If you’re thinking about accessing the internet in China be prepared for a few hiccups. Whether it’s to let loved ones know what you’re up to or street directions, accessing the internet in China is not straightforward like it is in the USA, UK or Australia.
Picture this – You just landed at Beijing Capital International Airport, and you’re keen to let your family back home know you made it to China safely. You switch your phone back on from airplane mode, connect to the airport wifi, and type in Facebook.com, only to be redirected to a “page blocked” error, displayed in Mandarin.
What?! You panic and think something’s happened to Facebook. But let’s reassure you. Facebook is still going strong.
The internet in China
What’s really going on here is you’ve just hit the ‘Great Firewall of China”.
Probably the largest and most sophisticated online censorship operation in the world, this firewall prevents you from accessing all places on the internet you take for granted. In this bucket of no-go zones, you’ll find your beloved Facebook, Google, Twitter, and many more western websites. While traveling in China, they are off limits – at least if accessing the internet the way you would at home.
However, it’s not all bad news. Fortunately, there are still ways to connect with people back home and access the internet when holidaying in China.
Let’s look at the ways so you’re ready to click on arrival.
Internet access in China (It’s a BYO affair)
The best way to stay connected in China is to bring your own wifi equipped smartphone, tablet, or laptop. Across China generally, but particularly in hotels, cafes, restaurants, and bars, internet access is good. However, you can improve your access by obtaining a Chinese phone number to login to these free wifi hotspots.
Most travelers planning to stay in China for a longer period of time, usually buy a local SIM card. These can be purchased at service booths, supplier shops, and phone stores, which are on just about every street corner.
Even though the internet is available throughout China, not all internet is available for tourists. In fact, many internet cafes only accept customers with Chinese ID, preventing foreign travelers from accessing what they’d take for granted normally.
The great firewall of China (It’s real!)
With more than 700 million internet users, China has the largest online population in the world. While strict censorship is common in China, online restrictions have increased since the arrival of the internet there in 1996. These regulations mean people in China are blocked from using social networks, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
For travelers, using Facebook to document travels, or Gmail for staying in touch with people back home you must find others way to access these sites when you’re in China.
Use a VPN to access the internet in China and stay in touch
The easiest way to access western websites, such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter, is by installing a Virtual Private Network, or VPN. A VPN can be used to access restricted websites in China by shielding your browser activity.
The key to a VPN is that it lends you a temporary IP address and hides the actual IP address from every website or email you connect with.
VPNs are hard to find within the country, so make sure you buy and install a VPN before you arrive in China. You should opt for a paid service, rather than a free one, as free ones can easily be blocked by the Great Firewall.
Auto-forward emails to China-approved email providers
If the only thing you want to access the internet for in China is to check emails, and you use Gmail as your email service provider, there’s another way to get connected to your email without having to purchase a VPN.
Before traveling to China, you can set up auto-forward to automatically forward all of your emails to another, China-approved, email provider, such as Hotmail, Yahoo, or Sina.
Apps that will improve your China experience
Besides a VPN, there are a few mobile apps that are worth downloading before your journey starts.
Waygo, for instance, is a visual translator app, that can scan a Chinese text and automatically translates it into English, without needing an internet connection. Another one of China’s most popular translator apps is Pleco, which is also useful for those interested in learning the Chinese language.
Want to stay in touch with your newly made friends? Make sure to download WeChat, China’s everyday mobile app. WeChat is a text and voice messaging app, just like WhatsApp. However, unlike WhatsApp, WeChat comes with a range of mini-apps inside the platform.
China would come to a halt without WeChat! Chinese people use WeChat for anything, from playing games to paying bills, and from finding local hangouts to hailing taxis. Even local street vendors use WeChat for accepting payments. It literally is the way China stays connected.
Since Google Maps is not an option in China, it is a good idea to download a web mapping app that is accessible in China. CityMaps2Go offers many Chinese city maps that are available offline as well. All you have to do is download your desired city map while connected to the internet, and then you’re good to go.
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