How to Setup and Use WeChat as an Expat in China

Josh Wilson
Career China Digital Marketing Manager
May 19, 2018

While social media sites like Facebook and Instagram might be all the rage in the US and most other countries, China's biggest trend is the instant messaging app, WeChat. With over 900 million users in China, having WeChat downloaded on your phone is essential--especially if you want to make communication with others a little smoother while in China. In this post we'll show you what you need to do to set up WeChat on your phone (with screenshots).

What Is WeChat and How Is It Used? 

WeChat may be labeled an instant messaging app, but there's more to it than that. Essentially, it works like texting -- you can send messages, photos, videos and even audio clips to others. (You can even start a group chat too.) One of the more popular features that many people use is WeChat Moments -- which are posts with pictures and text that can be shared with friends, similar to a Facebook feed.

Generally, WeChat is used for communication. Like Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram, it's used to keep in contact with friends and family. However Chinese work culture tends to combine personal and working lives more often than in Western culture.  And WeChat is such an essential element of communication in China, that businesses often use it to communicate internally too.  So having this app on your phone is critical for communication in both your work and personal lives.

How To Download WeChat (For Apple and Android Devices)

Now that you know what WeChat is, the next question to answer is: how do you download it and sign up? Here's a step-by-step guide: 

1. Download the app on your phone from the app store or the Google Play Store (depending on whether you have an iPhone or Android) 

2. Once it's installed, open the app. You should see a "sign up" button. 

3. To create a WeChat account, you'll need to enter your phone number and correct area code. 

4. Once you've entered your information, you should receive a text from WeChat with a verification code. Type this number into the box labeled "Code". 

5. Finish filling out any other information asked, and you're good to go. You now have a WeChat account ready to be used. 

What Features of WeChat Are Used?

Texting on WeChat

Obviously, one of the most popular ways people use WeChat is texting. The messaging feature allows people to send texts, pictures, videos and even audio clips. There's also group messaging--WeChat allows you to add multiple people to a conversation if you want. 

"Adding" someone to your contacts on WeChat is pretty easy, and can be done a couple of different ways. You can add someone by using their phone number, entering their username or scanning their QR code. (To add someone by QR code, ask to see their "profile QR code" and use your phone's camera to scan it. Their username should appear on the screen afterward.) 

One unique way that WeChat encourages meeting new people is through their "shaking" feature. When you open the app and shake your phone, the app immediately searches for someone who shook their device at the same time that you did. Usually, a "match" will appear, and you have the option to message this person and start a conversation. (If you don't like who you were matched with, all you have to do is shake your phone again.) 

Voice Messages 

We briefly mentioned sending audio clips before, but what does that mean exactly? Well, instead of typing out the message you want to send, you can just record it with the voice messaging feature. 

Believe it or not, this can come in handy more than you might think: let's say you're in the middle of a task and need to respond to an urgent message. Rather than stopping what you're doing, you can just press the "hold to talk" button and reply that way. Or, if you have a lot to say to someone but don't have time to type out an entire novel, voice messages can be much more convenient. 

Voice Calls 

Just like an ordinary phone, WeChat also allows you to call people. However, unlike an ordinary phone, they won't charge you for long-distance calls. If you're living in China but have family overseas, using WeChat can actually be a money saver. 

Video Calls 

Another common way that people use WeChat is to make video calls. This feature works a lot like Facetime or Skype--you're allowed to make video calls to anybody listed in your contacts. If you want to stay in contact with family and friends living in other countries, using WeChat to video call is a great way to do so (and can sometimes feel more personal than a regular phone call.)

NEW Translation Feature on WeChat

This new feature is going to help and change the way foreigners go about their day to day lives in China.  You can scan anything in Chinese and it will automatically translate it to English.  This will make everyday life so much more easier while in China for expats.  You can easily now order anything off of any menu in China, read signs, and so much more.

This camera-based translation feature currently only supports translations between Chinese and English.  It works very similar to another very popular app called Waygo works.  You just simply point, snap a pic, and the app translates it into English within seconds. 

Social Media Elements

What has really gone a long way from separating WeChat from similar messaging apps is their social media features--in particular, the WeChat Moments. Each user has a "memories feed" where you can share photos, statuses, and links (this feed can be accessed by clicking on the 'Discover' tab and then the 'Moments' button). 

The memories feed works a lot like Facebook. When people upload pictures and links to their feed, you can choose to like or comment on their posts. And, if you upload a picture that includes a friend, you can "tag" them in your post. There's also the option to include the location where a photo was taken at. This feature allows you to share interesting places with others--such as where you went sightseeing or the restaurant you were eating at. 

The other big feature included with WeChat moments are "sights". While you won't be able to upload long videos, you can post "sights"--6-second videos (to do so, click on the 'Sights' button in your Moments feed). 

There are also privacy controls, which allow you to determine who can see your posts. That way, you can choose if you want only a few family members to see a post or your entire friend group. 

WeChat is Essential if You Move to China!

When visiting or moving to China, downloading a messaging app like WeChat might be the last thing on your mind. However, it's a great way to keep in contact with family members and any new friends you meet. One of the reasons WeChat tends to be so popular is because of its versatility. Not only can you message people individually and make voice/video calls, but you can also comment and 'like' posts that are uploaded to someone's Moments feed. It might take a few minutes to get the hang of how the app works, but once you do, you can begin making memories with all your new friends.

Learn more about living in China with The Ultimate Guide for Moving to China

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