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street level shot of a street in china where you can access this list of apps for living and teaching abroad in china

China is open again! Foreign teachers are returning to the country en masse for the first time in three years.

When you move to any new country, you will quickly find that many things are done differently. One common difference is the apps and technology that people use. 

Thanks to its isolated internet, China has its own set of popular apps. For political reasons, China’s “Great Firewall” blocks many sites and apps that are common in the rest of the world.

For example, the following apps and their websites are blocked in China:

  • Google
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Wikipedia
  • Youtube

To get around this, it is important that you download a VPN before you arrive. This kind of service will let you access the regular internet.

But even though China has a restricted internet, it does offer many great alternatives to popular apps you may use now. In this guide, we’ll cover the most useful apps in the following categories:

  • Communication
  • VPNs
  • Finance
  • Search
  • Translation / Learning
  • Travel
  • Social Media / Entertainment


When it comes to chatting and texting in China, one app beats them all: WeChat.

You will certainly be required to download WeChat for your job. It is by far the country’s most common means of communication, more than email.

But WeChat is more than just a chatting app- you can use it for dozens of other things, like booking flights and hotels, renting bikes, transferring money, and more.

If you could only have one app to use during your entire time in China, it would have to be WeChat.


In this category, there is also just one main option: AliPay.

Although other apps like WeChat allow you to transfer money, AliPay is far and away the most accessible option for foreigners.

One thing you must remember is that almost all transactions in China are digital now. Even every little food stand in the middle of nowhere uses AliPay and WeChat.

Paying with AliPay is simple. For most large vendors like grocery stores, you simply open your AliPay QR code and let them scan it. For small vendors or transferring money to friends, you can scan their QR code and type in the amount you want to send.

Although it is a good idea to carry some cash with you at all times, many vendors will be surprised or annoyed if you try to use it. During my time in China, I only had to pay in cash when visiting a Daoist temple.


A Virtual Private Network, or VPN, is a service that lets you bypass the Great Firewall. Essentially, it connects you to a computer outside China, connecting you to the website you want to visit.

The legality of VPNs inside China is somewhat of a grey area. Fortunately, the government doesn’t try to crack down on individual foreigners. Instead, they attack the VPN providers themselves.

China treats VPNs like a whack-a-mole game. They occasionally find out where they send data to and sometimes shut down that connection. But then, a few days later, the VPN company will open up a new connection somewhere else.

The result is that VPNs are not 100% reliable and can go down for days or even weeks. But they always get back up again.

ExpressVPN and NordVPN are two of the most popular VPNs on the market. They are generally reliable but, again, can lose connection suddenly.


Google is blocked, so… get used to using Bing!

In all fairness, Bing probably doesn’t deserve the negative reputation it gets. I grew quite fond of it during my time in China and still occasionally use it today.

The most popular search engine in China is Baidu. However, almost all of its results are in Chinese.

If you really, really want to use Google, you can still do so if you have a working VPN.

Translation / Learning

Pleco is an indispensable little app for learning and translating Chinese characters. It has a little touchscreen interface for drawing them in. You can also use it for photo translation of text.

Duolingo is a popular language-learning app, and one of its core offerings is Mandarin Chinese. While not the most in-depth, it is great for learning some basics.

HelloChinese is a language learning app made specifically for Chinese. It goes into much more depth than Duolingo.

Rosetta Stone is a bit pricey, but its educational value is worth it.

Baidu Translate is a popular translation app. While geared more towards Chinese users, foreigners can also get a lot out of it.

Microsoft Translate is another translation app featuring voice, image, and text translation.

Google Translate, unfortunately, was recently banned in China. But this may or may not be permanent- some websites and apps go back and forth in their availability.


China is a huge country, and you should explore it as much as possible while there. is a great app for traveling anywhere, and since it is Chinese-owned and operated, it is especially well-suited for China. Use it to book high-speed train tickets and hotels.

You can also use WeChat and AliPay to book tickets directly in the app. You can even use them to rent bicycles. In many Chinese cities, there are bicycles lying on every street corner that you can rent by scanning a QR code on the bike itself.

DiDi is China’s equivalent of Uber. It works… pretty much exactly like Uber!


In big Chinese cities, many people don’t cook at all. That’s because food delivery is incredibly cheap and fast in China.

It’s hard to exaggerate this. Food delivery in China is not Uber Eats. You can order dinner and have it delivered to your apartment door (not the door of your building) in 20 minutes for under $5.

The two main food delivery apps are MeiTuan and ELeMa. For the most part, they are pretty similar.

(And by the way: ELeMa means “Are you hungry?”)

Delivery apps don’t just deliver food: you can get thousands of small items delivered to your door in minutes. This includes everything from playing cards to toothpaste to birth control.


China has long been the world’s factory, and as a result, it has a lot of stuff. There is no shortage of places to buy cheap stuff in China!

While the prices are almost always lower than you’d expect at home, be wary of potential scams. Products may arrive not working or completely different from what you ordered.

On the other hand, some online vendors give away extra free stuff with your order to get you to buy again. You never know exactly what you’ll get when you order online in China.

TaoBao is considered the Amazon of China and is owned by Ant Group, which runs AliPay. It offers all kinds of fun novelties and gadgets and uses a predictive algorithm to determine what captures your attention. I found scrolling through its endless feed of products as fun as buying things.

PingDuoDuo is considered the “budget” version of TaoBao, which is hard to believe, considering how low most of the prices are on TaoBao.

In any case, as a foreign teacher, you will have one problem to deal with: language. Most products are listed and described exclusively in Chinese. Those with English descriptions are usually more expensive. 

So get used to translating by hand, relying on a local coworker for help, or accepting whatever you get!

Social Media / Entertainment

Pretty much all Western social media and entertainment platforms are restricted in China. But so long as you have a working VPN, you should still be able to communicate with friends and family outside.

That being said, there are plenty of local social media and entertainment platforms within China that you should check out. They will give you a greater sense of the culture around you.

DouYin is China’s version of TikTok. TikTok, as ironic as this sounds, is banned in China.

Weibo refers to any form of microblogging- Twitter, basically. When people say “Weibo,” they usually refer to Sina Weibo, the dominant platform.

BiliBili is a video-sharing website. Think of it as Chinese Youtube.

IQIYI is a video streaming website. Think of it as the Chinese Netflix.

Conclusion: Be Prepared For Anything

China is a rapidly changing society. What works there today might not work there tomorrow, which is a big part of what makes the place so exciting to live in.

Yet it can be frustrating to wake up one day and find out your VPN or favorite app doesn’t work anymore. In America, a change like that would have to be preceded by lengthy discussions and debates. In China, a single bureaucrat can alter the laws overnight.

That’s why building and maintaining a strong network of fellow expats in China is a good idea. Most likely, they will have the same problems you have and might even know a solution.

Stay positive, focus on your classes, and enjoy your time in China. As far as teaching English abroad goes, it’s one of the most interesting places to do it.

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