The Internet is available all over China, but there are some key differences from what is found in most Western countries. Wi-Fi connections are not common even in good hotels, and access to social media networks is usually limited to Chinese versions.
Wi-Fi connections are usually available at the best four and five-star hotels in first tier cities like Guangzhou or Shanghai. Outside of the hotels, Starbucks is your best choice for Wi-Fi. Though many Internet cafes stopped offering wireless connections to their customers because of rising costs associated with new regulations, the decrease in availability has been reversed given the expectations of customers.
Generally speaking, Wi-Fi availability in China is following much the same general trajectory as the rest of the world, albeit a little more slowly given the additional complications associated with governmental restrictions. Provided you're not too far away from civilization, you should not encounter too much difficulty finding somewhere which caters for your needs. Needless to say, however, the difference between a major metropolis and a village town will be marked, so be prepared for some days without the internet if you wander too far from other urban comforts.
The Chinese government has announced its intention to make wireless Internet available all over the city of Beijing, but users must log in with a China Mobile phone number to access the Web. It seems likely that where Beijing leads, other cities will follow in due course, though it is not possible to predict when that may take place for any particular location.
When it comes to public access to the Internet, the government's controls can make the experience exceptionally frustrating for the foreign traveler. Quite apart from direct censorship (see below), other blocked services to which sites commonly link can lead to slow page loading, and the regulations imposed upon establishments offering a connection may change overnight, necessitating their changing their approach, even abolishing access altogether.
For these reasons, we strongly suggest that you do not rely upon hotels, Internet cafes, and other sources too heavily. Though the chances are you will find somewhere to connect, it is possible some more obvious locations where you may generally expect to find the service do not have it on offer after all. In China, Internet access is prone to rapid change due to the imposition of new regulations, and it seems highly unlikely this state of flux will change any time soon.
Most hotels in China will have Internet available for their guests, but in some cases this will only be accessible through their business center. Hotels that do have Internet access in their rooms will primarily use Ethernet cables to connect. The fees for Internet usage will vary between hourly and daily rates. Travelers can contact us about hotels we cover for a description of their Internet policy and availability.
While many Internet cafes will not offer wireless connections, all of these establishments will have computers for visitors to use. The staff are generally helpful to foreigners if you need to make use of their machines, but the level of English will vary greatly. It is not a good idea to conduct sensitive financial transactions on these computers. See Phone and Internet in China.
In keeping with much of the rest of the world, China is extending out Wi-Fi access to other, more prestigious locations, as well as the more upmarket travel options, such as the new bullet train services, and cruise liners on the Yangtze River.
China does restrict access to certain types of websites, predominantly those which permit free interaction between people, such as social media and sites given to forum-style discussions. Thus you will find Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other social network sites are not available in mainland China. Travelers to Hong Kong will have normal access to these sites.
Of particular concern to many foreign visitors is Google. For some years Google services access has been impeded and, since 2014, access to most of Google has been blocked. Google Mail, though blocked from browsers, has been available through clients which allow POP and IMAP connections, but that service too is now sporadic. If you are dependent on Google's services, consider finding alternatives — such as Bing maps, or having another email service such as outlook.com poll your GMail accounts for their emails — prior to your departure.
It is best to assume you may not be able to access your favorite sites. From a foreign perspective, China's Internet now verges upon the dysfunctional, and 2014 has been a year particularly marked for its increase in blocking. 2015 and beyond seem likely to follow suit, so be prepared to adapt, and certainly prepare for the possibility of having no access to even crucial services (such as email) for the duration of your stay in China, making preparations accordingly prior to your departure.
Alternatively, consider investing in a VPN service. However, be sure that the service is not itself blocked in China. These, too, have become increasingly unreliable.
When it comes to smartphone use in China, several apps will make your time in China more pleasant, even enliven it with opportunities to socialize and make new friends. Some apps are listed, both in terms of their value in those cities but also for more general use, in our items on Beijing and Shanghai. Strongly recommended is the local chat program QQ, able to locate people in the vicinity who are nearby so as to make contact with them.
Some additional apps that may improve your China experience include BBC Live Radio which enables you to keep in contact with news from abroad; Chinese Chess V which will give you some insight into, and enable you to practice the very popular game you will frequently see played on the street and in parks; ConvertPad which, deep within its settings, permits you to convert even such obscure units as Chinese weights and measures; XE Currency enabling you to keep track of the Chinese yuan and others while you are here so you know how much you are really spending and what exchange rate you may expect; a Chinese dictionary and phrasebook, (there are several choices); Hola which will enable you to circumvent Internet restrictions on a rooted phone; Mobogenie permitting you to download Google apps without using Google Play which is blocked in China; WiFi Master using which you can locate open networks in your vicinity should any be available; and, finally, a translator app which may call upon several different services should some of them be blocked.
One cautionary note. While in China, do not give in to the temptation to buy a cheap Android phone. Phones using the system in China come without such basic services as Google Play and appear to have some questionable software bundled in with them.
The Internet speed in China is slightly above 2.0 Mbps, which is a little below the world average and far behind the fast broadband speeds of some countries. It is more than sufficient for basic web surfing and using email.
Hotels in cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong will offer Internet access in their rooms including Wi-Fi connections at the better places. These largest gateway cities will have more Western establishments that offer Internet connections than other provincial capitals like Wuhan in Hubei Province.
Visitors to smaller cities away from the coastal area of China will have to rely on hotels and Internet cafes to reach the Web. Almost all of these connections will be by Ethernet, so tablets and smartphones will be of little use.