HTTC Internet Tips
Guide to Chinese Internet & Phones, Translation, Navigation, Recommended Phone Apps, and What to Do Before Getting to China
VPN, Internet, Blocked Websites, and SIM cards for your phone
The Great Firewall of China
As most people know, China censors its internet. The equipment that blocks some internet, and lets other internet through, is called a “Firewall”. There are ways around this, so that people in China (such as you!) can use any website that you like on your phone or laptop.
Q: What is VPN?
- “VPN” is a means of securely connecting to other computers. It can be used to get around “The Great Firewall”.
Q: I have 10 proxies, 4 VPNs and Tor. Do I need this guide?
- Yes: there are times where the international pipes are just too damn clogged! Relying on something overseas during those times may not help you.
- To give you a sense of the scale of the problem, tested from a random cafe in Beijing, connected to a 802.11AC network with good signal:
- Speedtest.net to Beijing server gives 3ms/93.9Mbps(down)/18.2Mbps(up).
- Speedtest.net to US gives 224ms/1.14Mbps(down)/3.4Mbps(up).
- It's not just about finding a VPN technology, it's about finding a location with good throughput.
- Also, Tor is blocked and China has an army of computer science graduates coming up with automated scripts to block your VPNs. Think about this before you assume it's not blocked.
Q. Do I need a SIM card / mobile internet for my phone on this trip? Can’t I use wifi?
- I’m glad you asked. It is true that public wifi is available throughout China. However, it usually (not always) requires mainland phone number SMS identification. It is likely that you will have Internet at your hotel but may find it hard to get connected to wifi out and about. Also, for a group of this size, you need to be able to follow developments on the group WeChat and have access to GPS maps, or you will get left behind/lost very early!
Q: What doesn't work in China?
- Gmail. YouTube. Dropbox. Google Search. Facebook. Line. Twitter. Facebook messenger, Whatsapp, many news sites.
- Don't save your VPN passwords and flight details solely in Gmail or Dropbox.
Q: What does work in China that might surprise me?
- • Most Microsoft services, including Skype and Bing. Bing is your only option for English search. Skype is a great option for calls, China's mobile network is pretty high performance.
- • Teamviewer
- • Most Apple services work. Apple maps / iMessage works fine, App Store works and has local servers now. Apple News is blocked, even with a VPN, and iCloud services will work.
Q. Are there any tricks that will get me uncensored internet 100% of the time?
- Yes! The big workaround is to get a roaming SIM card, because all SIM data traffic is tunneled to your country of origin, and you can browse websites like you are back home.
Q. Oh, you mean like Google Fi or my carrier's roaming packs?
- Google Fi is one option, but it’s important to realize that it may not be the fastest/cheapest. For a start to remain competitive they have to negotiate the cheapest deal possible in each country, so you may end up on a throttled data connection instead of a premium service. :Also, because all traffic is routed back to your provider, your latency may be very high, possibly interfering with using services such as Skype and WeChat voice calls.
Q. What are better options?
- The better option is to get a SIM card in Hong Kong that is owned by a mainland telecom provider, which routes traffic back to Hong Kong over their carrier owned (hopefully congestion free) pipes. Two such examples are China Unicom and China Mobile. Make sure you are getting a roaming to China SIM and not a Hong Kong ONLY sim.
- There are also other "travel SIMs" that have been tailored for use in China. If it is marketed toward China specifically, then it is probably a good option. One example is the AIS Sim2Fly, but be aware that it may require in person identification in Thailand(!) to use. http://www.ais.co.th/roaming/sim2fly/landing_china.html
Q. Will any SIM work in my phone?
- Not always. China has historically deployed different radio spectra to other countries (different even from Hong Kong, so just because your phone works when you arrive doesn’t mean it will work in China). In recent times, the situation has gotten better, with iPhone 6 and above and many android phones supporting LTE bands on China Mobile, and China Unicom also supports a wide range of bands (but gives worse service/value than China Mobile).
- Please also check if your phone is unlocked by your carrier, as it is common for many phones sold under contract to be tied to a provider. Often if you call them before you leave for China they will unlock it for you for free.
Q. How do I tell which SIM card to get?
- If your phone supports TDD-LTE, get China Mobile, else get China Unicom.
- 1. Find out the model number of your phone eg "iPhone 6S: Model A1688"
- 2. Google "A1688 bands” to find out what it supports
- 3. If your phone supports (TD-LTE) Bands: 38, 39, 40, 41, you are good to go with China Mobile!
- 4. Else, get China Unicom.
- For more information see: http://prepaid-data-sim-card.wikia.com/wiki/China
Q. Can you help me buy a SIM card?
- Unfortunently not. We are entering through Beijing, and thus can't buy SIM cards from HK.
Q. What are the SIM cards that you recommend specifically? How much do they cost?
- If your phone supports TDD-LTE,
- China Mobile “CMHK 4G/3G Individual traveller Prepaid SIM Card"
- It costs $68HKD($8.69 US) for the SIM, and $168 HKD ($21.48 USD) for each 2GB data pack.
- Make sure it matches the picture below: it is likely that the cashier will get confused and try to sell you a HK-only local sim instead!
- Before you leave HK and enter China, recharge it online using this website: https://1cm.hk.chinamobile.com/bill/prepaid-refill.html?lang=en and activate a 2GB China & Hong Kong Data Package for $168 HKD.
"If your phone doesn’t support TDD-LTE, or you’re just not sure, you can get the China Unicom Cross Border King "https://www.cuniq.com/hk_en/data-card/great-china/cross-border-king-hkno.html "Sim Costs $138 HKD ($17.64 USD) "Data packages are $118 HKD ($15.09 USD) / 1 GB.
Q. Where to look for these two cards?
- 7/11, Circle K 👌 and market stalls selling SIM cards. Make sure the photo matches and you are not being given a HK-only-SIM!
Q: What about getting a local (Chinese Mainland) SIM Card:
- Yes, you can do that. but everything will be blocked, and you will need real name registration with your passport and possibly a few hours to set it up. The first time I tried to do this, I thought I was getting prepaid but accidentally signed up for a 24 month plan.. and now I can’t get another due to leaving the country and not making payments. 🤦♂️ I don’t recommend this option.
Q: How can I translate and talk to Chinese people?
There are several good options:
- 1. Google Translate: but it only works if you have a VPN and or have downloaded the offline pack beforehand. If you are translating offline, the quality of translation may be much less. Does however have an extremely nifty live translate options, that works offline and is completely indispensable for translating restaurant menus!
- 2. Bing Translate: Works in china, and automatically translates text from screenshots. Also has a Safari plugin that can translate websites.
- 3. Baidu Translate: Chinese native translation app. Great for second-checking Google/Bing translate when you are confused. Has a great AI / machine learning team and actually rolled out machine learning translate before Google did.
- 4. WeChat: You can translate conversations while you are chatting to people. A lot of Chinese know this, and will ask for your WeChat right away so they can talk to you.
- 5. Chinese Keyboards: If possible, install Chinese keyboards/input methods on your phone. This is so a Chinese person can type their part of the conversation using your phone. You may need a few because everyone has their own preference, e.g. pinyin, stroke, and handwriting. For Android, download the "Google Pinyin Input" app -- this has several Chinese keyboards in one. For iOS, you can enable "Chinese - Simplified Handwriting", "Chinese - Simplified Pinyin", and "Chinese - Simplified Stroke" on your phone.
Q: I want to buy a banana in China, but I don’t speak any Chinese, how can I buy a banana?
Here is a picture of a Banana. Now you can show this picture and very soon you will have your very own banana. Seriously, Bing Images speaks 1000 Chinese words. You can use text translate all day, but a picture of the thing you want will always get faster results.
Q: Wait Bing images?
Yes, remember Google is blocked 🙃
Know the subway exit closest to your accommodation. Have someone write it down for you in Chinese to show a taxi driver or subway staff. Also, get your hotel to write down in Chinese the name of the building and address and phone number, so you can show to a taxi driver.
Q: My VPN works fine 😀 Can I rely on Google Maps?
Google Maps in China offsets GPS locations by a random amount. Even with a VPN. You will get very lost using it. Also, the maps haven't been updated much since Google left China years ago. The directions they give you may or may not be correct, but the blue dot WILL be wrong.
Q. What about Apple Maps? Openstreetmaps?
Both of these work although may not be that detailed. Apple Maps has public transport directions (in English!) for some cities.
Q: How to get up to date public transport/walking directions?
Use Baidu Maps.
Q: Wait I downloaded Baidu Maps and it's all in Chinese. WTF?
Welcome to China. A tip I recommend is to take a screenshot and then use Microsoft Translator to understand what the functions are. But if you've used mapping apps before most of functions are the same. I recommend copy and pasting the Chinese address, or getting a Chinese person to type it in for you. For this you may need a few Chinese keyboards, as each person has their own preference of keyboard type.
Baidu Maps also has excellent public transport directions, including subway and buses. It takes a bit of back and forward between Bing Translate to understand what to do, see example screenshot below.
Q: Why install a Chinese app? It's all too confusing.
So Chinese people can help you. So you can get up to date public transport. So you can navigate there in augmented reality mode. (really)... so you can hire bicycles to get you there... so you can save the whole map offline.
Q: Got any tips to save me battery / SIM Card data?
- 1. Buy a powerbank. Almost easier to find than food in China.
- 2. Because some services will be blocked, your phone might waste a lot of time trying to connect to things and fail. If it’s sensible, it will give up and not constantly retry. but if you get battery drain you can try turning off any push email and background app refresh for blocked services e.g. Facebook / Google Apps.
- 3. Make sure you don’t have things like Camera Roll upload to Dropbox turned on for Cellular data!
Q: This is really weird. So what services do Chinese people use?
I’m glad you asked 😀. The Chinese Internet industry is flourishing, and Chinese use a wide range of locally developed apps.
I recommend checking out a top 100 list of apps such as the iTunes China App store rankings, but here are some examples:
- Netease/Baidu/Kogou - like Spotify
- Alipay - Like Paypal, but can be used in real life to pay for anything including Metro tickets.
- Kwai - Funny videos
- didi - Like Uber, and available in English!
- iQiyi - Like Netflix
- Mobike - Share bikes
- Meitu - Beauty app, with live video transformations
- Dianping - Like foursquare/yelp, only been around longer and more organised.
- Bilibili / Youku - Social video platforms
- Taobao / Tmall / JD - Ebay, Amazon, etc
- Baidu Pan - Like Dropbox, only they give you 2TB for free..
- Baidu Maps / Amap - Like Google maps, but still has fierce competition for features.
Which VPN should I use?
Astrill has a long history of working in China.. why that is? 🤔 Well.. One could only speculate. You should set your expectation for any VPN service low, and not expect it to work at all times of the day. Make sure you buy it before you arrive in the mainland, and save the server list/app on your device.
I also use Lantern as a backup https://getlantern.org and I’ve heard good things about ExpressVPN.
Before you come to China
Get a VPN Account (eg, Astrill, ExpressVPN or Lantern)
WeChat (Chat) Baidu Maps (Public transport directions) Bing Translate Baidu Translate Skype (cheap landline or Internet calls back home, not blocked by firewall) Google Translate (English —> Chinese) && (Chinese —> English) Offline translation pack For Android, install Google Pinyin Input For iPhone, enable Chinese keyboards/input methods (eg at least pinyin / handwriting / stroke),
which you can do this in your phone language settings.
Tell your bank before you leave that you are travelling to China
If you rely on your local phone number for SMS 2FA (Banking, iCloud, Finance, etc), then either
Tell your phone provider you are travelling to China
Get them to turn on international roaming and bring a spare phone with your SIM.
OR Get the 2FA codes disabled while you are in China.
Turn OFF data roaming before you arrive, unless you are only using a local SIM in your phone. Be aware of which of your bank cards are going to charge you an international transaction fee and/or a ATM withdrawal fee. (Charles Schwab charges neither) If you can’t avoid fees, then make sure you do big ATM cash withdrawals each time to reduce ATM fees.
I'm too busy, can't I just get it all when I get to China?
- • Google Play Store is completely blocked in China. So either you will be downloading apps at a very slow speed over a VPN or downloading random .apks from untrusted sources
- • iPhones are easier, but hotel wifi is universally shitty and you will still be lost the first few days before you install everything
- • Banks and phone companies might not want to talk to you once you leave the country.
Data usage tips
Tips to reduce the amount of mobile data your phone uses:
Turn off any automated uploading of photos (on mobile data)
- • Dropbox
- • iCloud Photo Library (turn off unlimited updates, and Mobile Data)
- • Google Photos
Turn off background updating of apps
- • On iOS, set Background App Refresh to "Wifi"
- • If you use podcasting apps, make sure they only update on Wifi.
- • iCloud Drive / Google Drive
Caching data offline
- • Baidu Maps has an offline cached map available for every city. You can choose each city in the settings. It's an incredible detailed map and strongly recommended, even if it is in chinese.
- • Google Translate has offline translate packs, that are needed for real-time translate.
- • On Mac, there is a utility called Tripmode, which will allow you to disable apps when connected to tethered data. https://www.tripmode.ch
Going down internet rabbit holes...
Q: China is gonna pwn my phone and spy on me. I'm scared 😰
Yep, could happen. Also, the NSA is already spying on you (PRISM). And the UK (Tempura). And Canada.. and Australia..(Five Eyes). and Russia.. and who knows who else.
So set your paranoia level accordingly. You want to come with a fresh phone? Go right ahead. But just remember that the internet is global, you can get hacked in any country, and most of your phones parts probably originated in China anyway… Don’t be so scared that you spend your whole trip lost using a feature phone..
Sensible preparations include making sure you are running the latest version of your OS and apps, and having backups of everything you take with you. Changing passwords regularly or after your trip is also a sensible thing to do.
Q: I don’t trust Astrill, I wanna set up my own VPN.-
Straight OpenVPN is likely to get blocked after working for a few minutes, OpenVPN with obfsproxy less so, and any protocols that big businesses use are more likely to work, eg PPTP / Cisco Anyconnect / L2TP. Also worth looking at projects that script an install for you onto a VPS, such as https://github.com/madbuda/brasscrow
Running a public Tor on your server at home will get the entire IP blocked the first time you use it.
Q. Can I just use SSH tunnels? Surely China won’t block SSH..
You can use SSH interactively, but when you start to transfer data through it, the packet loss goes through the roof until you restart the session. See for example: http://blog.zorinaq.com/my-experience-with-the-great-firewall-of-china/
Q: My VPN stopped working and now my internet is really slow.. Are they on to me? 😬
It’s probably just slow for everyone. VPNs aren’t illegal in China, but they do have automated processes for blocking them. Just because they blocked your server doesn’t mean they are targeting you.
Q. Can I use Teamviewer?
Q. Can I watch Netflix?
Not unless you are really lucky. Streaming speeds are really bad over VPNs.