Staying connected to the internet in China – on a computer or on a phone – is super important for most travelers!
It may sound simple enough, but staying connected while traveling in China takes a bit of planning and preparation.
Whether you want to use your phone in China or you plan on only using public WiFI, here’s an explanation of what you need to expect and how you can properly prepare yourself.
Phones in China | Calling, Texting & Data
You’re going to notice when you travel around China that everybody uses a cell phone. The adoption rate of mobile phones has been crazy in China. The days of funny-looking public pay phones is long gone.
There are still landlines where you can make local calls, but frankly speaking most Chinese people prefer to use a messenger app like WeChat to communicate instead of placing a phone call.
So the question remains: can you bring your phone from home to use in China?
Thankfully, the answer to that question is yes, although there are a few different options for you. It’s possible to:
- Use Your Home Carrier’s International Roaming: Check with your home carrier to see what their rates are. Normally, they’ll charge you a set fee per day just for connecting, in addition to any data/calls/texts over a specific limit. Important: If you don’t want to get charged this daily roaming fee, make sure your phone is set to “airplane mode” so it won’t accidentally connect to the Chinese network.
- Buy a Chinese SIM Card: In some Chinese airports, you’ll find a kiosk where you can purchase a China SIM card to put in your phone for a pretty cheap price. The only catch here is that your phone will need to be unlocked in order to use another carrier’s SIM card. Oh yea, and they’ll also require a copy of your passport to use the SIM card (big brother is watching you!).
- Rent a Phone: Some travelers – particularly business travelers – avoid connecting their phone to Chinese networks for security reasons. In this case, it is possible to rent a phone for China. Rates are usually cheaper than international roaming but more expensive than a Chinese SIM card.
All of these methods are ways to get your phone connected to Chinese networks.
When using a phone in China, it’s good to be aware that their emergency and service numbers are different than what you might be used to. Here are a few numbers to remember in China:
- Ambulance: dial 120 (you’re better off taking a taxi to a hospital!)
- Police (Bureau of Public Security): dial 110
- Directory assistance: 114
- Rail information: 12306
Of course, it’s entirely possible to use your phone and computer only using WiFi instead of network connection.
WiFi in China | Is It Reliable?
I remember the days when the streets of China were lined with internet cafes, each one packed with young Chinese men playing video games for hours on end.
Of course, nowadays most of these internet cafes have shut down. The rise of mobile phones and public WiFi have pretty much put them out of business.
So here’s the good news: China has tons of free WiFi available pretty much anywhere you go. Airports, malls, coffee shops, restaurants…you name it. They probably have WiFi.
And here’s the bad news: Oftentimes, this free WiFi is blocked by a security feature that requires a code to be texted to your phone for verification. If you don’t have a phone that can text, you can’t log into the WiFi.
This isn’t the case everywhere, but it is becoming more and more common. China’s government has become very strict about monitoring the activity of internet users, and the only way to do that is to make sure that they identify themselves even when using public WiFi.
What are your options?
- Plan on only using the free wifi at your hotel, which only requires a password.
- Hope for the best.
- Connect your phone to the network using the methods mentioned above.
- Use a neat device like the Skyroam that gives you international WiFi service for your devices at a very low cost.
It’s possible to only use WiFi in China, just make sure you understand what you’re getting into so you’re not too disappointed.
It’s very important to note that no matter you use your mobile phone connected to a Chinese network or a free WiFi network, you’re still going to run into the big problem here in China: censorship.
Internet Censorship & Restrictions in China
Perhaps you’ve heard about the so-called “Great Firewall of China” that the government uses to block access to certain websites.
This includes popular social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram or popular productivity tools like Gmail, Google Maps and Yahoo. In addition to blocking sites with pornographic, obscene, and criminal content, it’s no secret that sites critical of the country, as well as certain sensitive political topics, are also censored.
For the average tourist, internet censorship in China isn’t a huge problem.
The reason for this is a simple piece of software known as a Virtual Private Network, or “VPN” for short. If you ask any expat who has lived in China for more than a few months, every one of them will tell you that they use a VPN.
Certain VPN companies, like ExpressVPN which I use, are aimed specifically at internet users in China. They offer mobile apps (iOS and Android) as well as computer apps that allow you to connect to a server outside of China and bypass any censorship.
This means that even in China, you can still use your favorite social media site or check your Gmail. Not to mention the fact that a VPN encrypts your data so that big brother can’t watch what you’re doing. In most cases, it’s unwise not to use a VPN like ExpressVPN.
Final Thoughts | Phones & Internet in China
For some people, it’s important to remain connected to social media and email or to have the ability to call home via Skype while they’re traveling around China.
If this is the case for you, you may need to prepare for ways to use your phone in China and connect to an uncensored internet.
Whether you use your own phone, rent a phone or only use WiFi, you’ll want to purchase and download ExpressVPN before you leave. The reason I say this is that setting up a VPN from within China is a huge pain. As long as it’s set up when you arrive, you won’t have any problems.