You have heard a lot about all the banned websites across the Chinese Internet and now you are wondering if you will be able to get to your favourite websites like YouTube or Facebook in China at all. Or Twitter? Instagram? Google?!
Fortunately, there are ways to get on Western social media and there are even some pretty cool Chinese apps. I've compiled a list of the most useful ones you should seriously consider downloading if you want to get most of your experience in China, no matter if you go there for a week or a year.
Most importantly, if you don't have a smart phone, you'd better buy one prior to going to China. I use my computer loads every day but the Chinese virtual world is just about phones. People use them for every single aspect of their life - from work to a night out.
Hot tip: The phone doesn't need to be anything fancy but I'd aim for Android or IOS. Although I love my little yellow Nokia, I am missing out on a lot of useful apps which would make my life much easier.
So let's have a look, shall we?
This is the secret to your Facebook, Google, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram access in China. No VPN, no Western social media.
VPN is a software you download on phone or computer and it consequently allows you to access sites blocked in China. There are some free VPNs out there but you generally need to pay on monthly or yearly basis. Obviously, if you pay for a year service, it's cheaper than paying for each month individually.
If you're planning on staying in China for a while, make an investment at the beginning and you won't need to bother about anything for the next few months. Also, try to buy your VPN before coming to China as there are many more options to choose from (logically, access to VPN providers websites is quite restricted in China too).
While VPN is an absolute must, it can be a massive pain in the a** as well. To actually use it, you need to connect to the Internet first and then load your VPN. So without a solid wifi, it just won't work.
I personally use ExpressVPN for $99 a year. I've been able to run my blog and social media for the last 6 months so it obviously works but it can be quite temperamental, refusing to connect on certain wifi spots.
We Chat is to the Chinese what Facebook is to the rest of the world. Used mainly on mobile phones (the computer version is pretty rubbish to be honest), it's a basic form of communication in China. It's a surprisingly handy app and I recommend you to download it even before coming to China, especially if you need speak to a contact person in China anyway. You will see how much more effortless your communication will become.
Except classic type-in messages, you can send voice messages, photos, gifs, contact cards, location (a red dot on a map), short videos or files. You can also translate Chinese messages into English straight in the chat window (just for Android and IOS). There is also a section resembling Facebook Feed where you can share pictures and comment on other people's posts.
Other functions are official channels you can follow or sending money to other people and even pay for your shopping through We Chat Wallet by scanning a QR code.
Also, don't be surprised about versatility of this app. People in China use it for arranging a night out as well as messaging their boss. Some random contacts I have in my friends list are for example a stationary shop owner, tofu stall shopping assistant or local McDonald's barista.
Ctrip is probably the most popular booking website. It's got a database of flights, trains, hotels and holiday packages. While you can get better deals for flights and hotels elsewhere, Ctrip is an essential for train journeys around China.
Search by destination, train number and time. Ctrip gives you all the trains on the date with prices. What's great about booking trains in China - the prices differ for different classes but they don't go up as the date approaches.
Although I mainly use Ctrip for searching (and buy the tickets in a local ticket office in cash), you can actually book trains on it as well. It might be more difficult with your foreign card though as the Chinese generally use UnionPay (Chinese version of VISA).
Hot tip: Book ahead. As I mentioned before, the prices don't change but the tickets are sold weeks in advance, especially for public holidays. Book ahead and you won't get stuck in one place because there's simply no train to take you.
As you can guess, Youku is a Chinese take on YouTube. Original music videos are mainly limited to Asian scene or Western music covers but the main strength are the online series. You can watch all seasons of Friends, House of Cards or (yes, it gets even better) the complete Game of Thrones.
One of the downsides are the adverts though. You can't skip them like on YouTube, they are properly long and...in Chinese. By the way, the whole website is in Chinese but as it's exactly the same as YouTube, it shouldn't be a problem.
Pleco is the best free dictionary app you can get. Search for the words by pinyin (transcription of Chinese characters into a latin alphabet), draw the characters, scan them or use voice recognition. Pleco has an impressively extensive vocabulary but doesn't cater for Windows or Google system phones.
Taobao and Alibaba
Taobao and Alibaba are the Chinese equivalents of Amazon and eBay. You can buy pretty much ANYTHING for ridiculously low prices. Or you can speak to your Chinese friends to order it for you as they'll definitely have accounts already.
I do recommend arranging Alipay as well, payment app enabling you to pay for your purchase on the Internet AND for your shopping in a supermarket or even latte in a local coffee shop.
CCTV News and China Daily
Chinese journalism at its best. Before you say that you'll rather read more objective Western media, give CCTV or China Daily a try. Both apps have their English versions and report events worldwide - from the Chinese point of view.
This can get a bit funny sometimes but it's a great place to get to understand where China officially stands. Obviously, as these websites are usually the only place where the Chinese get their news from, you'll also get to understand the (political) stances of of normal people.
Here we go, you Chinese app hacker! These are the most important apps you will need in China. The Chinese have been trying hard and the level of their social media is actually pretty decent so you have nothing to worry about!