Using the internet in mainland China can be complicated as many Western news and social media websites and apps are blocked.
China deployed the Golden Shield Program, more commonly known Great Fire Wall in the early 2000s to restrict access to certain websites and searches of certain ‘sensitive’ keywords. This means there's no Skype, no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, and your phone won't be able to send messages via WhatsApp, to give just a few examples. Major foreign press outlets, Wikipedia and other sources of information also are often inaccessible, and Google services like Gmail, Google Calendar, YouTube, and others are totally blocked or at best very spotty.
To see if a particular website (like your own website) is accessible within China, you can enter the URL on greatfirewallofchina.org.
If you can't do without unfettered internet access during your time in China, you can buy a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN will allow you to 'climb the wall' and access the entire internet by routing it through another country. We like VyprVPN, and if you download Vypr via this link, you'll get 50% off and we'll get $30 to put towards keeping our website running! Other VPNs that work relatively well in China are ExpressVPN (an affiliate link that helps us out), Astrill, Lantern, and Shadowsocks (those links are also affiliate links, so feel free to share with folks who need VPNs and like supporting artists and researchers.)
Sadly, VPNs can go down or get shut down as well, so check the GreatFire Circumvention Central to see which VPNs are running reliably at any given time. We recommend having several VPNs so you have a backup in case one goes down, just like Fan Binxing, the very inventor of the Great Firewall, who has six of them! Most VPNs can be set up to work on your tablet or phone as well, and can let you connect a few devices at once.
Speaking of phones, local SIM cards can be bought pretty inexpensively at most magazine stands and corner stores. You might have to bring your passport in order to purchase a new phone number, and you likely will have to get your phone unlocked from your provider before you leave so you can switch to a local network when you arrive. You can also sometimes sing up for global data from your local carrier.
And if you have a smartphone, here's a list of handy apps:
~ For everything ~
WeChat (Weixin): This one is a must. It is sort of China's equivalent of texting, Facebook, Twitter, maps and more, all rolled in one. It's the world's most popular messaging app and almost everyone in China uses it to send messages, post updates about their lives, and share photographs. It's so important that we wrote an entire article on it! Check out our Artist's Guide To WeChat.
~ Language & Communications ~
Signal: A free, secure and encrypted messaging and calling app that works over cell phone networks and wifi (if you have an Android phone, you can even make it your default texting app.) It's good to have wherever you are in the world, if you care about protecting your privacy!
Pleco: A fantastic dictionary and translation tool, that allows you to input Mandarin, pinyin, English or hand draw a character to find the definition, and also includes Optical Character Recognition, which means you can hover your phone's camera over text in Chinese and instantly get the English translation. Very useful.
Duolingo: A simple, gamified language learning app for learning Mandarin.
MindSnacks: A cute and playful game to learn beginner's Mandarin.
~ Getting Around ~
Explore Metro: Useful for navigating the subway system in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen & Hong Kong systems.
MapsWithMe: Offline maps, since Google and Apple maps aren't always available.
Trip.com: A travel booking website and app formerly known as CTrip, great for booking trains & flights within China.
~ Food, Stuff & Art ~
Dianping: Food & restaurant reviews, in Chinese only, but their maps and star ratings are pretty easy to navigate.
Art In The City: Art listings, maps, and information about openings and art fairs in Shanghai and Beijing (only iOS).
Further reading about the internet in China:
- The Golden Shield Project Wikipedia entry
- China Digital Times
- The Economist Special Report on the internet in China by Gady Epstein
- Consent of the Networked by Rebecca McKinnon