An Ex-pat's Tech Guide for China

For the past 5 years, my colleagues at Powershift Group and I have been actively engaged in establishing new ventures in China. The more significant of these is a mobile software company called Appconomy, but there are others.

During this time, several of us (myself included) relocated our families to Shanghai, where our Chinese headquarters office is located. None of us were native Chinese, so everything we learned about being a resident of a large Chinese city, we learned by doing, on-the-ground.

This post and two subsequent ones I’ll be writing are intended to share some basics with you for making life a little easier for those accustomed to Western-style, especially American, comforts.

I’ll start with our collective thoughts for a tech survival guide:

1 – Android phone with China phone service and number

The Android mobile OS, far and away, is the leading smartphone platform in China. (The iPhone/iOS, while popular and highly profitable for Apple, is a fraction of the market.) There is a vast array of great Android options, including smartphones from Samsung, Xiaomi, HTC and dozens of others.

It is essential that you get a cell phone plan with plenty of data through one of the three major state-owned enterprise (SOE) services, China Mobile, China Telecom, or China Unicom. Phones and service providers are unbundled in China, so you can go to any service provider, all of which have retail storefronts on practically every block in the central part of the city.

Don’t go alone; take a Chinese friend or workmate with you who is fluent and can explain the choices to you, as well as guide you through the steps. There are several, for example, using an ATM-style kiosk to scroll through screens and screens of available phone numbers, choosing the one that you like. It is all Chinese-language, so you’ll need help.

NOTE: Generally speaking, until you get confident in understanding and speaking conversational Mandarin, you should repeat the process of coaxing a Chinese colleague to go with you when shopping and/or setting up any of the services described in this post and future ones.

2 – Mobile apps

There are some essential mobile apps you’ll want to install on your phone. Here is our bare-bones, short list:

  • WeChat, which is the dominant chat and communications app in China; everyone uses it
  • One of the popular taxi/transport apps, like Didi Dache or Kuaide, as the process of getting a taxi on the street has gotten more and more difficult
  • Uber, although there are long wait times presently
  • A Chinese translator app, like Pleco Chinese dictionary app with Character Scanner and Cut & Paste Reader add-ons installed. You have to pay for Pleco, but my colleagues who use it tell me it’s worth the $30 USD.

You can also try free translator apps, like Google Translate or Skype’s Translator service, the latter of which is currently in an active beta. None of them are perfect –you’ll get about 50-75% accuracy most of the time. But, they are good enough to grasp basic meaning when you don’t have a Chinese speaker with you.

There is a whole second tier of useful mobile apps, like the China air quality app from the American Embassy. Other apps provide similar functionality to other Western apps, like Yelp (called Dianping) or YouTube (called Youkou). View this popular map of Western apps and their social media equivalents, maintained by the research firm CIC Data, to get an idea of others you may want to install.

3 - VPN software

VPN (for “virtual private network”) software is essential for Westerners, because it allows tunneling through to cloud-based services and websites that are officially censored by the Chinese government or otherwise difficult to use without it.

There are a number of choices, all of which you can research further before going. The two I’ve used the most are by ExpressVPN and Astrill, which provide options for your computer as well as your array of mobile devices.

Be advised, however, that VPN providers and Chinese government censors are in a constant cat-and-mouse battle, where the latter is perpetually developing new methods to block the former. So, you may have to have more than one VPN option to get access to the services that you need on a consistent basis.

To avoid disruptions, increasingly, we have found ourselves choosing to standardize on Chinese apps and certain, Western software services that are more compliant and in stronger partnership with Chinese authorities. For example, Microsoft products – MS Office, Exchange/Outlook, Skype, etc. – seem to operate more reliably, although some services like OneDrive, are still mostly inaccessible.

4 - Power converters/adapters

In China, electricity is 220 volts, whereas in the U.S., it is 110. Fortunately, in many hotels and office complexes serving Western guests and businesspeople, power outlets accommodate 110v electronics. But, elsewhere, like your apartment, coffee shops, and other locations, it is likely that you will need a converter to reduce the voltage from 220 to 110.

Likewise, power outlets in China often use a flat, 2-prong plug standard that is different than the rounded, 2- or 3-prong standard that is common in the U.S. So, in addition to being a converter, you will also need a set of adapters for your plugs, so that they fit the wall sockets or power strips that are available. Without these, you run the risk of ruining your non-Chinese electronics.

5 – Loyalty cards and programs

This final category might veer away from business productivity for ex-pats. But my Appconomy colleagues and I all became big fans of a handful of loyalty programs and online services that you might say were more valuable to our “emotional survival.” Here are our top three:

  • Subway card (the underground system, not the sandwich) - the subway system in Shanghai is extensive, safe, and fast. It’s a great alternative to taxis and buses, if you don’t mind a little walking. Keep at between 50-100 RMB loaded onto it, in case you have to travel late or when there are no station attendants to “top up” (i.e., add more stored value to) your card.
  • Chinese Starbucks card – the Chinese Starbucks loyalty program, which is still a physical card-based system rather than a mobile app, is a separate one from the US loyalty program, even though it works the same. So, you will need to apply for and purchase one. But, once you have it, the benefits are good and Starbucks provides a familiar, home-away-from-home customer experience for Westerners that is reliable and clean.
  • Local Western food delivery – if in Shanghai, register accounts with Sherpas and Element Fresh for prepared meal home delivery. There are more, but those two will get you started!

Next time, I’ll cover a financial survival guide. As always, I welcome your comments and questions.

A repost From Steve Guengerich's Linkedin Post