I was recently in Xi’an China to host the Crossfire Stars 2017 Grand Finals (most of this post is littered with pictures from that event for your enjoyment 🙂 ). Yay for Esports things! But it isn’t my first time visiting China. I visited Beijing a few years back to tour the Lenovo factory. I remember arriving in Beijing and being surprised because it turns out the internet isn’t universal. While you probably know about the Great Wall of China you might not be all that familiar with the Great Fire Wall of China. So to prepare you for a trip to China I’ve put together some top tech travel tips to make your stay a little bit easier, or at least, communicating with the rest of the world easier.
Google (meaning Chrome, Gmail, YouTube and all those things), Facebook (meaning Instagram and Whats App as well) and Twitter are all blocked in China
Keep in mind when I say China I don’t mean Hong Kong. Which operates a little differently. But for the rest of China most of your favourite social media sites and online tools are all blocked. I even struggled with Deezer while I was there! The services are blocked because the companies refuse to change their terms of service to comply with the Chinese government’s requests. I’m not going to go in to the politics but I will explain the best ways to stay connected when you’re there.
You’ll need a VPN
What is a VPN? It is a “Virtual Private Network” that extends a private network across a public network. It basically allows you to send and receive data across public and shared networks but as if your device was connected to a private network. I have two options for you depending on what you need.
For making sure your phone works anywhere in China, try KnowRoaming
I’ve waxed lyrical about KnowRoaming more times than I can count. It is a computer chip embedded sticker that attaches to your sim card. You download an app on your phone and then, when travelling, the app picks it up and then allows you to connect to local networks around the world. With the sticker and app you’re able to purchase roaming packages and data packages to use when travelling. If you travel a lot, like me, this is a far more cost effective solution than purchasing a sim card every time you land. This is also an ideal way to stay connected when in China.
KnowRoaming uses networks in France, so it works a little bit like a VPN (it isn’t one, just FYI). Because you’re accessing a French network via the local ones you don’t suffer the same blocks as local providers. Again, I’m not going to get in to the tech. I’m just letting you know, it works. I use two features on KnowRoaming – the call forwarding (which forwards calls to me where ever I am) and then the data packages. For the most part I don’t need to phone out and the data works perfectly. But I do sometimes load some credit in case I need to make calls. You simply purchase credit and packages in the app and then activate them.
Whats App is free on KnowRoaming anywhere in the world which is a big bonus. Usually you can purchase unlimited data packages for a certain number of days in different countries. However, in China you’ll need to buy data bundles. I purchased a 1GB for 7 days package via the KnowRoaming pop up store in Sandton City. This was a special offer at the store but you can shop through packages in app. A few things to keep in mind: sometimes there are lags in connectivity in China when using KnowRoaming. But for the most part it is a super. You’ll need to be on WiFi to activate a package which can be a bit of a hack. Whats App calling in China is terrible. So avoid at all costs. Keep it to text messages. Data gets costly if you’re a heavy social media user. KnowRoaming doesn’t work if you’re on WiFi. So you’ll get locked behind the firewall the moment you jump on public WiFi. So remember that!
If you’re happy to use the local WiFi get ExpressVPN
WiFi in China is really good and available almost anywhere. So you don’t necessarily need your phone to be connected all the time (I’d still suggest it though if you’re travelling to areas you don’t know). While in Xi’an I used a combination of KnowRoaming and ExpressVPN. ExpressVPN is a fantastic service. It costs around $12.95 (so about R200) for one month (just remember to cancel the ongoing billing when you sign up). You then download an app on to your phone, laptop, Mac… any device. Every download is available on the ExpressVPN site. Download the apps before you go and once you’re on WiFi just hit the big on button. The software does everything else. ExpressVPN works on public WiFi and I found it didn’t effect KnowRoaming either – so I simply jumped between the two when needed. But one or the other works. ExpressVPN was incredible. So simple to use and it never let me down. They also have 24 hour support on their site which is a big plus.
The biggest speed bump in China is the language barrier. English is not a first language or even a second so communicating can be difficult. Get yourself Google Translate if you can. Also, remember the VPN issue so once you’ve downloaded it go to settings > Data Usage > Download offline translation files.
You’ll be able to use the app to take photos of addresses you need to get to to share with taxi drivers (Uber doesn’t work in China so make sure you have cash) or translate menus or basic communications you need.
Two pin plugs for phone chargers, hair dryers etc work in Chinese plug points so you’re good there.
Everyone uses We Chat in China. Download it before you go as it will be the main way of contacting people you meet, sharing photos and the like while there.
There you go – easy as! Some top tech travel tips when visiting China. Once you get over the great fire wall it makes it far easier. Let me know if you have any questions in the comments below and I’ll try help out as best I can 🙂