China Travel Guide: Tech Special
Make sure you’re prepared for your visit to China. This guide covers all you need to know to ensure you retain access to the online services you take granted outside the Great Firewall of China.Travel 24 FEB 2017
More than anywhere else in the world, it really pays to take the time to prepare your tech in advance for a trip to China. Buying a multi-adapter at the airport and a last-minute mobile bolt-on just won’t cut it.
Many of the websites and apps we take for granted in the West are blocked and cyber-security is very poor. However with some smart preparation you can still get close to the kind of online experience you’re used to at home. All you need is this guide to ensure your tech is China-ready.
The single most important piece of advice we can give anyone heading to China is to think like a Boy Scout and “be prepared”. Once you cross the border, it becomes much more difficult to get access to the tools you need to skirt around strict censorship measures. You’ll also avoid wasting precious time messing about trying to get your smartphone and other devices connected.
1 Public Wi-Fi in China
The good news is public Wi-Fi is becoming increasingly widespread in China. The bad news is that it’s often very slow, unreliable and highly insecure. Download speeds of less than 1 Mbps are common.
Chinese public Wi-Fi is glacially slow: don’t be surprised to clock speeds under 1Mpbs
Even many of the best five-star hotels have reported speeds of around 3 Mbps. Compare to that to over 10 Mbps in much of Europe and up to 4 Mpbs in the US (except Starbucks, which offers around 9 Mbps).
Many restaurants, hotels, and shopping malls in China provide free Wi-Fi but you need ask the staff for the password to access it, so be prepared to buy a drink or a meal if you want to get online. If you’re planning to use public Wi-Fi, it’s absolutely essential for security reasons to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network) to encrypt your data. For more details, see the VPN section below.
Your hotel will most likely offer Wi-Fi, however this may be limited to its business center with wired connections only in rooms. You can typically purchase access by the hour or per day. We advise to check ahead to avoid any annoying surprises.
You can also get online at Internet cafés, which remain common in China. We recommend against using these for anything but the most basic of tasks.
Internet cafés are still popular but beware as Chinese web browsers have major security flaws
Avoid doing anything involving personal data or passwords (even checking social media) as Chinese Internet cafés are far from secure, particularly if the PCs use local web browsers, such as the very popular QQ Browser. These browsers have been found to insecurely transmit personal data, such as location data, search queries and websites visited.
2 Get a Chinese SIM
International data roaming charges are eye-watering in China, hitting as much £6 a MB with some providers and very low monthly caps of between 50-200MB, even with the appropriate bolt-on. This is clearly far from a sensible option.
Buying a pre-paid Chinese SIM card is a necessity. Ideally buy one before you go, either directly from China Unicom or from a reseller like 3G Solutions. You will need an unlocked phone or the SIM card won’t work.
You can order a Chinese SIM online before you go and have it delivered to your hotel. If your phone is locked, buy a local handset and you’ll still save.
If your phone is locked, it’s worth picking up a cheap Android handset – go for the popular Xiaomi brand if you wait until your arrival – to use with the SIM, as you will still save money and benefit from the convenience of more generous data.
Buying direct with delivery to your hotel is cheapest. China Unicom also delivers to the US if you purchase from its Amazon store but the range of SIMs is limited and prices higher. For shipping to other countries, you must contact China Unicom customer support. If you absolutely must have cheap internet access from the minute you touch down, 3G Solutions is a very convenient, if pricey, option. Expect to pay a small premium on the SIM plus shipping of over $30 to the US and Europe.
The later your travel dates in any calendar month, resellers like 3G Solutions become less attractive than buying from China Unicom direct, as their SIM cards often expire at the end of each month and require payment of a rollover fee into the following month, unlike a direct purchase.
Check your travel dates – some resellers’ SIM cards are valid for specific calendar months and incur a fee to roll over. Avoid premium extras like VPN, they are poor value.
Resellers typically offer a range of bolt-ons, including expensive, generic VPN access but we don’t recommend this option as you have no control over the operation of the VPN and are left high and dry if it gets blocked or slows to a crawl. It will also only be available on the device containing the SIM. On the plus side, resellers typically ask for less personal information than the telecoms, if that is important to you.
If you need to get online on the move with your tablet or laptop, get a data-only Chinese SIM and use it in a Mi-Fi device to avoid getting stuck when there’s no decent Wi-Fi.
You can also buy a pre-paid SIM on arrival. Just remember to ensure you buy the correct size for your phone. As you might expect, the airport is the worst place to get a good deal. Just look for China Telecom and China Unicom kiosks and branches, which can be found in and around major transport hubs and shopping areas.
3 The Great Firewall of China
The Great Firewall of China is a simple fact of life in the PRC. A huge number of major websites and apps are blocked, including the vast majority of Google services, and the government actively monitors all web traffic for banned activity.
The censorship landscape is constantly shifting but at least 130 of the top 1000 most-visited sites on the web are currently blocked. The following major sites and apps, among many others, are not available in China:
- Google Maps
- Google Drive (including Docs etc)
- Portions of Wikipedia
- The NYT
- Blogging platforms like WordPress, Blogspot and (Japanese platform) FC2.
Trying to access many other sites, such as The Guardian for example, can be a lottery, as they are frequently blocked and unblocked by censors.
We advise against trying to access these services on local connections as Chinese agencies have been accused of local hacks that leave users vulnerable to cyber-attacks.
Be ultra-cautious in China – avoid attracting unwanted attention with your online activity
It’s also common sense to avoid searching for sensitive terms like China persecution or Tibetan independence to avoid unwanted government attention.
You should also assume all your internet traffic is being monitored. All Chinese web traffic is funnelled through a small number of chokepoints to allow the government to perform close data analysis known as DPI or Deep Packet Inspection. This explains why internet access is so slow in China compared to the rest of the world.
Check for Blackouts
If you are travelling outside of major cities, such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou, it’s also worth checking that there is no internet blackout. While relatively rare, the PRC government has been known to cut off access to entire areas after political unrest, such as in Xinjiang’s Yarkand County in 2014.
4 Your Privacy Toolkit
Given the amount of hacking and online snooping going on in China, state-sponsored and otherwise, you are at real risk of data theft and malicious activity if you don’t take precautions. You should really be using all of the following anyway but it’s never too late to start being security-conscious online.
- Use a VPN (see section below for everything you need to know) to encrypt your data.
- Never type your passwords (or write them down). Use a free password manager like LastPass and install the browser add-on. Use it to generate secure passwords and autofill them for you.
- Scan regularly for malware with free software like Malwarebytes.
- Make sure your anti-virus software is working and up-to-date.
- Have tools installed to remove spyware, such as SpyBot.
- Consider encrypting any important files with a free tool like Veracrypt
- Enable two-factor authentication on your email, social media and Apple/Google (if you use any of their services or products)
5 Choosing and Using a VPN
Over 90 million people in China use a VPN. If you’re spending any time in China, you may as well leave your tech at home if you don’t join them.
VPNs are not illegal in China and although hugely popular, they are officially frowned upon. So use one but don’t shout about it!
VPNs are not illegal in China, although their use is officially frowned upon.
For those that don’t know, a VPN encrypts your web traffic and creates a secure tunnel directly to one of your provider’s servers, effectively bypassing the Chinese firewall. For more info see our VPN FAQ.
A VPN isn’t a magic wand however. The Chinese government is well aware of VPNs and make efforts to block them. However, the best VPN providers give you enough options within their apps to be able to get online regardless of any crackdowns.
That’s why unlike using a VPN elsewhere, which is as easy as checking your email, it pays to get to know the ins-and-outs of your VPN app.
Best VPN Protocols for China
Before we dip into some VPN recommendations, it’s worth taking a quick look at the most popular VPN protocols, or methods used to transmit and encrypt your data.
- OpenVPN – This has become the default protocol worldwide and is considered to be the best. So naturally basic OpenVPN is blocked in China and requires an additional layer of security to stand any chance of working – and even then can be unstable. Look for security options like:
- L2TP/IPSec – This is considered the best for mobile, particularly iOS (ie Apple devices), but can often be faster than OpenVPN on desktop in China.
- PPTP – This should be your last resort as there are known security issues
There are several others, including SSTP, which is commonly used in the West but doesn’t tend to work well in China.
Making sure the VPN you choose offers as many of the the appropriate protocols as possible.
Be ready to change protocols even more often than your underwear to stay out of the clutches of the censors and snoopers
You will also need to be ready to cycle between protocols if necessary, should your VPN fall foul of an upgrade to the Great Firewall while you are out there.
Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each will help keep your data safe and access to the web open during your stay.
Important VPN Features for China
Keep an eye out for features that might not seem like nice added extras for users in the West, such as automatic reconnection on mobile. Mobile signal dropouts can be frequent in China and manually reconnecting every time gets old fast.
Stability and reliability in general are bigger factors in China than the West, as are having servers near mainland China, ie Hong Kong, Singapore and the west coast of the US. The closer the server, the better your speed and reliability.
How To Choose A China VPN
The simplest way is to use our Top10VPN guide to the Best VPN for China, which makes it easy to compare features of each package and includes our top recommendations.
VPN Preparation Tips
You should get yourself a VPN before you go. Most VPN provider websites are blocked in China, so it’s awkward to get set up once you are already over there.
Make sure you have the details of their customer service email address and a non-Gmail email address such as Outlook to use in an emergency.
Bookmark dnsleaktest.com. If you have problems and see error pages in your browser even with a VPN, you should check whether you are suffering from what’s alarmingly known as a DNS leak.
No need to call a plumber, just visit the above URL. If the result shows a Chinese location, you should try switching servers and/or protocols as your VPN is not working properly.
If unfettered access to the web is critical and your trip is short, consider getting a second VPN on a free trial as back-up.
Similarly, having a mobile broadband dongle plus a Chinese data-only SIM gives you a great backup option if you are unlucky enough to find yourself only able to connect via Wi-Fi to a fixed-line ISP that blocks your VPN.
6 Before You Leave
Download any new apps before you go, as there have been instances of apps in Chinese app stores being infected with malware.
- Download the WeChat mobile app. There is a reason why it’s so incredibly popular. Think Whatsapp on steroids. Free messages and calls and great location functions for finding local friends, perfect for when you’re in an unfamiliar environment. It’s also easy to make purchases using the app if you want to really embrace it.
- Bookmark Baidu. The Chinese Google. If you want genuinely local information, Baidu gives better results. Just have Google Translate handy (or translate.com if you don’t have a working VPN available).
- Download the Lyft app. This makes navigating big cities a breeze, literally, as the cars are air-conditioned unlike standard taxis. It’s only slightly more expensive than a cab from a rank. Uber no longer works in China for tourists.
- Install FreeBrowser – A free browser for Android devices that gives you uncensored access to the web. It’s not enough on its own (ie it won’t give you access for apps and other software, and is limited) but it’s a another tool in your arsenal.
- Look at Tor – The grandaddy of all privacy tools. While effective, Tor is complicated, slow and certainly not user-friendly. It also needs additional configuration to work in China. If you are comfortable with bridges and pluggable transports and need to fly under the radar, Tor is ideal.
- Take a photo of your hotel business card with your smartphone for those times when an Uber isn’t convenient to show the taxi driver. It could save you 10 minutes of frustrating attempts at speaking mangled Mandarin.
- Learn at least a few words of the local language. Making the effort to say hello (ni hao), thank you (xie xie) and the name of your hotel will work wonders in how people treat you. Youtube is your friend.
- Take CASH – you would be surprised how many shops and restaurants don’t accept foreign credit or debit cards.
Top10VPN is not a VPN provider and does not endorse, or in any way intend to promote, the use of VPNs for unlawful means. Users should ensure they adhere to all applicable laws and terms of service.