the contacts in my list. And I am not joking when I say you can pay using WeChat or Alipay everywhere: On the remote house where we spent the night on the mountains, there where QR codes to scan, no need for cash at all.

Events and Eating

Smart Shanghai

If you want to know what is going on in the international community, you’ll find it here. You can buy tickets and if you chose an event or restaurant, also display taxi cards. It also offers and overview of the massively overpriced apartments offered to non-native speakers. You can also use it to buy and sell stuff – there is always someone leaving or someone new coming to the city.


Saw a restaurant on the way, but don’t have enough time to go there? Just open Sherpas, and not even 40 minutes later you’ll have whatever it is you ordered. Chose from any restaurant, menus and support available in English. The price is considerably higher, but the Chinese alternative is unusable with limited Chinese skills.

Learning Chinese & Communicating

Memrise & HelloChinese

Both apps are great. They try to link words with as many cues as possible: Sound, pictures, stories. You can track your progress and share it. And they do a good job reminding you not to forget studying.


The translations are not perfect, but fast. You can translate text, and even more amazing: it works with voice recognition as well. You speak English, it gets translated to Chinese. Someone else speaks Chinese, it gets translated to English almost simultaneously. Not perfect, but usually enough to understand the context.


If you want to translate a rare character from a text that is a few thousand years old? Pleco has you covered. It is probably the most extensive dictionary out there and offers a ton of features, some for free, some for a price. There are Add-ons for character recognition, vocabulary training, and more.

All the rest


To get access to certain features you are used to, vpn connections are very helpful. VyprVPN offers 1GB of free data before you ned to pay, ExpressVPN has reasonable pricing. VyprVPN is faster, if it works. ExpressVPN is more reliable, but much slower. If you depend on a server node in a specific country, for example when you want to access your Amazon Video Account in Germany: forget it. It’s good enough to read the news, check Facebook every once in a while and keep your Android apps updated – over night that is. You’ll need accounts for these services before you get to China – you can probably download the app, but here you’d need a vpn connection to set up an account.

China AQI

The air in Shanghai is far from perfect. There are a few days when wearing a mask is advised, but I prefer knowing when those days are. Apple maps has a small indicator showing the air quality, but I use the app China AQI that accesses the official database.


If you want to get around Shanghai easily, you basically need a phone with an internet connection. At the airport they sell pocket WiFis for a reasonable price. You get a Chinese SIM card with a limited amount of data that you can top up later. With that many apps, there is one other thing you need: a power bank. Luckily, you are not the only one with a battery problem, so you can buy them everywhere.

If it’s your first trip to China, download the apps upfront – especially on Android. You will not get a chance to get anything from the google play store. Most other apps run fine, as long as you didn’t use Facebook or Google+ to sign in.


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