Many people have the fear that once they enter China, they will be completely cut off from the "outside world" due to internet censorship and what is known as "The Great Firewall".
If you're a social media junkie, you understand the need to keep everyone updated, whether it's through sharing pics on Instagram, or your 160 character thoughts on Twitter, or just dropping a line on Facebook. Unfortunately, these major sites and apps are blocked throughout China. But have no fear, there are still many ways you can communicate and keep in touch with your loved ones.
WeChat is one of the most popular free messaging apps in China and provides many features compared to other social messaging apps, such as Facebook Messenger. It has developed into one of the best multi-functional and social networking apps in use today.
With WeChat, users can upload profile pictures, post "Moments" to their timeline (a feature similar to Instagram), send instant messages to each other or to a group of people, and have high quality video call like you would with Skype. WeChat has created intuitive ways to add friends and meet new people. You can share your WeChat ID, scan QR codes to add friends, sync your phone contacts and even shake your phones together. By shaking your phone, you will be immediately connected with all WeChat users that happen to be shaking their phones at that particular time, whether they are next to you or on the other side of the globe.
WeChat also features drift bottles where users can write messages and drop it in a virtual sea, where other users can pick it up and read it. Recently, WeChat has introduced WeChat wallet where users can link WeChat to their bank account and pay vendors or contacts via WeChat. Learn how to sign up for a WeChat account today.
If you're looking for a simple and easy-to-use app for the sole purpose of socializing, WhatsApp is the right messaging app for you. WhatsApp allows you to send unlimited amount of SMS messages, videos, pictures, and files for free. In addition to the traditional one-on-one messaging, WhatsApp users can create group chats to stay in touch with friends and family.
It also provides a feature where WhatsApp users can share high quality phone calls across the globe using WiFi or data connection. Similar to Facebook, WhatsApp shows whether the users are online or when they were last seen. This is an especially helpful feature when dealing with the time difference between China and home.
QQ is a popular Chinese communication app that is lesser known to Western culture. This app allows you to instant message contacts, video chat, and meet new friends easily.
While it is mostly structured for Chinese users, it is available on all app stores and can be downloaded by friends and family back home. This may be convenient for you if you don't like switching between apps when talking to local and international friends. QQ is a great way to keep in contact with people internationally as well as your Chinese friends of tour guides.
China's strict online censorship means that most traditional social media sites will be blocked. However, through the use of a virtual private network (VPN) travelers can still use their favorite social media sites with relative ease. This is a legal bypass for international visitors and something everyone looking for internet access in China should research. The following social media sites will be listed as Blocked or Not Blocked to let you know which require a VPN and which do not.
The online forums of Reddit are one of the few western sites that are not blocked in China. The social media, news aggregation, and discussion site is popular with a younger audience in western culture and is known for linking people in certain interest groups together. If you are already an avid Reddit user you will have no problem keeping up with the site and those using it from China. However, since it is a niche media platform it is not an ideal way to stay in contact with older family members or friends who are unfamiliar with the website.
This microblogging website is China's answer to Twitter and functions in much the same way. Weibo is one of the top social media sites in China with millions of daily users. Since this site is geared towards a Chinese audience, most of your friends and family will probably need to be introduced to its functions. This is, however, an excellent way to keep in contact with local and international news. If your contacts back home are avid Twitter users, consider suggesting Weibo to them as an easy way to keep in contact with you during your travels.
This popular application blurs the line on what counts as a social media site. Snow is the South Korean answer to Snapchat. It allows you to send videos and pictures to other users, as well as engage in live video chats using a smartphone or other device. Similar to Snapchat, it had many filters and add-ons which make it popular with a younger audience of users. The app is popular with young Chinese people and is available for download on Apple and Android devices.
You are probably more familiar with the American version of Weibo, Twitter. With millions of users internationally, Twitter is an ideal place to keep up to date with news and people both inside and outside of China. However, Twitter is officially blocked by the Chinese government and will require a VPN in order to access its content. If you are only going to be in China for a short period, it may not be worth your time to invest in a VPN subscription. But if you simply can't live without tweeting details from your trip, then this might be the right choice for you.
Facebook has revolutionized the way we connect with others across the globe. As one of the largest social media platforms, Facebook is accessible for people of all generations. However, it is currently blocked in China. Facebook and Facebook Messenger may be the easiest and most integrated way to message friend and family, but very few Chinese people have access to the site. In order to use it in China you will need a VPN connection for your phone or computer. With the new video chat feature and Facebook live, both of which allow you to stream a live video feed from anywhere in the world, it is a handy site/application for staying in contact with the outside world.
Instagram is one of the most popular image and video sharing platforms in use today. Millions of users post pictures of glamours travel shots from around the world. While a quick search will show you plenty of amazing shots captured in China, the site itself is banned.
However, unlike Facebook and Twitter, there is a large presence of Chinese youth on Instagram. One of the best ways to see what life is like in a certain city is to look it up on Instagram and see what other travelers and locals are posting from there. As long as you have a VPN, it is a great option for keeping people at home updated on you travels and engaging with people around you as well.
Is the original Snow and is growing in popularity across the globe. While currently still banned in China, it can still work with a VPN and a high speed internet connection. Since the VPN tends to slow down the overall speed of your computer or device, Snapchat can have issues with lag time on slower Chinese connections. If you love the filters and behind-the-scenes feel of Snapchat, consider giving Snow a try while traveling.
Many of the applications and social media sites listed above offer video calling along with other features, such as: WeChat, Snow, and Facebook Messenger. This section will refer to websites and applications devoted specifically to international video calls.
If you an Apple device user you are probably familiar with the FaceTime application that comes pre-installed on all Apple devices. This video calling platform allows you to use your computer, iPad, or iPhone to video chat with another Apple device anywhere in the world via data or WiFi connection.
FaceTime is high quality video and requires a fast internet connection to perform well. It's a wonderful way to keep in contact with people who own Apple devices, but may not be ideal if your frequent contacts use a different type of device.
Skype is one of the biggest names in video calling software in use today, and for good reason. Skype is available on all devices and brands and provides clear video chatting and messaging internationally. Skype does not require a VPN connection and therefore has better connections speeds than some other platforms. Skype is also user friendly, meaning that elderly parents or friends will have an easier time contacting you than navigating a social media site or app.
The Google Hangout feature, which allows you to video chat with multiple people at once, is an excellent way to stay up to date with family and friend groups. However, Google and its affiliate programs are blocked in China. This means that in order to use Google Hangouts you will need to use a VPN connection. Google Hangout is available on any device liked to a Google account.
As stated above, Google websites are officially blocked in China. This means that accessing your Gmail account will require the use of a VPN connection. If you are emailing friends and relatives back home, this is an easy option. This will also allow you to email with Chinese locals who will be using other email servers. If you plan to use other aspects of Google services such as Google Docs on your travels then it is feasible to get a VPN and continue using your Gmail account.
Yahoo Mail is another popular email server with western users and it is not blocked in China. Accessing the site is possible without the use of a VPN. If you are planning to use email as your primary means of communication with family back home and you are only staying for a short while then Yahoo Mail may be your best option. It will allow you to stay connected without having to spring for a VPN subscription.
There are myriad of Chinese email servers, which of course are not blocked by the government. However, signing up and using one of these services may be difficult if you have a limited command of Mandarin. If you are planning to stay in China for an extended period and have a good command of basic Mandarin then there are many local options to choose from. However, for the causal tourist, it is best to stick to what you know.
Wordpress.com and Wordpress.org are blogging networks that allow travelers to share media and text updates about their travels with follows back home. It is very popular to start a travel blog to document your adventures for yourself and those close to you.
While you many need a VPN to operate the sites properly, it can be worth it if you enjoy keeping in touch through blogging. Blogs allow you to share recorded video content, text posts, and picture galleries with your followers. They are a great way to share your trip with others back home.
Tumblr is a blogging/microblogging website that has a large user base outside of China. You will need a VPN to access the site, but it provides a free account with the ability to share text, video, and images with your followers. There is also a personal messaging feature which allows you to engage with other users directly. If you are an avid Tumblr user back home it should be easy for you to stay connected with the help of a solid VPN.
Most people planning to stay for an extended period will buy a local SIM card that can be inserted into an Unlocked phone (one not bound to a certain service provider) for international use. This is by far the easiest method, but costs may vary depending on area, usage, service coverage, and data limits. Phone booths are commonly available in major cities but rare in rural areas or in the far west.
While cellular phones from other countries work in China, there calls can be expensive. It is wise to talk to you local provider before leaving your home country about international rates. Likewise, hotel phones and pay phones can be very expensive for international calls.
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China Highlights can help with phone rental and other communication needs for our clients.
Visiting China for the first time? Explore our recommendations, such as the Classic Wonders 11-day trip to China's greatest landmarks, or our Golden Triangle tour for 8 days in the three most popular cities in China.