Tech and phones in China, how to overcome the “Great Firewall” of China
China relies on smartphones and mobile devices as if their life depends on it. Many people’s lives depend on mobile devices, and the Chinese are no exception. But what applications should you download in advance? And will my mobile phone work in China? Here’s some advice:
- Make sure your phone is unlocked. Unlocked phones can easily switch wireless operators because they are not programmed to one specific network. Unlocked phones can also be switched internationally, so when you arrive you can pop-in a local SIM card effortlessly. Check with your network provider to see if your phone is unlocked or locked, you might need to buy an unlocked phone prior to you arrival in order to access VPN connection.
- SIM cards are easy to access and they’re pretty cheap. In China there are three major SIM card providers: China Mobile中国移动 (zhōngguó yídòng), China Unicom中国联通 (zhōngguó liántōng), and China Telecom中国电信 (zhōngguó diànxìn). Go to one of these store locations to purchase a SIM card. You will need your passport and local money to pay for the SIM card and for the data plan. I currently have a China Unicom SIM card and top-up on data via WeChat pay or in-store every two months to access roaming data.
Now what about social media and entertainment apps like Instagram, Snapchat, Whatsapp, and Netflix?
Well… they’re banned. But don’t lose hope!
Before you depart, download a VPN before onto all of your devices you bring because once you are in China it will be extremely difficult to try and download them there. Additionally, buying a Chinese phone and trying to download a VPN is nearly impossible. I currently have ExpressVPN and paid for a full year’s worth of coverage because I will be here for close to 10 months in total. With ExpressVPN you can download the app up to three devices. After that you can enjoy TV shows and keep in touch with friends and family.
APPs in China: THE TOP 8
There are many applications in Google Play or on the App Store, but which ones work WITHOUT a VPN in China?
- WeChat : The basis for almost all of your contacts and messaging. It includes features such as location sharing and sending, the ability to post “memories”, subscribe to groups such as Laowai and CET trip, and my favorite part is WeChat pay. With WeChat pay you can ONLY add a mainland China bank card and pay without the hassle of cash.
- AliPay : The other application that lets you pay without cash. I use both AliPay and WeChat. The problem with WeChat pay is you can only have cards with the same name. For me, my first employer incorrectly wrote my name as Freedman Kamea Grace on my Chinese Bank of Communications card. Tsinghua University gave me a Bank of China card and wrote my name as Kamea Grace Freedman. Therefore, I could not upload my two cards onto WeChat pay. However, I could upload both cards onto AliPay. Success!
- Didi : Probably my most used app after WeChat and AliPay. Didi is a car service app that allows you to hail taxis, cars, vans, and premium cars. Likewise, it’s the Chinese version of Uber and Lyft. However, in order to pay for car services you must link a Chinese bank card. You may use the taxi service without a bank card and use cash. It is great for if you need to go somewhere with a group, or if the metro is closed, or if you need to travel further distances across town, such as the airport and train stations.
- Baidu Maps : this is a map application that doesn’t need a VPN to work. It is all in Chinese, however, it can understand Pinyin and locate locations that have English names. Additionally it can help you navigate by bus, foot, and by bike.
- MetroMan : It is a metro app for Beijing and other cities in China. It is in English and absolutely necessary for foreigners who plan to use the metro on a daily basis. The app includes the metro, maps and stations in Beijing.
- Taobao : this application is similar to Amazon.com, Ebay, and Alibaba. You can find almost anything on Taobao, from textbooks to bicycles, and electronics and clothes. Taobao has it all. The downside? It’s all in Chinese. Do I know enough Chinese to work it? Kinda, no. But you can easily infer and have someone help with your purchase. Many times Taobao is cheaper than in store purchases and you can avoid haggling prices in markets.
- Bing : Bing is one of the only search engines that generates English results without VPN Google, Firefox, even Safari sometimes… forget it. If you need to look up the nearest 24 hour convenience store, or a wiki page, you can Bing it.
- Translating apps: I’ve tried many translating apps, some are good and others are atrocious. Currently I’ve been using Youdao Translate and Baidu Translate. Both are able to use without VPN.
There you have it, the top eight apps that come in handy in China! I hope that this information will help you to be more prepared for your adventures abroad and in China.