Wanted to check up on your email? No prob — China now has an extensive network of wifi cafés across the nation. It’s easier to log on, though, if you have a Chinese mobile number, as it is required to get your access key.
Note: You will have to let operators know who you are. By law, you must provide a passport or (for Chinese citizens) Resident ID Card. Note No. 2: Beware the Net censors. Internet sites outside of China can be censored; it is to your advantage to get a VPN before you enter the country. Note that even here, technically speaking, even browsing banned or troublesome content (2 Ps, 4 Ts: politics, porn, Tian’anmen, Tibet, Taiwan, and terrorism) is illegal, although you use the Internet for ”non-subversive reasons”, your chances of being stopped by police is minimal.
GETTING YOUR MOBILE NUMBER
Most airports, in particular the key hubs in Beijing and Shanghai, should have at least one outlet where you can buy a mobile phone number for use in China. Most phones in that country are sold unlocked, although enforcement is not rare for the few who have gotten a discounted smartphone using a fixed-term contract.
China presently has three mobile networks: a fourth, which used to work by “extending your landline services”, is de facto on its very last legs and this guide will not cover that service.
If you are from South Korea, the US, or any other country that has CDMA services, you would want to choose China Telecom (中国电信), as it is the nation’s sole CDMA-ready network. Otherwise, for regular GSM services, choose either China Mobile (中国电信; better coverage) or China Unicom (中国联通; better 3G services).
Beware the traps that come with each provider:
- China Mobile: No 3G (so if you can’t access 4G, you’re back to GPRS!)
- China Unicom: Reports of poor customer service
- China Telecom: The “odd one out”: CDMA services not compatible with GSM
MAKING A PURCHASE
The rule at most cafés offering free wifi is: Buy our stuff, so that we can let you online.
Still, if you’re secretive about it, you can sneak online at a few places in town (in Beijing, these include the China World Trade Centre’s new Summit Wing and the Kerry Centre) where you can just log directly onto the Web, although your time will be limited.
If you’re in a café and are sitting down to relax or to get work done, you need to buy something — or pony up a “water / presence fee” of around CNY 20. It’s really pointless to pay this exorbitant charge whilst not getting (re)hydrated, so getting a nice Latte or tea isn’t a bad idea.
GETTING ONLINE AT A STARBUCKS
Getting online at Starbucks used to be very different from one shop to the other. In some places, you needed a password; in other places, a mobile number was required. Increasingly, Starbucks gives you a unique code valid at least for that city (and in some cases for other cities as well), good for 7 days.
To log-on at Starbucks, simply find the Starbucks wifi network, which often is in partnership with China Mobile (CMCC) or China Unicom. In some cities, you might need access via China Telecom or another network.
You must input your mobile number (mainland Chinese numbers only). That number must be active and accessible to you, since you will get your access key via SMS text message.
Beware that at some places, using a VPN for around half an hour is enough to automatically disconnect you from the network. To head right back online, just reconnect and input the password again, if needed.
The quality of wifi access can be terrible at Starbucks during peak periods — in particular in the afternoon hours. Either camp out early in the morning, or stay late in the evening.
GETTING ONLINE AT COSTA COFFEE
Chinese mainland mobile phone numbers are not so much needed at Costa as they are at Starbucks, but the rule is — to every rule, there is always an exception!
However, in general, you should be fine entering only the wifi password. Get this from the barista (you will generally get this following a purchase).
Being kicked off wifi for using a VPN is less of a problem at Costa than at Starbucks. Also, generally speaking, wifi at Costa is somewhat better than at Starbucks.
GETTING ONLINE AT PACIFIC COFFEE
The order-then-get-online model is strictly enforced at Pacific Coffee. In fact, you have to make sure you keep your sales receipt, on which is printed your access key!
Due to the access key solution being used at Pacific Coffee, there’s not much in the way of chances that you’ll need your mobile phone number ready, although it pays to have one anyway because there are only so many Pacific Coffee outlets in town.
Access online via VPN remains stable at Pacific Coffee; you shouldn’t encounter major problems.
GETTING ONLINE WITH YOUR TELECOMMUNICATIONS OPERATOR
If you have an account with a mainland Chinese telecommunications operator, you should be able to use telco-branded Internet hotspots (China Unicom, as an example, maintains an extensive network of wifi spots, accessible for its clients, across the country). Sadly, most instructions are likely to be in Chinese only, so secure the assistance of a friend or colleague if you’re not sure how to best proceed. It probably involves sending a few SMS text messages to get you registered and to get you an online access key. Be aware that some services may incur extra charges.
If you have an account with a telecommunications provider based overseas, it really is a game of pot luck. Names such as BT Openzone, Boingo, PCCW and Swisscom Mobile are not unheard-of in China, but your best bet will be in the big hotels, airports, and major rail hubs. If you have account with these providers, try logging on inside the Middle Kingdom — often, for the low cost of zero!
GETTING ONLINE AT AIRPORTS
Some airports offer you unrestricted Internet access; others time and price it. A few, such as Beijing Capital International Airport, have a rather complicated system where either you must get an SMS text message, or swipe your passport on an authentication / access machine to get connected. Using these systems can be frustrating. Let’s just hope you’re not delayed out of China or have a fast connection to the city centre!
If anything else, using your mobile phone’s tethered Internet connection is probably the only way out of this mess, although you might want to make sure you’re on a local SIM card — or face a very expensive bill back home!
DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME OR ON THE GO
Internet access in China remains highly regulated. Just remember to keep away from the 2 Ps and 4 Ts (politics, porn, Tibet, Tian’anmen, Taiwan, and terrorism) and you should be fine.
In detail, this means you should not use the Internet in China to create, copy, read, or disseminate content which:—
- incites opposition or the enactment of the Constitution and laws
- subverts national authority or overthrows the socialist system
- splits the country or endangers its unity
- incites ethnic hatred or harms its unity
- is factually inaccurate, are rumours, or disrupt public order
- advocates feudal beliefs, pornography, gambling, violence, terrorism, or criminal behaviour
- is libellous
- tarnishes the trust of government bodies
- is otherwise restricted by law
And what about VPNs? The use of a VPN is in a grey area. It on its own is not against the law, but if it is (mis)used to achieve illegal means, this could be a major problem. Whilst a cursory glance at controversial topics are at most a minor infraction, you can expect the police to start breathing down your neck if you use the Internet to organise real-life challenges against Beijing. Also, taking it out on Zhongnanhai with visibly anti-CCP, anti-PRC content will also land you in hot water, even if you air these via an encrypted connection on Facebook or Twitter in English. You are best advised to buy (and sometimes renew) VPN services outside China, as these sites can at times be inaccessible inside the country.