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:
- 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)
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
To 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.