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Traveling to China? You may have already heard that you won’t be able to access Facebook, or Instagram, or Gmail, and so many other things you’re used to. This article shares ideas on what you should consider as far as using your electronics and which apps to use in China.
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Cell Phone Service
Check with your cellphone provider whether you will be able to use your phone in China. Companies like AT&T and Verizon will charge you a flat fee for every 24 hours that you use your phone in another country (typically $10 per day). Only activate the plan on days that you will really need to access WiFi, though, or the price can really add up. You may want to invest in a local SIM card if you’ll be in the country for any substantial amount of time. Since we were only there for 10 days, we relied on free WiFi at our hotels and apps that were available offline as well. All of these apps function in English exclusively. My travel companion accessed his AT&T extra coverage a few days when we needed the navigation features.
You’ve likely heard by now that you won’t be able to access many programs while in China. The Chinese government has limited foreign companies from providing service inside China. It is like a technological Great Wall (affectionately known as the Great Firewall). You can overcome this by installing a VPN program on your electronics. VPN, short for Virtual Private Network, allows you to use your electronics by sending a signal that you’re somewhere else. You can post your vacation photos on Facebook because it looks like your phone is in New York, or Los Angeles, or wherever you’ve set as your location. This is absolutely a MUST if you’re in China! You know you need to share your photos of the Great Wall and other sights in Beijing!
I’ve used VPNExpress for the better part of a year now, including using it when I travel within the United States. It prevents hackers from getting into my account when I use public WiFi. You can read here about why you should use VPN whether you’re traveling or not. There are other VPN providers (search “VPN”) but we had no problems with ExpressVPN. You can get 12 months of service for about $100. They often have special deals, like three months free with the purchase of 12 months for $99. They have shorter and longer-term plans but we were so happy that we use it all the time. Five devices can use the program simultaneously, enough for most couples.
Do you text or use messenger? Assuming you don’t have cell phone service while in China, texting is not an option. And as mentioned above, many social media sites are not available Your best option is to use WeChat.
WeChat is free and is the largest messaging service in China. It is a great way to stay in touch with others while in China. If traveling with a tour group and you need to contact your tour guide after hours or if you’re lost during an excursion, it may be easiest to do so by using WeChat. Plus you’ll have a great way to stay connected with new friends once you return home!
Do you use Uber or Lyft? DiDi is the Chinese equivalent rideshare app. Taxis, especially those located in high tourist areas and outside of hotels, charge A LOT! Instead, save money by using rideshare. The other advantage of using DiDi is that we found most drivers do not speak English, and DiDi saves you the trouble of trying to explain where you’re going. The only word of warning is that it didn’t seem to allow us to tip our driver, so carry a little cash with you, though many drivers would not accept it when we offered.
Unless you’re already familiar with the city, you’ll need a way to get around if you’re not with a tour guide. Enter Google maps – something you’ve likely used at home. Download and save Google maps into your phone. We found the addresses a bit confusing since they sometimes used characters instead of the English translation. Just beware that not every city’s map can be downloaded. We were able to download Beijing and Shanghai. While we were able to navigate without a network connection, if we had to look up an address, we needed to access WiFi.
I have a love-hate relationship with Google Translate. You can download the language you need for your travel and save it for use offline. Google Translate has several useful features, including text translation and spoken translation. We translated menus but it only worked some of the time and wasn’t all that helpful when signs were handwritten. We also tried using it with the front desk people without too much success. When we showed a screen translation to a taxi driver, he didn’t understand the translation for the “Shanghai Museum.” I don’t know if the problem was too literal translations or whether local just call places different things from tourists. The program is free, so you can’t expect perfection after all.
I’ve heard good things about Baidu translate, which will help you with voice translation. Because Baidu is Chinese, it is not subject to the block, so you do not need a VPN to access it. Microsoft Translator is also available and not blocked, but I did not try it and have seen mixed reviews.
Both Baidu and Google require an internet connection to access voice translation. If you plan to use this, make sure your phone remains connected.
More and more apps and devices help travelers to translate both the written and spoken word, so there are many options if you don’t mind paying.
Chinese cities are BIG! To put it into perspective, New York has a population of just over 8 million, while LA has just under 4 million. China’s top ten cities start at just under 8 million people, with Shanghai housing over 23 million people. The cities are geographically large. Traffic is a nightmare and it takes a long time to go from one spot to another within the city by car. If you’re in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Guangzhou, or Shenzhen, you’ll want to download the Metroman app. While Google Maps got us from one place to another, the Metroman app would have been much more helpful in telling us exactly where we were and when we needed to change trains.
Don’t be afraid of the metro! I’ve written an easy guide to riding the Shanghai metro to help you get over any fears of taking the metro or subway.
A Word About Cash
While we heard lots of warnings about the lack of ability to use cash, we didn’t have any problems during our trip. Articles suggesting visitors use AliPay (think of it as ApplePay or Venmo) fail to mention that you need to have an account in a Chinese bank in order to be able to use it. That’s not realistic for visitors. Be aware that ATM machines in your hotel lobby can often be out of service, so bring sufficient cash with you and spend accordingly.
If you’re going to one specific city, check if there are apps specifically geared towards facilitating your travel there. There are several other apps out there that can help you but we found these to be the most useful and other than VPN or phone service, they’re all FREE!
Annick, The Common Traveler