China is the most automated and cell phone app-based society I know of. Everything is online and everything can be arranged through an app. While the US has good apps as well, I have the feeling China got there earlier and its app ecosystem is much better integrated and more pervasive. While these Chinese apps may appear daunting to a new user, after all most of them are only in Chinese, they are less intimidating than you think, and more important they can simplify your life as a foreigner in China a lot.
There is no way around WeChat or Alipay. I mentioned this in my previous blog about payments in China, but they are so much more than just payment tools. Both apps are really an integration platform for a whole ecosystem of, what they refer to as, mini apps. Within WeChat, for example, you can pay merchants, pay your utility bills, manage your bank account, make an appointment with a hospital, check your health and travel codes, find and book a restaurant, order a Taxi or Didi, manage your subway card, keep track of news, instant message with all your friends, build social networks, etc. etc. etc. It’s almost as if you need only a single app on your phone to concur the world.
By far the most popular app/platform is WeChat from Tencent. It’s the most commonly used app and its power stems from the fact, I think, that it started out as a communication tool for friends and family and then expanded beyond that. Alipay is the competing app/platform and it’s produced by Alibaba. While Tencent’s business model is more focused on the end user (payments, communication and gaming), Alibaba is more the equivalent of Amazon and Ebay combined. Ali (as its affectionally abbreviated here) focuses on payments, Cloud services, and B2C/C2C services. Alibaba is far bigger than Tencent, but both are a critical part of the modern Chinese society. It’s hard to live in China today without using them.
I personally use both apps because sometimes things work in one app while not in the other, but that’s in part because I’m a foreigner which makes my life more complicated. I know of some Chinese people that use WeChat exclusively and that works just fine for them. The reason things are more complicated for me is because Alipay verified my RealID based on my passport. This allows me to rent bikes and other things where they want to make sure that I am real. Unfortunately for me, that RealID verification was with my previous passport, and I’ve since then gotten a new one. Updating my passport is not trivial in some of these apps. I haven’t managed to do this yet in Alipay but I have been able to do this in WeChat. For most things this isn’t a problem, my previous passport is still valid, but it creates a problem for the COVID19 tracking database because that information is all based on my new passport that I used to enter the country. Consequently, I can look up my health code in WeChat but not in Alipay because it still has my old passport information. Confused yet? 🙂
Another really useful feature of WeChat is the translate button if you set it to the English language. I use the WeChat app from the Chinese Apple app store, and I found that it has more features than the one available in the US app store. (In general, it’s a good idea to create a Chinese Apple account because not all apps are available in the US.) The WeChat app often redirects to web pages in its built-in browser and those pages are often in Chinese. With the translate button it’s a breeze to turn these into understandable English. It doesn’t always work, but when it does, it’s great. Both WeChat and Alipay provide English language settings but be prepared for Chinglish because most of the mini apps are only in Chinese.
Another very helpful tool for me is the translator app. It enables me to take screen shots of apps and then scan and translate those pictures in the app. Google translate used to be able to do that too, but they removed that feature for some inexplicable reasons. BTW Google translate, unlike the other Google services, is not filtered in China, which is quite nice.
While it feels like you don’t need any other standalone apps, they do exist, and I find them quite useful because the mini app ecosystem isn’t always that clear to me. Among the other apps I use are 12306, the official (highspeed) train booking app. It’s all in Chinese but with the translator app I’m able to book my own tickets. Another useful app is Dianping. It’s the Chinese Yelp but much bigger in scale. I use it to find interesting restaurants around me for dinner and I do that by just looking at the score and the food type. Occasionally I translate a review but mostly it’s just the closer it gets to a 5-ranking the better it is. It’s also convenient that from that app you can get the directions to the restaurant, make reservations and even book a DiDi. There is a Dianping mini app for WeChat, and I use it occasionally, but the standalone app has a lot more features.
I don’t buy subway tickets anymore. Instead, I load the transport cards onto my phone. Apparently, you can also do this through WeChat as well, but I use the Apple Wallet features. In order to see the metro card for your city you have to temporarily change the country setting to China and it will pop up in your wallet. More recently I’ve also seen the Apple wallet pop up a suggestion that the card is available in your region and whether you want to install it. With the card installed, I literally just tap my phone on the subway scanner and enter the subway station.
More and more restaurants have switched to online ordering. In the restaurant itself you’ll find a QR code on the table and you scan that with WeChat or Alipay. That will identify your table and pop up an ordering menu from which you can select. Once you feel you have ordered enough food you can hit pay and the food will be delivered to your table. It’s very convenient, you don’t need printed menus, and for the merchant its directly integrated with the payment system.