Tech travel tips for China

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November 19, 2012China Technology TravelNo comments

In this post I want to outline a few tech travels tips for China, particularly for those planning their first visit. This is by no means an exhaustive list but this should get you off to a good start. For more general tips I recommend checking out my general travel tips, especially the one about offline electronic maps.

This should probably go without saying but I’ll mention it just in case. Get a smartphone! Preferably of the Android or iPhone variety as they both have the most apps to choose from. Smartphones give you maps, apps and good web browsing – 3 things that will greatly enhance your travel and enjoyment wherever you travel to. Some of the tips below assume possession of a smartphone as a pre-requisite.

1. SIM Card

When you come here you most definitely should get yourself a Chinese SIM card. The two main operators are China Unicomm and China Mobile. Price and service-wise there’s not much difference between the two from what I can tell. You’ll find their shops (as well as independent retailers) selling SIM cards in all cities and towns you goto. And when you get one make sure it comes with sort of data plan in case you need to lookup something on the web whilst you’re on the move.

I paid 150元 in Beijing for a China Unicom SIM card which came with a pre-pay balance of 50元 and 50MB of 3G usage per month that did’t get charged against the pre-pay balance. From what I can tell 50元 is enough for 50 SMS messages and are about 50 minutes of talk time when calling local numbers or mobiles. You can find out your balance at any time by texting ‘YE’ to 10010. I also highly recommend reading a forum post regarding Chinese SIMs which I found very helpful.

I got asked for ID when buying my SIM card but the guy then told me he’d put it on using his own ID if I paid him 50元 more (so technically the actually cost of the package was 100元). In another shop I was able to buy a China Mobile SIM card for 80元 without being asked for ID. In hindsight if I was to do this again I would shop around more.

2. Chinese language tools

The two tools I’ve used the most are Pleco and the Google Translate mobile app.

Pleco is an excellent offline English-Chinese-English dictionary which even provides a handwriting recognition add-on (FREE until December 2012) which I recommend getting. When I see characters I don’t recognise I input them into Pleco to find out what they mean. In fact this is how I’ve learnt much of the new Chinese I can speak, just by repeated input and search. It’s also useful when I want to find out the Chinese equivalent of an English word, as often happens when I’m trying to help someone understand what I mean. The reverse is also true. If someone says something in Chinese that I don’t understand they’re more than happy to write it into Pleco for me.

Pleco also comes with an OCR plugin which purports to work like Google Goggles in that you can point your phone camera at some writing and it will translate it for you. I found its accuracy to be patchy at best and moreover it’s time-consuming to have to do that all the time as cameras take time to focus.

Whereas Pleco is good for a word or two Google Translate will help when you want to translate sentences. Google’s Chinese grammar knowledge is not amazing but it’s decent enough that it will be able to translate simple English sentences such as “Which bus?” into Chinese that’s understandable by a local. The downside, obviously, is the need for a data connection.

So when I first arrived in China I used the free Learn Chinese app to get my knowledge of basic sentences and phrases upto scratch. This app works entirely offline and provides Chinese, pinyin and audio by a native speaker to help you learn. It still acts as a helpful reference to go back to in case I forget the basics.

3. VPN

You can’t access Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus in China. You can’t view Flickr images. There are probably lots of other things that are blocked too by default. So if you want to access these you’ll need to sign up to a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service which will route your traffic through their server. The way it essentially works is that your computer connects to their computer and establishes a steady link. Then you browse and do your normal thing and everything will be piped through their computer back to yours. Your connection to their computer is encrypted and this is how the Chinese government can’t see what data is going through and therefore can’t firewall you.

There are tonnes of VPN services out there. I went with StreamVia which was recommended to me by a friend. It costs £6 per month for the best package. This gives you the ability to connect from any country and to choose which of their servers you want to go through. They have servers in the UK, USA, Germany, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc. So if you want to access American TV shows online you’d probably connect through one of the US servers to make the streaming sites think you’re connecting from within America.

I’ve been using them for over a month now and the service has been flawless, both from my laptop and mobile. They have excellent setup guides on their website and they are very responsive to support requests as I found out. The one thing that really impressed me was that they even have a workaround for the current blockade the Chinese government have imposed on VPN services (due to the Communist Party Conference being in play). So even if standard VPN ports are blocked where you are you’ll still be able to get to StreamVia and thus still be able to do whatever you need to do.

4. When to use WiFi for heavy jobs

You get yourself a nice travel ultra book. You book a hostel which is said to have great WiFi. You get there expecting to use the internet like you would at home – perhaps do a Skype video call, watch some videos, etc. Only to find that everyone else thought the same as you. So you have WiFi but the connection is so painfully slow because everyone is using it.

In my experience the best time to use WiFi if you want good speed is early morning (6am+) when hopefully most other people are asleep. But if you have a really big upload job to do (like uploading your photos to Flickr) which will need a few hours then the best bet is to do it overnight. I leave my laptop on (with screen turned off) and set the uploader going just before I sleep. But you don’t want to max out the upload bandwidth if you know other people are still using the internet. And if the people managing the WiFi are tech savvy enough they might just kick your computer off the network. So use a good connection speed limiter to cap your own bandwidth. I use Entonnoir for OS X and cap my upload speed to a third of the maximum available. That leaves plenty for other people to browse the web whilst ensuring that my half a Gig of photos will be uploaded by the time I wake up.