A Few Observations on How to Access the Internet in China

I was just in Shanghai for a few days. I haven’t been in mainland China for a few years, and I was concerned about ‘The Great Firewall’ — China blocks key elements of the internet (or at least elements that are key to how I use the internet).

  • US social media sites are generally blocked

  • Google resources including gmail are generally blocked

  • Access to myriad sites you may not expect beforehand may be restricted as well

Naturally I was concerned. I live online to accomplish most of my work. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t blocked from key resources.

Generally the way to access sites through the Great Firewall is with a VPN, or Virtual Private Network. You connect to a system that feeds the content to you. You’re access their servers, not Google or Facebook or Twitter or whatever other sites you would have a problem reaching. VPNs are not illegal to use in China although every so often there are rumblings about a crackdown on the VPN services themselves.

  1. I downloaded the VPN software before you get to China. I didn’t want those download links to be blocked.

  2. Since I didn’t want to take any chances, I downloaded two that had positive and very recent reports from folks visiting China — ExpressVPN and Astrill.

    China Eastern Boeing 737

    When I landed in Shanghai I turned on my cell phone. I use AT&T because it gets me the best connectivity at home. There’s basically no T-Mobile signal at my house. So I’m paying $10 a day for their international day pass service which lets me use my phone like I’m home in the States. On the one hand it’s annoying to pay for what T-Mobile offers free, on the other hand speeds are much better than T-Mobile too.

    Consistent with what I wrote two and a half years ago internet access on my phone didn’t appear to be blocked at all. I could access all of the sites that are generally blocked in China.

    When I made it to my hotel I found that the hotel’s wifi (unsurprisingly) blocked access to Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I was able to access my blog. I fired up Astrill and had no problem getting the internet I wanted.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Chinese government has no interest in blocking anyone with enough education to use VPNs. And it is practically impossible to completely block websites, even their scientists need to visit google scholar on a daily basis. They blocked fb, twitter etc because they worry about social media induced color revolution.

  2. If you have a plan that allows free tethering abroad, such as some of the ones T-Mobile offers, then that is an easy way to get access on a conputer, albeit slowly. I assume you can consider having extra service with them as a business expense. Personally, I use wifi calling to deal with dead spots and have a newer phone to use the better frequencies that T-Mobile now has.

  3. US mobile carriers (AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile) are not blocked by the Great Firewall within China. For this reason, China is one of the very few places where I deem it worth the roaming fees (even AT&T’s outrageous $10/day) to use my US SIM card, rather than getting a local one (which would be on the wrong side of the firewall).

  4. I notice a lack of Chinese people in your China Eastern photo. Does the airline cater strictly to tourists?

  5. I was at the Beijing airport for six hours a few weeks ago and just fired up my VyperVPN. Was able to access everything after that. Gotta love those VPNs!

  6. 2 things:
    As reader noted above, all the smart-phones these days have wifi-calling as a feature. So even if T-mobile doesn’t have good tower signal, at your house, it really shouldn’t be a reason not to go w/ T-Mobile if you wanted to switch. Wifi calling provides voice & data services as if you had a tower in your backyard.
    And I believe why sites are not blocked in China thru US carriers is b/c roaming data routes back to the US. At least on tmobile, you’ll notice the high latency on speed-tests. Probably the same on AT&T, etc

  7. @mak @gary Assuming AT&T doesn’t have a Chinese mobile network itself but lets its subscribers roam over Chinese networks, doesn’t the fact that you can access Google etc. suggest that these Chinese networks knowingly allow foreign visitors to visit sites usually blocked for residents?

  8. Gary for $10 a day if you’re willing to pay $50-$100 on every trip, you should really have a T-Mobile postpaid tablet plan. They only cost $20/month ($17 with corporate discount should you qualify) and they come with international roaming. If you put the SIM into your phone instead of tablet, you can do everything except make voice calls.

  9. $10 a day is a problem? I have the same plan and LOVE it! For a 2-week trip I pay $140 in roaming charges and get to use my phone exactly like I do at home, and still have free calling and texts back to the U.S. seems as if most of you don’t remember just in the last few years where you’d spend $120 on 800 gigs of data, $10 a day is a steal!

  10. When I stayed at the Grand Hyatt, their wi-fi didn’t block anything. That was last year.

  11. FWIW – when I stayed at the Waldorf in Beijing the entire hotel network was automatically routed to a HK server so everyone could access any site.

    That was a first for me and not sure if this is still the case. The WA in Shanghai was subject to the firewall though.

    Used ExpressVPN as recently as December and had no issues.

  12. I was in Gui’an (flew into Guiyang) for two weeks last month and got a Unicom SIM card for my iPhone: 100 yuan (about US $16) for a one month unlimited data plan. Then I tethered to my laptop and used ExpressVPN (loaded/tested on my iPhone and PC laptop before I left home in NYC). Worked out great for me, especially at the clients site where getting access to their wifi would have been extremely difficult for local IT reasons. I heard that its difficult for non-chinese to get a Chinese SIM card, and this was confirmed by the fact that I couldn’t get a Chinese SIM card in the SIM card vending machines in Beijing airport between flights or at the arrivals hall in Guiyang. But I spoke to the clerk at the Guiyang Sheraton where I spent my first night, and she sent me across the street the next morning to the Unicom store (one of the Chinese cellular carriers), and they hooked me up with the SIM card I used. I’m still not sure about the policy issues, but it worked out great for me. No need to spend extra on text or minutes for local phone calls; everyone in China uses WeChat for text and voice; all you need is the data plan. Very convenient.

  13. Just to add to your roaming on your AT&T SIM, the data is going over “the cell network” back to AT&Ts peering point in the US before being delivered out onto the public internet.

    This is why your access wasn’t blocked, and has the added benefit of your IP address showing you as inside the US so Netflix/hulu will still work.

    The downside is that the ping time is higher because of the longer trip so VoIP and video calling isn’t as good as it otherwise would be.

  14. When I was in China last fall for a Viking landtour/river cruise, I used several methods; I also had a dual SIM S7 Edge, and an Amazon GSM phone:

    1. I have AT&T Mobile Share with 30GB data plan, so $10/day International plan was the contingency. Note, once set up, any text, phone call, or data usage will enable that $10/day charge, so…changed settings to disable ATT SIM when not wanting to use it

    2. had friend with T-Mobile, so had him add a line for me. This permitted the “free” data and texts, and low-cost cell calls. Note well, this is usable, but very slow for data. Approx $15/mo. Used it for China, and an earlier trip to Eastern Europe in 2017.

    3. Purchased China Unicom China & HK 7 Days 2GB Data SIM from Amazon (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01LYBE3IE); did not block any websites while in China. Easy to refill online from phone. This was the primary method I used for my devices, as I set up phone as hotspot.

    The WiFi in hotels were blocked; the shipboard WiFi was unauable due to number of people using it. I even shared my data hotspot with a few fellow passengers, but had to stop, as they did not know how to disable their background photo syncing – ate up data fast!

    Also had a VPN with me, as well as a special browser that had a VPN built-in.

    I also have a Google Voice number; changed all my text alerts from banks, credit cards, and other “security” verification sites to this Google number, so I did not trigger any AT&T International days. That has worked well. Google Voice lets you redirect those texts to email, or just to the app.

    The 2 weeks in China was part of a 2 month RTW adventure. Be sure to check out where all the “free” T-Mobile and AT&T INternational days actually works. DOesn’t work in Fiji or Cambodia, so I kept all devices in airplane mode in those places. Relied on hotel WiFi there.

    Visited Fiji, NZ, Japan, China, Thailand, Cambodia, UAE, and Switzerland on that RTW. Had a great time!

    I hope this helps.

  15. To reiterate what L3 said, try Project Fi. I switched to it over a year ago and it is perfect for world travel. For example, I spent the month of March in Argentina and my phone worked exactly as it would in the US. Plenty of LTE most everywhere except in parts of Patagonia. I let my wife tether to it (she has an ATT plan and I will not spend $10 per day). We burned about 14 gigs of data over the month and my total bill was $110. My regular plan comes in at $43, so not much of an uplift for perfect service over the whole country. We spent last October in Japan and had a similar experience. Perfect LTE coverage most everywhere from Okinawa to Hakone. Fast data speeds and voice calls at a rate so cheap you dont bother to keep track. I have been travelling for 30 years now and Project Fi is the best world class phone service ever. And the Pixel is a nice handset.

  16. A $99 five year subscription to magic jack, will get you a home USA phone number to use as your primary USA landline. Just plug in your favorite old fashion princess phone, or whatever, into the standard phone jack. Add the MJ app to your smart phone and then your “home” number will also work seamlessly on your mobile phone anywhere you are in the world. As a additional local/extra/backup number, use a phone with a duel sim slot. Buy a local sim for your local number, keep your USA sim in the phone and use the MJ app for the perfect trifecta. All at a fraction of the costs mentioned in the posts above.

  17. @Dale: “Add the MJ app to your smart phone and then your “home” number will also work seamlessly on your mobile phone anywhere you are in the world. ”

    Not without network access. Gary is not buying it for you.

    “As a additional local/extra/backup number, use a phone with a duel sim slot. ”

    That is the most expensive suggestion yet. Nobody is going to buy another phone (and transition their setup) with all its drawbacks for five days in China each year.

    And there might actually be a dual-SIM iPhone by next year.

  18. The inconvenience of having no access to your preferred websites is insignificant compared to the danger of having cutting edge spyware installed in your phone or computer.

    Always buy disposable devices on your trips to China (PRC). Don’t think a hard reset will protect you either. That only deletes amateur spyware. China leads the world in bleeding edge spyware. They can breech the kernel (system core) so a hard reset does nothing.

    China (PRC) employs more intelligence operatives than every other nation combined. China, in particular, has a massive commercial espionage operation. They prefer to steal technology rather than perform the research themselves.

    Don’t think you are not a target because you don’t work for the government. If you, or someone you share wifi access with, has access to a university server China wants access to your computer. If you work for a tech or industrial company, or share wifi access with someone who does, China wants access to your computer. If you, or someone you share wifi access with, has any business with Taiwan (ROC), China wants access to your computer.

    Lenovo, Huawei and ZTE have been caught installing spyware in their phones, computers and networking equipment numerous times. A quick Internet search will provide more details.

    China is playing the long game.
    China has been at war with the west for many years. Many are blinded by the lure of cheap Chinese products. Tragically, the desire to save a few percent is stronger than the will to defend national security in the west.

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