Staying Connected: Using Your Cell Phone in China, Internet Access, Wi-Fi Coverage and SIM cards
Staying connected with family and friends while traveling through China is now easier than it ever was and getting more accesible and convenient as technology and internet use spreads throughout the country.
The reach however is unevenly spread, so while in the major cities of Beijing or Shanghai, finding a wireless hotspot or cell phone coverage (even in the Metro) is not a problem, if you travel away from the major urban areas, in some remote regions access is a bit more hit or miss.
But in general while staying connected is relatively easy, there are some golden rules so you don't end up with a megasize bill at the end of your trip, specially if you are using your own cell phone plan from home.
Just as important as the connection or device is what you will use in terms of applications or services, some of the most popular social media sites are blocked, so using Facebook or Twitter won't work, some Google apps may or may not be blocked, Google Drive seems to be blocked while Gmail seems to work most of the time.
Here are some tips to keep you connected on the go. Although we strive to keep this information current, please keep in mind that when it comes to technology and connectivity things change rapidly, what applies today might not be true tomorrow! We apologize in advance if something is no longer the case and would appreciate your input so we can keep this page up to date.
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Internet and WiFi in China
Wireless Internet coverage in China has virtually exploded in the last years with infrastructure that rivals and surpases what is available in many cities in the West. Some cities in China offer free city-wide Wi-Fi, such as Hangzhou, others offer free Wi-Fi in many public places. Shanghai for example, offers free Wi-Fi in the Bund and the YuYuan Gardens.
Using the free wireless coverage will be your best bet to stay in touch, check e-mails or the weather. You can use your smartphone, laptop, iPad or tablet to access the internet and communicate via e-mail or Skype anywhere there is a Wi-Fi connection or hotspot available.
Using your Cell Phone in China
Will my mobile phone work in China? It depends. There are two issues:
Some tips when using your home cell phone in China:
Getting a China SIM Card
You can buy a prepaid SIM card in China at any of the local wireless and telecom outlets throughout the city.
You can easily install it into your cell phone or tablet, this is a great way to save money if you will be using wireless networks a lot. You must have an unlocked phone for this to work.
What's an unlocked phone? It is a phone that can be used on any network. Many U.S. carriers in particular "lock" the phones you buy through their plans so they can only be used on their networks. Most phones sold in Europe and Asia are unlocked. As far as I know, a "locked" phone can be "unlocked" but that is beyond our discussion here. If your phone is still under contract, you can always buy a cheap unlocked phone from Amazon, they come as cheap as $50 or less sometimes. Also, if you have a locked phone, one of the best alternatives to stay connected is a portable wifi device, see below.
Check unlocked phone offers in:
In China, the three players are:
They use different frequencies so make sure you choose the one that fits your device.
All three have branches, kiosks and outlets throughout the cities, at the airports and train stations and getting a SIM card at any of them or any of the mobile shops in town is easy enough. They all have prepaid and pay-as-you-go plans which are convenient for short-term travelers.
Make sure you get the right size SIM card for your phone or tablet. Most SIM cards are now 3 in 1 so will come in all three sizes, but double-check just in case. Older iphones use Micro-Sim, Iphone 5 and later the smaller Nano-Sim Card. iPads 4 and older use the Micro-Sim, the iPad mini and Air use the Nano-Sim. The latest Samsung Smartphones use the Nano-Sim, the oldest models use the Micro-Sim or the traditional SIM card.
How much are SIM cards in China? Just as an example to give you an idea, a Unicom SIM Card with a prepaid plan and no contract for the iPad was Rmb 80 (about US$13) for 1 GB of data for one month. This was data only, no voice and the monthly plan is exactly that, a calendar month, not 30 days from start date.
There are so many different plans, voice and data, data only, monthly plans, prepaid plans, etc. with new ones being added every day, there will definitely be one to fit your requirements. Best thing is to get to one of the mobile shops, the ones at the airport speak English well and they can advise as to the best options for your needs.
You might need to provide an address in China and sometimes they ask for your passport but for the most part, the process is quite straightforward.
Also, you can check on Amazon and have it shipped home before your trip:
Get Your Own Portable 4G LTE Global WIFI Hotspot
This is our latest solution which we find by far one of the easiest ways to stay connected and specially if you travel a lot internationally, having your own WiFi Global spot is a lot more convenient and in the long run more than pays for itself.
What is a portable Wi-Fi device? This is a handy gadget that fits in your pocket and enables you to connect several devices (we could connect up to 5 devices) i.e. phones, laptops or tablets, so you can enjoy stable and fast internet connection everywhere you go.
The ones we have tried come with an integrated global SIM that works in over 100 countries, and coverage is available in China. It makes it a lot easier having your own WiFi hotspot as soon as you land, no need to buy local SIM cards, reconfigure APN settings to get everything working, you just simply turn it on and start surfing. It is also a much safer alternative than the public WiFi spots. This is for WiFi (data only), no voice. If you need to make calls you would have to use one of the apps that enable calling i.e. whatsapp, wechat, skype, etc.
The downside of course is the upfront cost of the device itself and in many cases (but not all) rates will be slightly higher than if you had a local SIM card but exponentially cheaper than roaming charges by your home provider. The data rates offered in China are more than competitive and as low as US$1.50 for 300mb of data per day.
We have used and really enjoyed tripsing around with many different devices and services throughout Hong Kong, China, Singapore and many countries in South East Asia, the United States, throughout Europe, Central America, South Africa, Zambia... We will be writing a more comprehensive review but you can check some of our favorites for now:
Charging your Devices in ChinaElectricity in China is 220 Volts, alternating at 50 cycles per second. This is twice the standard voltage than in North America and some Latin American countries which run on 110V 60Hz.
The standard wall plug in most households in China has a grounding pin and two power conducing pins in a V-shape.
Find out what you will need to charge all of your devices in China including cameras, phones, tablets, laptops, etc.
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