Internet in China
China has more internet users than any other country in the world and internet cafes (网吧 wǎngbā) abound. Most are mainly designed for online gaming and are not comfortable places to work in the office. It is cheap (¥1-6 per hour) to use a computer, albeit one with Chinese software. Internet cafés actually require identification, but enforcement varies by region. Internet surfing may well be monitored by the Public Security Bureau (the police).
It is difficult to find an internet café that offers services beyond simple access. If you want to use a printer, scan a paper or burn a CD, you have to look for a long time. The exception is tourist areas like Yangshuo, where these services are readily available. Printing, photocopying, faxing and other business services can be provided by small shops in most towns. Look for the characters 复印 (fùyìn), which mean “photocopy”. Printing costs about ¥2 per page and photocopying costs ¥0.5 per page. These shops may or may not have internet access, so bring your materials on a flash drive.
In university areas, many students do not have access to printers and there are usually several print/photocopy shops scattered around the area or even in the university itself. Fees range from ¥0.3 per photocopy and ¥0.5 per printed black and white page to ¥3 for a high-quality colour copy. Most also offer a CD burning service and scan documents.
Some hotels offer internet access from the rooms, which may or may not be free; others offer wireless service or a few desktops in the lounge area.
Some cafés offer free wireless internet – e.g. Costa Coffee, Italy cafe, Feeling4Seasons cafe in Chengdu, Padan cafe in Shanghai, etc. Some cafes, especially in tourist areas like Yangshuo, even provide a vending machine for customers to use. The international chain MacDonalds does NOT offer free wifi in China. Starbucks offers access with registration.
To use free public Wi-Fi, you may need a password sent to your (Chinese) mobile phone. If you do not have a Chinese mobile phone, you will of course not be able to use many of the available Wi-Fi services.
Since public computers and the Internet are not secure, you should assume that everything you enter is not private. Do not send extremely sensitive data such as bank passwords from an internet café. It may be better to buy a mobile data card for use with your own computer instead (these typically cost ¥400 and data plans run ¥10-¥200 per month, depending on your usage).
If you connect to the Internet using your own computer, you should be aware that some websites in China (especially at universities) require you to use Microsoft Internet Explorer and install special software on your system and/or accept certificates in order to access their websites.
News in China
China has some local English-language news media. The CCTV news channel is a global English channel available 24/7 in most cities, with French and Spanish variants as well. CCTV 4 has a short news programme in English every day.
China Daily and Global Times are two English-language newspapers available in hotels, supermarkets and newsstands.
There are also a few English magazines like China Today and 21st Century.
Foreign magazines and newspapers are not usually available in bookshops or newsstands, except in top hotels.
- Hotmail, Yahoo, GMail and other web-based email providers are easily accessible from any PC, with GMail blocked at times. Their news sites are also almost all available. News sources using YouTube, Twitter or Facebook are blocked and unavailable.
- Some Western newspaper websites are blocked, although this can change frequently and without notice. Currently (February 2014), the “New York Times” website is an example of unavailable sources. Some sources such as the “BBC News” website are available, although specific articles about China are often blocked.
- The better hotels often have satellite TV in the rooms.
- Business hotels usually have wired internet service for your laptop in each room: 7 Days Inn and Home Inn are two nationwide chains that meet Western standards for comfort and cleanliness in the mid-price range, offer internet throughout and cost ¥150-200 per night. In-room WiFi is uncommon, perhaps for reasons of government control. Internet of varying reliability is offered by locally owned hotels in rooms from ¥70/night. Occasionally these hotels also have rooms with older computers in the room for a little more.
Mail in China
Chinese mail is generally reliable and sometimes fast. There are a few things you have to get used to:
- Incoming mail will be both faster and more reliable if the address is in Chinese. If not, the Post has people who translate, but this takes time and is not 100% accurate.
- It is very helpful if you provide the recipient’s telephone number for parcels or expedition shipments. Customs and the deliverers usually need it.
- Do not seal outgoing parcels before taking them to the post office; they will not send them without checking the contents. In general, it is best to buy your packing materials from the post office, and almost all post offices will pack your materials for you, at a reasonable price.
- Most post offices and courier services refuse to send CDs or DVDs. This can be circumvented by putting them in CD cases with many other things and eventually filling the space with clothes, which makes it appear that you are sending your things home, plus it is easier to send them by sea as they are less of a nuisance.
Fax in China
International fax services (传真 Chuánzhēn) are available at most major hotels for a fee of a dozen renminbi or more. Inexpensive faxes within China can be made at the ubiquitous photocopy shops that have the Chinese characters for fax on the front door.
Phone in China
Telephone service is more of a mixed bag. Calls outside China are often difficult and usually impossible without a phone card, which can often only be bought locally. The good news is that these cards are quite cheap and the connection is surprisingly clear, uninterrupted and lag-free. Look out for IP phone cards, which are usually worth ¥100 but can sometimes be had for as little as ¥25. The cards have printed Chinese instructions, but English-language instructions are available after dialling the number on the card. As a general indication of price, a call from China to Europe with a ¥100 card takes about 22 minutes. Calls to the USA and Canada are advertised as being a further 20% cheaper.
If your line allows international direct dialling (IDD), the prefix for international calls in China is 00, so if you want to make an overseas call, dial 00-(country code)-(number). Note that calls from the mainland to Hong Kong and Macau require an international dialling code. IDDs can be very expensive. Check the tariff before making the call.
Mobile phones (cellular) are very common in China and offer a very good service. They play an essential role in daily life for most Chinese and for almost all expatriates in China. The typical expat spends a few hundred to a few thousand yuan to buy a phone (depending on the features they want), then about ¥100 per month for the service; tourists may use it less.
If you already have a GSM 900/1800 or 3G (UMTS/W-CDMA 2100) mobile phone, you can roam to Chinese networks, subject to network agreements, but calls will be very expensive (¥12-35/min is typical). There are only a few exceptions; the first are Hong Kong-based providers, which usually charge no more than HK$6/minute (and are usually very close to local rates with a “dual-number” SIM card that includes both a Hong Kong and Mainland China mobile number), and the second is T-Mobile US, which charges US$0.20/minute with free text and data service. Check with your home provider before you leave to be sure. UMTS/HSDPA roaming is not available with every provider, but you can buy a local SIM card for 3G data access (see below). Chinese CDMA networks require R-UIM (SIM card equivalent) so American CDMA phones won’t work straight away, but it is possible to programme a new Chinese prepaid number at a shop for a fee of ¥100-400 – just remember to restore your old number before you leave. The exception is newer phones sold by Verizon (a US CDMA provider) – their iPhone 5 works with China Telecom R-UIMs without additional modification, while their other phones need a software modification to make data services work but can call and text with a China Telecom R-UIM.
For a short visit, consider renting a Chinese mobile phone from a company like Pandaphone. Prices are around ¥7 per day. The company is based in the US but has staff in China. The toll-free numbers are 866-574-2050 in the US or 400-820-0293 in China. The phone can be delivered to your hotel before you arrive in China and returned there at the end of your trip, or it can be sent to you in the US. If you rent the phone, you will be offered an access code to make calls to your country, which is cheaper than buying a SIM card from a local provider and dialing directly.
If you are staying for more than a few days, it is usually cheaper to buy a Chinese prepaid SIM card; this gives you a Chinese phone number preloaded with a certain amount of money. Chinese tend to avoid phone numbers with the unlucky digit ‘4’, and sellers are often happy to give these “unsellable” SIM cards to foreigners at a discount. If you also need a phone, prices start around ¥100/200 used/new. Chinese phones, unlike those sold in some Western countries, are never ‘locked’ and will work with any SIM card you put in them.
The two major operators in China are China Mobile (Chinese only) and China Unicom. Most SIM cards sold by the two work nationwide, with Unicom also allowing use in Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan. Roaming outside the province where you bought the SIM card usually incurs a surcharge of around ¥1/min, and there are some cards that only work in a single province. You may also need to manually activate national roaming, which may incur a small daily surcharge while it is active. PHS mobile phones no longer work because the associated network has been switched off. With China Mobile, you can check your balance by calling 1008611 and receiving an SMS with the balance.
International calls must be activated separately by applying for China Mobile’s “12593” or China Unicom’s “17911” service; neither provider requires a deposit, but both require applications. There will usually be an English-speaking staff member present, and let him/her know what you want. Ask for the “special” area code, and for ¥1/month extra, they will provide it. Enter the area code, the country code and then the local number and you will be making cheap calls in no time. Don’t be fooled by mobile phone shops with the China Mobile sign, make sure you go to a branch. The staff will wear a blue uniform and there will be counter services. At the time of writing, China Mobile is the cheaper of the two providers with calls to North America/Asia around ¥0.4/min. You can also use prepaid cards for international calls; just dial the number on the card as you would with a regular landline phone and the charges go to the prepaid card.
To top up your account, go to your local mobile phone provider’s office, give the staff your number and pay in cash to top up your account. Alternatively, many shops will sell you a top-up card that contains a number and password that you need to use to call the phone company to top up the money in your account. You will call a computer and the default language is Chinese, which you can change to English if you understand Chinese. Top-up cards are sold in denominations of ¥30, 50 and 100. (If you have a local bank account and understand Chinese, you can top up online by bank transfer with all providers; it’s cheaper and sometimes there are special offers for topping up this way).
For mobile data addicts, China Unicom’s “Wo” 3G USIM is available from ¥96/month for 240 nationwide minutes, 10 video call minutes, 300 MB of data and some free multimedia/text content (ringtones, mobile messages, wallpapers, music videos, etc.). Incoming transfers (video/voice call, text) are completely free from anywhere. There is no longer a basic charge for short-term use, with calls costing about ¥1/3 min, text messages ¥0.10 each and data ¥10/MB (overage for the ¥96 tariff is cheaper at ¥0.15/min, ¥0.10 per text ¥0.3/MB). The student tariff (¥66 for 50 minutes, 240 SMS, everything else like ¥96 tariff) is also an option. China Mobile offers its “Easy Own” prepaid card, the offer also includes the option of grps/edge packs: ¥100 or ¥200 for 1 or 2 GB of data per month. It is possible to de/activate this service with a short message to 10086. There is also a 5 G cap (maximum charge per month) of ¥500.
The country code for mainland China is 86. Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan have their own country codes, which are 852 for Hong Kong, 853 for Macau and 886 for Taiwan.
- Large cities with eight-digit numbers have a two-digit area code. For example, Beijing is (0)10 plus an eight-digit number. Other places use seven- or eight-digit city numbers and a three-digit area code that does not start with 0, 1 or 2. So for example: (0)756 plus 7 digits for Zhuhai. The north uses small numbers, the south has larger numbers.
- Normal mobile phones do not need a prefix. Numbers consist of 130 to 132 (or 156/186) plus 8 digits (China Unicom, GSM/UMTS), 133/153/189 plus 8 digits (China Telecom, CDMA) or 134 to 139 (or 150/152/158/159/188) plus 8 digits (China Mobile, GSM/TD-SCDMA). Additional prefixes have been introduced; a good rule of thumb is that an 11-digit domestic phone number starting with 1 is a mobile number. Note that mobile numbers are geographically bound; if you try to dial a mobile number from a landline that has been assigned outside the province you are in, you will be prompted to redial the number preceded by a zero for long-distance calls.
- The PHS (小灵通 xiǎo língtōng) networks in China have both been switched off, so any 8-digit number with an area code will actually be put through to a landline.
- There are now two additional non-geographic area codes. A number starting with 400 can be dialled from any phone and is treated as a local call with corresponding charges, while a number starting with 800 is completely free but CANNOT be dialled from mobile phones.
The following emergency numbers work in all areas of China; calling from a mobile phone is free.
- Police patrol: 110
- Fire brigade: 119
- (state) ambulance/EMS: 120
- (some areas privately owned) Ambulance: 999
- Traffic police: 122
- Directory enquiries: 114
- Consumer protection: 12315