James at The Pace, one of Beijing's many mega-malls

James at The Pace, one of Beijing's many mega-malls

We’re very proud to work with Yodo1, a major player in China’s burgeoning mobile gaming scene who’s been with us since 2011; last year, I was lucky to live in Beijing and Shanghai for four months, working directly in their offices. We’ve learned a lot about the country's massive tech industry and startup culture, and while I lived there, I also picked up some important tech tips every Western geek should know when they’re planning a trip to China. These pointers also reflect some significant aspects of the world's largest Internet culture. So if you're interested in global technology, they're worth knowing even if you don’t work with Chinese tech companies like us:

Download a CN air quality app

If you want to know whether it’s a blue-sky day in Beijing or a sunless, apocalyptic hellscape…there's an app for that. This incredibly useful (and free) smartphone app shows you near real-time air quality readings in your current city in China, based on AQI readings as reported by the local government and the US consulate or embassy. The Chinese version of the app is quite popular among China’s tech workers, who are as likely to chitchat about the day’s AQI level as the actual weather. Apps like these vividly illustrate the rising concern the country’s tech-savvy middle class has about the environment, and how they’re using mobile technology as a tool to address it. And for the foreign visitor, it answers the very practical question: "Should I wear a mask when I leave the hotel?"

Get a VPN account

Internet connectivity in China’s major cities is impressively pervasive, with available WiFi connections in pretty much every restaurant, bar, and cafe you visit. But it’s not the Internet you’re accustomed to. With Facebook and Twitter blocked by China’s Great Firewall, you quickly realize just how much of your Internet activity depends on social media. However, it’s relatively easy to access the wider Internet through a VPN based outside the country. (Astrill and Strong VPN are often recommended by frequent Western visitors.)

In my experience, surprisingly few local Chinese seem to use a VPN on a regular basis—probably because the country has its own robust social network ecosystem, with services like Sina Weibo and Weixin (see below) drawing about as many total users as Facebook. Coupled with the language barrier, the Great Firewall has enabled a thriving local Internet culture that is difficult for outsiders to access. For that reason, when you’re in China, I also recommend not using a VPN on occasion, and asking a local friend to take you on a tour of China’s Internet.

Get a local smartphone

Even if you have a good international calling plan, you should at least consider getting a Chinese Android phone, especially if you have local friends, or plan to use WiFi in cafes, airports, and train stations. (Many connections require a Chinese phone number in exchange for Internet access.) Chinese smartphones are cheap, and outlets for China's three telecoms are ubiquitous. (I got a pretty good ZTE phone for about $100 up front and paid $15 a month for calling and data service, thanks to some Chinese friends who helped me with the signup and initialization process.) As an added benefit, you’ll also get hands-on experience with the world’s largest smartphone market: iOS/Android ownership passed 500 million last month.

Get the WeChat app

Known in China as Weixin (literally, “micro message”), the WeChat app is a cross-platform mobile-communication/social-network app from Tencent, the Chinese Internet giant. As of May 2014, the service boasts about 400 million users, mostly in China, where it’s already become a social necessity. When people meet in Beijing and Shanghai, they’re just as likely to exchange WeChat information (via the app’s handy camera-driven QR code finder) as business cards. WeChat users can send short instant voice messages to each other, which is why China’s mobile phone carriers see the app as a direct competitor. And for clueless Western travelers like me, this feature can be converted into an easy translation tool. (I sometimes asked Chinese friends to send me WeChat voice messages I could use to communicate with my Shanghai landlord or taxi drivers.)

On top of that, the English version of WeChat is extremely well localized, which reflects Tencent’s aggressive push to extend its user base beyond the Chinese market. It already has over 100 million users outside China, and may very well become the first Chinese app to gain a massive Western user base. (Notably, Tencent recently hired a couple US-based marketers to help with its outreach here.)

So this last point of advice is especially useful for everyone, even if you never plan to visit China—there’s a pretty good chance you’ll need to start using WeChat wherever you live. (Especially if you work with Chinese companies.) Then again, that’s probably true about a lot of Chinese technology.