Ruth Vahle
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Expat Life

Smartphone in China – A Smart Thing to Have

If you think a mobile phone is just good for making phone calls, and re-purposing an old flip-phone with a Chinese SIM card will do, think again. You are missing out on the little life savers that a smart phone offers.

I’m at the supermarket, desperately trying to find bleach. But I have no idea what it is called in Chinese, or if it even is common here. Wandering around the laundry and cleaning supplies sections, I eventually find a store clerk I can ask. Of course, she doesn’t speak English, and my Mandarin vocabulary is not very advanced. Dictionary app to the rescue. I tell the clerk in my basic Chinese what I am looking for and show her the characters for bleach to make sure. With a big smile of relief on her face (I guess she didn’t think we could communicate), she directed me to the right aisle. There I found my next challenge: which one to chose. Of course, the bottles where only labeled with Chinese characters. I already knew the characters for bleach now, so I only had to figure out what the other character on the main label meant… This is one of the reasons I never leave the house without my smartphone. I use apps that are extremely useful, I would even say essential when living in China.

Why you need a smartphone in China

Making a phone call is not the most important use of a phone. It is instant access to apps that make life in China easier:

  • Dictionary app, ideally one that has audio to help you to pronounce the word correctly. Great if you can also input characters, so you can figure out, for example, what the difference between the different bottles of bleach are. – Some dictionary apps work off-line, so you don’t necessarily need a data plan. For all other apps, a data plan is a must. (Data plans are fairly cheap in China.)
  • Google maps, to help you find almost every place. Also extremely useful to find bus routes and bus numbers.
  • WeChat, the app of choice for Chinese people to connect, text, share pictures and other moments, etc. It is a Chinese version of Whatsapp and luckily also has an English interface. Because it is so common here, almost all foreigners in China use it, too. In fact, it is so ubiquitous, that no one here asks you for your phone number anymore, just for your WeChat.
  • Air quality app, so you know when to get out the face mask, or stay inside.
  • Internet access on the go, to find the restaurant phone number for directions, or the review with recommendations for best dishes. To access Facebook and other social networks, you will need VPN on your phone.
  • Entertainment options for long crammed rides on the subway. Chinese favorites are downloaded TV series or games. I also like music or podcast.

Data plan – Making your smart phone smart

Data plans for smart phones are not expensive, compared to typical phone plans in the US. The main providers are China Mobile and China Unicom. (Read more about staying connected here.)

China Mobile is said to have better cell coverage outside of major urban areas, important if you will travel a lot. China Unicom supposedly has the better and faster 3G network. I use China Unicom and found coverage not to be a problem. Well, except for that camping trip on a remote stretch of the Great Wall …

Plans are usually prepaid and easy to sign up for, although it is best to bring a Chinese-speaking friend when getting your phone set up.

Buying or bringing your smartphone

Of course you can buy yourself a new smartphone in China but you probably need someone to help you switch the default language setting from Chinese to English. Western brands like the iPhone are available but generally more expensive here.

If you want to continue using your current foreign phone, make sure that it is not locked to the mobile carrier anymore. To get it unlocked, contact your carrier and explain that you move abroad and need your phone unlocked to use a foreign SIM card. They will usually send you the code and instructions for doing that. You may also find someone in a phone shop in Beijing, who can do that for you, but it usually is a bit more expensive if the phone operating system is English.

Making your smartphone look unique

If you have a common phone, like an iPhone or Samsung (called sān xīng, three stars, in China), you will find plenty of choices for phone covers. No matter if you are looking for a phone case that is glitzy, cutesy, manly, artsy, animated, or hideous – the choice is yours.

I hope this gives you plenty of reasons why you should have a smartphone in China. If you can think of more, please share in the comments.

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