Shanghai's essential apps

The must-have apps for Shanghai living you need to download now

Those who've lived in Shanghai for long understand how apps can make life here much more convenient. Shanghai seems to live and breathe apps, with an app for almost everything, from grocery shopping to booking flights. Whether you're exploring this city by foot, trying Shanghai's best brunches or just trying to adjust to life in this crazy city, Time Out Shanghai rounds up the must-have apps for Shanghai living and surviving.


Author: Mat Gallagher

baidumaps
Price: Free (iPhone, Android).     
What is it? China’s version of Google Maps.    
Use it for: Getting around the city.     
Best feature: Street View.

Whether you’re walking or in a taxi, a good map in this city is essential – and Google Maps is hardly reliable in China. Baidu Maps offers the most up-to-date solution, with 2D and 3D views, satellite imaging, real-time traffic data, navigation and offline maps. The interface is only available in Chinese but the points of interest can all be searched for in English, and the icon-based design makes it easy to operate. With this app in hand you need never be lost down a longtang again.  

exploreshanghaimetromaps
Price: Free (iPhone, Android).   
What is it? Metro map.   
Use it for: Making sense of the city’s ever-increasing metro network.   
Best feature: The route planner, with journey times and prices.

For the metro, the Explore Shanghai app is a real must-have. Not only does it give you the full subway map, it also provides route planning, GPS and maps of the areas around all the stations so that you can find the best exit. The interface is in both English and Chinese and, for a small in-app purchase, you can remove the advertising that pops up, plus get train times, tips and offline street maps. If you’re travelling, Explore also provides metro maps for Beijing, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore and Taipei.  

taobao
Price: Free (iPhone, Android).   
What is it? China’s online marketplace.   
Use it for: Buying things you don’t need.  
Best feature: Instant access to brilliant and bizarre products.

It’s been said that if a product exists you’ll find it on Taobao. With this app, your wallet is going to take a further hit as buying stuff gets a whole lot easier once you have Taobao in your pocket. The interface is Chinese-only but navigation is relatively easy if you know your way around the web version. Features such as the barcode scanner and local cinema and KTV information are useful, but the best thing about this app is still buying random stuff that you don’t really need. Find out how to use Taobao with our guide.

Air Matters

airmattersPrice: Free (iPhone, Android).   
What is it? A summary of pollution readings.    
Use it for: Finding out just exactly how screwed your lungs are.   
Best feature: Quick-view home screen badge.
 
Though some might think it’s better not to know the state of the air outside, this app gives those curious enough the chance to find out more about the situation providing AQI readings for all the major cities in China. You can add multiple cities to your list and even have the current AQI level show up as a badge on your home screen for quick reference. In the options menu you can change which readings are used for the main figure and American or Chinese standards.  

WeChat

wechat
Price: Free (iPhone, iPad, Android).    
What is it? Messaging and calling app.    
Use it for: Texting, voice messaging, video calls to friends and family back home, a second wallet, sharing memories, following businesses.
Best Feature: Besides all the basics that all messaging and calling apps have, WeChat has stickers. 

WeChat is your everything. If you're to lazy to switch on your VPN to use Instagram, WeChat moments can work as a diary. As most businesses have an official WeChat account, you can scan their QR code, and add them into your subscription list to get the latest updates. WeChat wallet even allows you to go out of your house without any cash. Most shops, from your neighbourhood fruit seller to departmental stores allow you to pay using WeChat. The 'Go Dutch' function is just pure genius, for when you and your group chat friends share a meal, sparing you from personally hounding them to pay you back by sending regular reminders that they owe you money. If you're ever feeling rich, you can even transfer your friend a hongbao.
 
alipayPrice: Free (iPhone, Android).     
What is it? ePayment app similar to WeChat, but without the cool chat functions. 
Use it for: Transferring larger sums of money, buying movie tickets, using kuaidi (sending Taobao parcels back for a size change). 
Best feature: As an app that focuses exclusively on epayment, and transactions, it has a much clearer interface showing your transactions by month as compared to WeChat. You might also need to use Alipay to pay for your rent, electricity and water bills. 

Betternet 

Betternet
Price: Free (iPhone, Android).   
What is it? VPN.  
Use it for: To jump over the Great Firewall of China. 
Best feature: With one click, you can turn on the VPN, which is surprisingly stable for an app that's free. 

You can opt for the premium for $18.98/month, $7.33/month (six months) or $5.83/month (one year) that gives you faster connection, no advertisements, high quality support and link up to 5 devices. 
dazhongdianping
Price: Free (iPhone, Android). 
What is it? A database of restaurants and more. 
Use it for: Finding food, movies and deals. 
Best feature: User reviews. 

Like its hugely popular website, the Dianping app offers a local directory of a huge range of services such as restaurants, hotels, KTV joints, films, shops and food delivery options. The app, which is only available in Chinese, covers several major cities in China and uses GPS to allow you to check in and share locations. Though some functions are fairly explanatory, using this app can be trickier than the website if you’re not familiar with the language. With a little knowledge, though, it’s great as a quick reference point. 

bon
Price: Free (iPhone, Android).
What is it?: An app for user-reviewed restaurant recommendations.
Use it for: Finding a good place to eat near you.
Best feature: User reviews.

Some say Bonapp is the english version of Dianping, except only dealing in food. It offers user-reviewed listings for hundreds of restaurants of all cuisine types around the city. If you like to have your opinion heard, sign up for an account so you can add your own reviews. If you're a frequent traveller around Asia, Bonapp also works in cities like Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Taipei and Singapore. 

Price: Free download (iPhone, Android).
What is it?: Food delivery app. 
Use it for: Ordering food to your doorstep.
Best feature

While it's a little pricy in comparison to some of its Chinese language-only counterparts, Sherpa’s has been serving hungry customers in English across China since 1999. There’s a delivery fee of 15RMB for the first 3km, and 5RMB for every additional kilometre after that. And food from restaurants closest to your address get delivered to your doorstep within an average of 45 minutes. The app has a tracking option that lets you see when the driver picked up your order and gives you a more accurate estimated time of arrival.

BottlesXO

bottlesXO
Price: Free (iPhone, Android). 
What is it?: Wine delivery and information. 
Use it for: When you want a bottle of wine in a hurry.  
Best feature: The app promises under-an-hour delivery time. 

This Shanghai-based start-up promises to deliver you a bottle of wine at a drinkable temperature direct to your door within one hour. With glasses and a bottle opener delivered as part of the package, you need never run dry at a picnic ever again. Users can scroll through the curated wine lists by type or by price and each option is accompanied by photos of suggested pairings. Select a bottle and you’ll get tasting notes, the ideal serving temperature plus the personal stories from the people behind the vineyard. 

YHD expats
Price: Free (iPhone, Android). 
What is it? A cross between Amazon and an online supermarket. 
Use it for: Getting daily necessities delivered straight to your doorstep.
Best feature: This app promises deliveries within 24 hours, and free delivery for orders over 68RMB and under 10kg in weight. 

Categories range from imported food and household products to electrical appliances. Keep your eyes on the ‘Daily Deals’ section, which offers discounted products updated daily at 7am and 2pm. Payment can be completed via WeChat Pay, Alipay and Union Pay card, or even cash on delivery for the majority of products. Best of all, there's an English customer service team should you run into any trouble.
didi
Price: Free (iPhone, Android).
What is it? The ultimate Shanghai taxi app.
Use it for: Hailing a cab.
Best feature: Taxi proximity map.

Covering 300 cities and with over 500,000 taxis (so claims the blurb), the app allows you to request a cab from any location, and it's available in both English and Chinese. If you've mastered basic Chinese taxi vocabulary and you’ve already got WeChat or Alipay (and thus Didi Dache in Chinese in  your ‘Wallet’/'Home' section), you may find the stand alone app superfluous.

Shanghai stops

Shanghai stops
Price: 6RMB (iPhone).
What is it?: Bus maps for the city.
Use it for: Getting to grips with Shanghai’s myriad bus routes.
Best feature: Prices and bus running times.

Presented fully in English, this app allows you to search by stop, by bus or find your position on the map and discover your closest stops. The main problem here is that the app currently relies on Google for its maps and this can leave you with a big question mark over your head. Despite this, the app still has its uses, as you can manually search for locations and bus numbers. When you choose a route, the app provides you with a list of stops as well as prices and running times. If this app could be adapted to use Baidu maps, it would be a big success. 

ofo
Price: Free (iPhone, Android), with a 99RMB deposit in your account as long as you need the app.
What is it? Bike sharing app.
Use it for: Grabbing a ride on a bright yellow bike.
Best feature: Bicycle proximity map.

These yellow bikes are found everywhere in the city, and you can make use of them by downloading the app, scanning the QR code and simply unlocking the bike with the number given to you. 
pleco
Price: Free (iPhone, Android).
What is it? The ultimate Chinese dictionary.
Use it for: Translation.
Best feature: Add-ons.

There are plenty of Chinese translation options on your phone but Pleco offers a proper dictionary, allowing you to search for words in English and Chinese, look up the different meanings and truly learn the language. The interface is in English but you can input using the keyboard or by building up radicals. The dictionary is extensive, especially so when considering that this is a free app, and is great for reference. But if you’re looking for more, there are in-app purchases to make it even better, including optical character recognition (though the free trial version is pretty effective too), full-screen handwriting and audio packages.


Price: Free (iPhone, Android).
What is it? A reliable translation tool from the Chinese internet giant. 
Use it for: Translation.
Best feature: Image translations. 

Chinese internet giant Baidu's translate app has an image recognition feature, allowing you to take a photo of a real object, circle it on screen and for the app to then provide translation options for said object – the results can be patchy, but generally it gets you the answers you need. Away from this feature, Baidu handles standard voice and written translation tasks well and comes with a handy selection of Chinese expressions which you can tap for their English meanings. 

Waygo

waygo
Price: Free (iPhone, Android).
What is it? A handy visual translation tool.
Use it for: Turning Chinese text into English through your screen.
Best feature: Offline translation.

This app is less about learning and more about pure convenience. Designed to help you quickly read menus, signs and notices, Waygo uses your phone’s camera to recognise both Chinese and Japanese characters and instantly translate them. A resizable box allows you to focus in on the characters you want to translate, with the option to turn on the phone’s flashlight if needed. Plus by tilting the phone you can translate multiple lines of text at once. The good news is that it translates without needing a constant internet connection; the bad news is you only get ten free translates per day. If you want more than that you’ll need to upgrade to a paid package (6.99USD for lifetime use).

tinder
Price: Free (iPhone, Android).   
What is it? One of the most popular dating apps among Western audiences. 
Use it for: Finding dates.
Best feature: Hassle free swiping.

Tinder has set the bar for dating apps in terms of simplicity, with a structure that allows users to swipe right to like, or left to reject, potential dates. When your choices match you can start a conversation and take it from there. Logging in uses your Facebook account so you’ll need a VPN to get going but after that you can swipe till your heart’s content.        


tantan
Price: Free (iPhone, Android).   
What is it? A hook up app, but also a tool to find like-minded people.   
Use it for: Find potential dates and friends. 
Best feature: It's VPN free.

Tantan saves you the hassle of having to read dating profiles and lets you judge a fellow human being based purely on a photo. Potential dates appear based on location searches, using your phone’s GPS, but you can only start a conversation if you both like each other’s pic. Expect a lot of coloured contact lenses, and heavily-filtered selfies. As with other local apps, Chinese language dominates,
 but the straightforward swipe format means you don’t have to go far to find someone who’s willing to chat in English. To say this app is similar to Tinder is an understatement, though to sign up, all you’ll need is a Chinese mobile number. If you’re not finding matches, the app helps you fine-tune your profile down to favourite movies and hangouts. VPN not required.     
blued
Price: Free (iPhone, Android).   
What is it?: The most popular LGBT specific dating app right now. 
Use it for: If you’re in search of Mr Right Now, ideally pre-oiled.   
Best feature: Another Grindr rip-off, just bluer. It’s impossible to know who’s copying whom, but there’s nothing to stop you running both apps simultaneously. Profiles tend towards the torso-centric,
and minimum user information beyond vital statistics is visible. Other areas are chocka with LGBT news and listicles (Chinese only) and the app also serves as a social media profile with a platform similar (Ok, almost identical) to WeChat Moments. The user base is huge and overwhelmingly local, meaning, provided you’re not a dating
racist, you’ve got a good chance
of uncovering someone who’s
your type. VPN not required and it’s fast.       

Zank
Price: Free (iPhone, Android)  
What is it?: An LGBT specific dating app
Use it for: Finding your LGBT friendly community  
Best feature: Eerily similar to WeChat, if the former had a lovechild with Grindr. You seemingly have to include all personal data requested (sexual role, relationship status, height, weight, etc) into your profile, whether you want to or not. While the interface is in English, in-app messages, news and alerts are all in Chinese only. Those with some fluency will find the in-app local LGBT events calendar quite handy, as well as the open group chats for specific interests, which make this among the most versatile of the apps we tested. You can even make in-app group purchases of holidays, dining and spa experiences specifically for LGBT people. The app zones in very precisely on nearby matches, and throws up tons of filterable results all over the city, thanks to a massive Chinese user base. With that in mind, don’t expect everyone to speak English, and if you’re not looking to date local, you’d be better off heading elsewhere. VPN not required.  
ctrip
Price: Free (iPhone, Android).
What is it? A one stop travel app entirely in english.
Use it for? Booking flights, train rides and hotels to travel within China.
Best feature: For english speakers, this is the ultimate travel booking app. 

With just a few clicks, you can book your flight and your accommodation, which means you're just left with planning where to visit while on your trip. Unfortunately, Ctrip doesn't help with that. It's a good app otherwise, that saves your booking tickets and accommodation places, for easy reference. 

Guavapass

guavapass
Price: Free download, class packages start from 488RMB 
What is it?: Flexible gym and gym class membership 
Use it for: Booking a class at a range of gyms without being a specific gym member 
Best feature: With 64 studios in its database, you can pay 1388RMB a month and pick an unlimited number of classes that include boxing, crossfit, yoga, pilates, various types of dance, fitness training and spin classes without the hefty fees and long-term commitment. However, you can only take up to three classes per studio. Start planning ahead and book 10 days before the class, or even an hour before class commences. There’s an unexpected motivational factor too: cancel within 12 hours of a scheduled class, and you'll be charged 80RMB, and if you don't turn up, you'll be charged 100RMB.

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