Essential iPhone Apps for China Expats

Without a doubt, the iPhone is the most useful electronic product I own. Aside from its plethora of inbuilt functions the ability to download and install apps basically gives you unlimited scope for what you can do with it and with over 85,000 you’re spoilt for choice (even if 70% of them are rubbish). Living as an ex-pat in China presents its own unique challenges but as the advert says “there’s an app for that”. Below is a list of what I consider my essential apps for helping with everyday life in China:

(N.b. If you brought your iPhone abroad you’ll probably need to unlock it first to accept a foreign SIM card – PwnageTool usually does the trick but be sure to back things up first).

Qingwen Mandarin Dictionary

Qingwen iPhone Dictionary App

Language is often the biggest hurdle for China ex-pats and finding the right words can be a frustrating experience. There are many English <-> Chinese dictionaries available for the iPhone but the one I like the most is Qingwen. It allows you to quickly search for words in either English or Pinyin and then gives you the option to listen to it and create word lists (e.g. I have a word list containing all my favourite foods). I often find this comes in handy at the supermarket – when I can’t find something I just look it up here then flash it in front of a staff member.

Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook

Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrase Book iPhone App

If you want to be a little more conversational than just single words then the Lonely Planet Mandarin Phrasebook has a tonne of common everyday phrases you can use to impress the locals (that is if you can manage to pronounce them correctly). Luckily each phrase comes with an audio clip but you’ll probably want to plug in your headphones to pick it up clearly. This app has saved my life numerous times, the only problem is understanding what the other person is saying back to you (until someone invents a voice translation app that works)!


Skype iPhone App

Skype is something I couldn’t live without in China for cheaply keeping in touch with friends and family back home. The iPhone version allows you to make calls directly from your phone (when you have a wifi connection) but what I love most about it is the ability to send SMS messages abroad for a fraction of the price you’d normally pay for an international SMS (without wifi connection). For the best audio quality, you’ll need a newer model iPhone 3GS.

XE Currency & Notes

XE Currency & Notes iPhone Apps

Two small apps also worth your attention are XE Currency and the inbuilt Notes apps. As you might imagine the first is great for doing quick currency conversions. There are many similar apps like this but I like this one because you can do multiple conversions at the same time. I find the Notes app useful for storing things like bus numbers (I have a terrible memory) which is essential since things like bus stop signs are only ever shown in Chinese (no pinyin). A good alternative to this is Evernote which can wirelessly sync your note across multiple devices.

Google Maps

Google Maps iPhone App

Google Maps also comes inbuilt so you don’t have to download it separately. What most people don’t realise is that most major cities in China now have pretty good maps which you can search using pinyin. With inbuilt cell tower triangulation/GPS I find it useful for finding my way about and making sure taxi drivers aren’t giving me the run-around. What’s even better is that you can get it to give you driving or walking directions (some areas even have bus routes).

What are the apps you find most useful in China or as an ex-pat?

David avatar

12 responses

  1. I have to take issue with the last note. People should be aware that the Google Maps on iphone are intentionally distorted and will show you a position that is 300-500m randomly from reality. That makes usage for someone who does not know the country quite an annoyance.

    You can find references on this problem here:

    1. I somewhat doubt Google are “intentionally” distorting positions but there is clearly some issue with the geocoding for its China maps. I’ve found over the past year the maps have slowly been getting much more detailed and certainly in Shenzhen I’ve not experienced the same issues yet.

      1. Mike Rogero avatar
        Mike Rogero


        Appreciate your skepticism as Google in general isn’t a company known for misleading people, but simply standing with an iphone next to a Nokia both running Google Maps and both showing the same lat and longitude but with different displayed road maps, even though both have identical satellite images, has to imply we are seeing something that is intentionally different on the iphone. Well that plus the same comments from 20+ other users saying the same thing on the blog…


        1. Very interesting. I wonder if there’s any chance that the Chinese gov are intentionally distorting the geo-codes somehow? I remember until a few years ago they even banned satellite imagery being used within China so I wouldn’t put it past them…

  2. ABCMaps avatar

    For iPhone,if you want to solve the China maps misalignment issue. Try
    ABCMaps applciation.

    In China, the built-in iPhone Maps application is distorted and will
    show you a position that is 300-1000m randomly from reality. The
    ABCMaps application is to align the maps to the real place.

    ABCMaps is an Chinese only applcation now. However, it is so easy to use.
    So even you can not read Chinese you can use it also. The English
    version will come out in the future.

    1. Thanks for the tip – looks like it will be very useful when the English version comes out. Would also prefer a paid version without the adverts.

  3. ABCMaps avatar

    ABCMaps is upgraded to version 1.30, English support added.
    Find out where you are really in China. If you travel in China,
    sometimes you will be troubled by China maps offset. The ABCMaps application is to align automatically the maps to the real place .
    If available in your area, real-time traffic conditions will be
    displayed over the road as color-coded lines by click “Traffic” button.

    What’s New In Version 1.30
    1. English support added
    2. Traditional Chinese support added
    3. Small bug fix for iOS 3.0

    1. and crashes instantly on iOS 5.0

  4. Fredrik avatar

    I can highly recommend the application Taxi-book which works as a navigation through chinese 2nd and 3rd tier cities. You can show addresses through your Iphone to the taxi-driver or play up a voice that tells the address through the speakers. It uses gps so you know where you are in relation to the address you need to go to! Very up to date with several other features!

    1. Hi Fredrik,

      Thank you for your positive feedback on our China Taxi-Book Apps, just wanted to drop a line with the current updates..

      Version 1.7 (we update regularly) is launched in meanwhile, with FREE lite Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen & Guangzhou versions included. We are the only Chinese speaking China App available.

      Handy city guides to all key Chinese cities (currently 32 launched) and a way to communicate with locals.

      Available on the App Store:

      Taxi-Book – Handy city guides for all key Chinese cities:
      • Know thousands of important places
      • Know/ use your location + help you find your destination
      • Speak Chinese for you & let you communicate with locals
      • Free lite Shenzhen, Shanghai, Beijing & Guangzhou versions
      • Integrate city guides, maps & language translation
      • 10 Handy categories
      • Frequently updated
      • GPS

      Your Destination, our Drive!

  5. VANE avatar

    I will be moving to China soon. I´ll be stopping in NY city for few days and I want to buy the iphone 4s, if I buy an unloked one, would it work in China? or is it better if I buy it in China?

  6. Clement avatar

    hey, Taxi-book developer, you created a great travel app. I downloaded your app when i travelled to hangzhou. It helped so much me to get around this beautiful city. Keep going.


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