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China Travel Tips, Part 1. Internet & Telephone

Local SIM or Int’l GSM Roaming

That is good question. If you’re going to be in China for 4 days or less, there’s not much point in hasseling with the local SIM card – since the process will probably take 3+ hours inluding: travel time, locating fairly priced SIM card dealer, installing card, verifying adaquate funds in prepaid account, subscribing for international dialing, and testing the process.

If you’re not going to use a local SIM card, you must make sure that International Roaming is active on your phone BEFORE you depart from your home country. Once you land in China, it’s too late. You’re phone won’t work, and it will be a fiasco to get in touch with your phone company.

Note that all GSM compatible phones contain interchangable GSM SIM cards. If your phone doesn’t have a SIM, then it’s not going to work when you’re roaming.

Unlocked Phones and Local SIMs

China is the biggest mobile phone market in the world, and the vast majority of thoese phones are unlocked, paid for directly by the end user, not subsidized by the carrier.

If you want to use a Chinese SIM card in your phone, you must make sure your

Mobile phone coverage is excellent in China, and prices are very reasonable. Even calling internationally via a Chinese SIM card to the USA is only 6¢/minute when you use a 5 digit IP dialing prefix.

Skype

Don’t do it. Seven years ago, when I first got to China, Skype worked great. It was hard to call overseas, but anyone could dial inbound via Skype-In, which I would forward to my China Mobile phone.

Then along came the Great Firewall. Every year, the Chinese Great Firewall gets more and more annoying, blocking more and more of the sites that you would like to access.

Now days, Skype is not reliable. Sometimes it works fine, usually for about 15-minutes, but then it drops and won’t reconnect properly for a half hour or more.

If you need to Video Conference while in China, you probably shouldn’t come – because your video conference probably won’t work.

If you just need to make some international calls while you’re here, then you are far better off using 12593 (China Mobile) or 10193 (China Unicom) “IP Call Extension” directly from your mobile phone. The connection will be clear and stable. It works nation wide. It doesn’t drop often, and if it does, you can reconnect quickly.

Ideal China Traveler Configuration

For people who need to stay connected to the world while traveling through China, the best solution is:

  1. Smartphone with Global Roaming from homeland carrier to receive incoming Int’l calls and text messages
  2. Unlocked phone (Smartphone or Feature Phone) with local SIM card from China Mobile or China Unicom
  3. 3G Access Point from China Unicom for Email access and Mobile Browsing via your Smartphone, Tablet and Laptop.
  4. Airport Express or other Ethernet based Hotspot for wireless access while you’re at the hotel or office.

Note that a 3G Card from China Mobile, valid for 3 months will provide 1.5GB of data nation wide. That’s enough for a few weeks of mobile email and mobile (smartphone and tablet) browsing. If you’re going to be trying to use IP telephony, watch any video, or download anything – you’ll blow through this 1.5GB in 2-3 days. Best off getting back to the hotel before downloading a lot.

Most battery powered 3G Access points use a single 1800 mAh battery, meaning you start using it at breakfast, and it’s dead just after lunch.

You combine #3 and #4 (3G hotspot, Ethernet hotspot with AC) with a long lasting 3600 mAh battery (2.5 x size of iPhone 4 battery) in the Sapido 3G/4G Mobile Hotspot available on Amazon for $70.

The Great Firewall

While you’re in China, accessing Twitter, Youtube, Facebook and Google will be cumbersome. If you’re not planning to travel to China frequently, it’s not worth wasting time setting up VPN access so that you can buypass the Great Firewall.

If you absolutely must access the unfiltered world while in China, you’ll need to purchase a VPN account that you can proxy your internet traffic through. These accounts can be installed on Smartphones and Laptop computers, but they are blocked frequently and very slow.

Just Google for “China VPNBEFORE you arrive in China to purchase a VPN account. They are usually around $20/month. Of course these sites are blocked from within China, so you’ll need to have the VPN configured before you arrive.

If you’re curious about the Great Firewall, James Fallows at The Atlantic wrote an excellent article called “Your Connection Has Been Reset“.

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