Staying In Touch – both Locally and Overseas

Presuming you are not fluent in Mandarin language, in China you need (must have) a 24/7 method of communication (for emergency, logistics, coordination, or translation in hotels etc…) Taxi translations, restaurant issues, finding a toilet, asking hotel for a soft pillow, ordering room service, planning sightseeing, checking email — these are but a few of the reasons you need (I mean really need) a data plan on your mobile device every moment in China.

WeChat handles all of this perfectly, BUT you need a consistent internet connection. You don’t necessarily need voice calling, just a very good data plan with either China Unicom (中国联通) or China Mobile (中国移动).

You have choices:

  1. Get a LOCAL SIM Data Card (4G/LTE) to insert in your iPhones — gives you unlimited data access (often without phone calls), and you can use WeChat calling to anyone (either voice or video, to individuals or groups anywhere in the world), plus full 24/7 internet coverage. HOWEVER, you iPhone needs to “unlocked” (meaning not tied to a specific network like most USA iPhones are)
  2. Get a 2nd phone, for local SIM Data cards that is unlocked — China specific (I do this when traveling carrying a “”travel” iPhone for local countries).
  3. Get a WiFi dongle (Rent Online) that then uses a local China SIM data card — this MiFi creates a local WiFi hotspot for your iPhone/iPad’s to connect too — problem is that it’s another separate device to carry everywhere all day, and needs constant re-charging since the MiFi device draws so much more power than an iPhone.
  4. Forgo all 24/7 coverage, and only use free WiFi when available in different locations — constantly switching WiFi networks, getting passwords and trying to make connections. (Even asking for a WiFi password in a restaurant without translation assistance is difficult). Broadband internet connectivity is available in nearly all 5 star hotels — generally by WiFi and occasionally by Ethernet network cable – but in other hotels and places it’s completely luck of the draw.  Even if you choose to try to stick to WiFi instead of purchasing mobile data, you should know that a lot of public access points in places like Starbucks, McDonald’s or at airports need a verification code to be sent to a Chinese mobile number, which you need to provide.

I STRONGLY suggest option 1 or 2 above.

Toby uses and recommends a China Unicom SIM cardTo get a local China SIM Unlimited Data Card, you can order from your home country, OR buy online (or in Chinese on Tmall) at the airport in China immediately AFTER immigration and BEFORE you go through customs – both Shanghai and Beijing airports they have booths selling this — you show your passport and they with handle it. Alternatively the first thing you do on your first day in China, is to go to local China Unicom office with your passport, and apply for local data tourism SIM card (but the process will take at least an hour).

NOTE: A data enabled SIM card specifically intended for use in China is the most cost effective way to access mobile broadband while in China. The data SIM from China Unicom eliminates high data roaming fees associated with international roaming with your overseas cell phone service provider. With a China SIM card, you are not roaming; the data fees are extremely cheap. Most Data SIM cards are NOT enabled for voice. If you have a smart phone, you can always use any VoIP app like WeChat, Viber or Skype to make voice calls.

Issues with Internet Access in China

Accessing foreign (non-chinese) can be particularly slow, if at all.  The “Great Firewall of China” is real, blocks access of many non-chinese websites and services that are outside of Chinese control and will most certainly be filtering by automatic processes, everything you send or receive, via email, instant message or web, so use caution with using certain words and common sense.

As an example, amongst over 20,000 others, the following major services are currently blocked and banned:

  • (plus all Google services including Gmail)
  • Line, WhatsApp & KakaoTalk messaging
  • (accessible in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou only)
  • (and non-chinese sites that integrate streaming video)
  • (and any sites that have a blog embedded in it)
  • Skype, Viber and other VOIP services
  • All non-chinese large file transfer services

Any website that uses google analytics, google fonts, or google references will take an additional 1 minute to start loading, if at all.

The word ‘censorship’ is censored in China.

Facebook has 95 million users in China despite being blocked.


In addition, The Chinese government monitors and controls specific use of the internet in various ways, the most common through the use of keyword monitoring.  There is a long list of thousands of specific words (and variations of these words in different languages and abbreviations).  Use of these keywords in email, text messaging or on websites is likely to cause IP blocking, human review or in extreme cases, prosecution.

This is clever


You NEED a VPN in China.

NOTE: For about 3 weeks prior to, during, and about a week following major political events or anniversaries in China, escalated censorship will typically stop VPN connections and at the least, undermine reliability in the country.

A virtual private network also known as a VPN is a private network that extends across the internet. It allows you to send and receive data across the network as if your device was directly connected to a network outside of Mainland China.   Many Chinese internet users use VPNs to circumvent geo-restrictions and censorship.

In simple terms, users in China often use one of 3 principle methods for using a VPN to access foreign sites:

  1. Via Mobile SmartPhone App — typically using one of many dedicated VPN apps (available on android and ios).
  2. Via Personal Computer (MAC or Windows) — typically using either built in VPN network sharing or a separate application installed on the computer to allow a single computer to connect (similar to ‘dial-up’ internet)
  3. Via Network Router — typically setup in an office or home network on the router itself, allowing all devices using the router to share the VPN connection. Many router manufacturers, such as Cisco, Linksys, Asus and Netgear supply their routers with built-in VPN clients. Some use open-source firmware such as DD-WRT, OpenWRT and Tomato, in order to support additional protocols such as OpenVPN.

There ARE popular secret workarounds to the Great Firewall of China (for foreigners), essentially creating a “VPN” (Virtual Private Network that will allow you to access and from both your laptop and smartphone.  However, once a certain VPN gains popularity, the Government then shuts down or blocks access to that service too — so it’s a constant game of cat and mouse.

I found and recommend for China use either of these:

FOR iPhones:
VPN Express, the No.1 VPN app in the App store. Offers 300mb data free for new registration download it FREE from App store. If you register with my email “” in “Referee” field you will receive up to 1000mb bonus data!
FOR iPhones/iPads, Android devices & Computers:
A better, faster solution is ExpressVPN which works across all your devices – desktop computer, laptop, smartphone, router, or tablet. You can be connected on up to 3 devices at the same time. Sign up, install, and press connect. It’s that simple.  For Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, Routers and Linux. ExpressVPN works with any internet connection including wired, Wi-Fi, and cellular networks.