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
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
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 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
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 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?