Chinese signs

What to Know Before Traveling to China

In Blog, Featured, Gallery, Hints and Tips, Locations by Erin Hardie5 Comments

One Thing You Must Know Before Traveling to China

Yes that’s right folks, we think there’s just one thing to know before traveling to China! It might seem a dash absurd to write a whole article about one thing to know, but as Australians now living in China for 3 months we’ve seen 3 separate people come to visit who have not heeded our previous posts about Things to Know Before Travelling to Shanghai and 7 Must Have Apps before travelling to Shanghai. Clearly these posts are both information overload – so don’t click through to read them unless you’re a real overachiever! 😉 Both of these posts advise one thing that really seems to trip up these international visitors to China: they get here and they find they desperately need a VPN (Virtual Private Network) and can’t download one once they’ve arrived. This even happened to our good friend the Lone Traveller who has travelled to over 100 countries! So do your future self a favour: read this article and follow the advice it gives now or save it for later on Pinterest/Flipboard/Facebook, your future self will thank you!

Know Before Traveling to China - The Bund

The view from the Bund in Shanghai is just one reason you’ll want to visit China but make sure you’re prepared before you travel!

Why you Need a Virtual Private Network Before Traveling to China

In case you’re not sure what a Virtual Private Network is (those in the know shorten it to VPN) I’ll explain that here now whilst I explain why you need to set this up BEFORE traveling to China. A VPN is an application sold by companies such as ExpressVPN (the one we use) to hide your actual location/choose where you want your internet service provider to think your location is.

When you are in China you do not want your phone service provider or any wifi networks you join for internet access to think you are in China. If you join the internet in China then you are subject to the Great Firewall of China. (No kidding it’s really called that!) Basically the Chinese government have set up a nationwide firewall, like what is used in some schools and businesses to ban certain sites, except this is on a countrywide scale. Banned websites and apps include Google (including Maps!!!), Facebook (including Messenger!!!), Whatsapp, Snapchat, Gmail, Instagram and more…) Additionally apps like ExpressVPN  have been removed from the Chinese App Store so this is why you can’t download it once you’re already here! So you need to trick the wifi and phone networks you join in China into thinking you’re currently in another country where these services are not blocked.

If this sounds complicated and you’re really not a techie, fear not! We use ExpressVPN for exactly this reason as one of us (me, Erin) is not a techie. I like ExpressVPN because once you’ve completed a super easy signup process you just download an app onto each of the devices you want to use your VPN on. (I will include some links at the bottom of this post so you can easily find the apps you need). I use the ExpressVPN app on my Apple iPhone and my Windows Surface laptop. Across both devices (mobile and desktop) and both brands, it looks the same.

Express iPhone App as Used in China

We all love a good facebook troll over a coffee, and good news! You can keep up the habit in China too! Just join ExpressVPN and download their simple looking mobile app!

To use the VPN to log into Facebook and use Google etc:
  1. Launch the app by clicking on it on my mobile or desktop screen
  2. Press “Choose Location” button: set this to either Taiwan or Hong Kong (these are closest to China so they provide the fastest speeds – if one is slow to connect then use the other one)
  3. This should automatically make the power button turn green once connected. Once I am finished using all my favourite banned apps I can then press the power button once to disconnect. (You should do always do this to save phone battery as the VPN drains it about twice as fast in my experience).

To recap: The One Thing you Must Do Before Traveling to China:

  1. Navigate to the ExpressVPN website [here] and sign up for the plan that suits your needs/budget
  2. Download the application to each of your devices (use below links or search ExpressVPN in your usual App store or navigate to their website to find even more operating system compatible options!)

Apple iOS Mobile App

Apple Desktop App

Android Mobile App

Microsoft Desktop App

Devices on which ExpressVPN can be used Still not convinced?

If you arrive in China without a VPN you will not be able to use Google maps to find your hotel address and public transport options. You will not be able to use Messenger or Whatsapp to contact your friends who are coming to meet you. You won’t be able to use Google to search unmissable sightseeing, brunches, cocktail bars etc in your neighbourhood. There are some English speakers and some English signage in China sure, but you will feel overwhelmed without these simple creature comforts from home!

But I don’t want to spend any money on a VPN…

Fair enough, you can try these alternatives:

Can’t Use: Alternative:
Google Maps Apple Maps
Messenger & Whatsapp WeChat (China’s social media app) (can only contact people who also have accounts on it)
Gmail Microsoft Outlook Online
Google Search Bing

Yep thats right… you’ll have to try Bing!!!!!!!!

I Now Know One Thing Before Traveling to China, What’s Next?

Shanghai Brewery

If you’re looking to “pass” China with flying colours then you may also want to swot up on these articles, while written about Shanghai, they still have a lot of information useful to China travel as a whole, for example DiDi and Google Translate are some other apps you will want to download and know how to use to make transport once you’ve arrived easier.

  1. 7 Must Have Apps Before Travelling to Shanghai
  2. 10 Things to Know Before Travelling to Shanghai

Bonus Info: I Signed up for a VPN Before Traveling to China, What Else is it Good For?

  1. You can use it in other countries that block popular social media apps and websites such as:
  • Iran
  • North Korea
  • Syria
  1. Access YouTube, Netflix and other content streaming services’ content that is geo-restricted. You’ve probably noticed this happen if you live somewhere other than America and want to watch certain Late Show or Last Week Tonight with John Oliver clips on YouTube. Simply turn on your VPN and voila!
  1. Going undetected when downloading and file sharing content just in case you accidentally download something pirated… we know you wouldn’t do it purposefully!
  1. Make international Skype and VOIP calls cheaper: simply use your VPN to choose your location as being the same country to which you wish to place an international call. Now it’s a domestic call!
  1. Avoid eavesdropping on public wifi internet connections ie at the airport/Starbucks and similar your connection is not safe and encrypted meaning if there is anyone nasty around they can hack your email or any other normally secure data sharing services. A VPN hides your connection making it difficult for anyone to intrude on your browsing.
  1. Access Facebook whilst at work… if you have one of those workplaces that has net-nannyed Facebook and similar out of the office on their wifi network simply pop your VPN on and voila you can still use their free wifi and access Facebook, bonus this will probably impress a number of your colleagues but maybe not your boss.
  1. Avoid geolocation detection when using travel booking websites ie car rental, flights etc so that this information can not be detected and stored by these companies to later sting you with a surge in pricing based solely on the interest you’ve shown by searching.

So that’s it folks: you learn something new everyday, and today you learned one thing to know before traveling to China: get a VPN signed up and the app downloaded onto all your devices BEFORE you arrive. If you have any questions about purchasing, downloading or using ExpressVPN or other things you’d like to know before traveling to China please leave them in the comments section below and we’ll let you know based on our personal experience and the wisdom passed to us by longer term expats living in China. Happy China Travels! Erin and Ryan.

All opinions in this article are our own based on our own personal experience. This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for supporting us and happy travels!

Make sure you get a VPN before you go to China as you will NOT be able to download one once you are already there! Read our post for a recommended VPN, tips on how to use it and handy links to shop for a package and download the VPN apps to your devices.