A guide to using an Android smartphone in China, and how to get paid apps

Qiyi app for Android, shown on a Galaxy Tab

I’ve been enjoying my past few months of being a new Android user; but residing in China entails some frustrations and difficulties in getting the most out of your Google-powered smartphone – especially with regards a lack of paid apps support, and some popular apps missing from the Chinese version of the Android market. Here are a couple of solid – and legitimate – ways to tackle these two annoyances…

Get paid apps
Whereas the Apple App Store abides by your own choice of store/locality (in line with where your credit card was issued, or where you bought your pre-paid iTunes card), the Android Market is a beast of the more unwieldy and pain-in-the-ass variety: it judges your location by your SIM card, so if you’re running on any one of China’s three main mobile telcos, you’re lumped with the Chinese app Market, which has no paid apps in it.

Solution: The best way around this is to get your hands on a SIM card from a country that does support paid apps (currently 32 nations get paid apps in the Android Market; but that’s far short of iTunes’ 80+ countries) – though the only proviso is that you’ll need to have a valid credit card from that same country, too. Thus, if you’re Australian, get an Oz SIM to match your down-under credit card. Then your supplemental SIM can then be tied to a Google Checkout account, for app-buying purposes.

With this other SIM – I’ve found that it doesn’t even need to be activated, and this trick works regardless of the SIM being (inevitably) unable to get a signal here – popped into your phone (and browsing using your wifi – yes, no VPN is needed for this sorcery) for app buying purposes, you’ll see paid apps appear magically, ready to be bought with your Checkout account.

Yes, it’s pretty inconvenient having to drop the other SIM in from time-to-time to browse the market or update some apps, but at least it does work well. Google seriously needs to bring the Market to more countries, but seems to be moving at a glacial pace that’s way behind the rate at which their smartphones are being picked up around the world. It’s quite a let-down.

Find missing apps
This is where things get a bit more bizarre – and, perhaps, political? – as a number of vital apps for any smartphone are missing from the Chinese Android Market. The biggest names among these are Skype, and Google’s own Maps app, as well as the fantastic Gmail app.

The omission of Skype and Google’s official Maps app is very likely political (similarly, Skype for iOS is missing from the Chinese Apple App Store), with tightening restrictions in China on online maps and VOIP in the past year.

Solution: Even though those are free apps, this is where your laowai SIM comes in handy again: pop it in the phone, and even though you’ve got no signal, you’ve fooled the Market app into showing up Skype, Maps, Gmail, and other free apps that are conspicuously absent with the Chinese Market.

Be aware: even with your overseas SIM in, there might be updates for your apps that don’t appear in the normal orange-text-indicates-an-update kinda way. I’ve found that you’ll need to manually search for them, and then you’ll see the word Update appear on the app page’s button (rather than Install). Annoyingly for ‘System apps’ (core Google apps), when you update them in this way, they won’t be installed to the Android System. If your phone is rooted you might (I guess) be able to ‘push’ the apps to install in the System directory (if so, do let me know if you’ve tried).

*cough!* Piracy *cough!*
Another option is to hit up some shadier app sources, although there’s always a risk in doing so. Unfortunately, this hits innocent app publishers, rather than get back at Google (who is the real culprit of this whole situation).

Alternative Chinese app stores mostly stock locally-made free apps, but there are some cracked, international paid apps in there too – especially games – but are best avoided in the light of malware-tainted, click-fraud infused games popping up in these places.

So, as long as you have the official Market app, there’s a good workaround available with the above SIM trickery. Despite these niggles, I’m still much preferring the more powerful, versatile, and generous of screen real-estate characteristics of Android, as compared to iOS on the iPhone. If you have any other China-related Android tips and tricks, drop them in the comments, below.