5 Things You Need to Know Before You Travel to China

Planning a trip to China? You're already picturing yourself at the Great Wall and the Bund in Shanghai. But you may be forgetting something important. To avoid disappointment, here are five things you need to know before traveling to China.

If you’re planning a trip to China, you may think you’ve thought of all the essentials. You’ve organized your itinerary, hotel, and sightseeing — that’s everything, right?

Maybe not.

Since you probably don’t have to think about it at home, there’s one thing that could take you completely by surprise: censorship.

China currently censors more than 10,000 different websites across the internet. That includes nearly all of the sites we take for granted, like Google, Facebook, and Twitter. The sheer scale of censorship in China, known as the Great Firewall, can leave you without the websites and apps you were counting on for your trip.

That’s why we’ve put together this short guide to censorship in China, and how you can get around it, including sites that do work, and which VPNs can bypass the Great Firewall.

Why Does China Censor the Internet?

First of all, to understand what we’re up against, keep in mind that censorship has a long and complicated history in China. The Communist Party of China currently censors all forms of media, and the internet is no exception.

The government’s reasons for imposing so much censorship are varied. Certainly the authorities use it to exercise control over the Chinese population by curating all of the information they can access.

However, it is also thought that censorship, especially of large global corporations, is designed to encourage Chinese business. Without competition from the likes of Google, Facebook, and other international Goliaths, Chinese companies, such as the search engine Baidu, the messaging app WeChat, and social media sites TikTok, Toutiao, and Zhihu have flourished.

5 Things You Need to Know Before You Travel to China

1. There Really Is No Google

It can take a while to sink in, but Google is completely blocked in China. While you might think you can go without Googling facts during your trip, what about Google Maps?

Not being able to use the popular navigation app is something that confuses a lot of visitors to China. Most of us rely on Maps to find our way around, especially when we’re in a foreign country.

What you can do: There are some options when it comes to finding your way around, at least. You can download Baidu Maps onto your phone, or access translation apps like Hanping or Pleco to help you ask for directions.

Also, here’s our guide to how to access Gmail in China.

2. You Won’t Be Able to Catch Up with Your Friends

Many of us rely on social media and messaging apps to keep in day-to-day contact with friends and loved ones—not to mention our traveling companions during the trip.

Unfortunately, all of the major social media sites and messaging apps are blocked in China.

What you can do: You can download Skype, which works in China, or check out our guides on how to access Facebook in China or how to use Whatsapp in China.

3. You Won’t Be Able to Trust the News You Read

Much like everything else, the news is highly censored in China. Most external news sites are blocked, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Bloomberg, Reuters, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and L’Equipe. Wikipedia is blocked too.

The Chinese newspapers (including in English or other languages) are highly influenced, and sometimes outright controlled, by the government. Therefore, you probably won’t be able to access any meaningful news during your stay.

4. You’ll Need to Forget About Your Favorite Shows for a While

Netflix US and Hulu are already blocked in all countries outside of the US, so that shouldn’t come as a surprise. However, China blocks other streaming sites too, such as YouTube.

What you can do: Luckily, there is a Chinese alternative if you want to satisfy your craving for video content. Youku is similar to YouTube and can be accessed with no problem, although its content may also be subject to curation and censorship. But if it has to be YouTube, read our guide to accessing YouTube in China.

5. Your Smartphone May Not Work

Depending on the make of your mobile device, you might find that it doesn’t work at all when you arrive. This is because China uses different mobile network frequencies than those in other countries.

What you can do: Before you go, you can check whether your mobile device is compatible with Chinese networks. If it is, you may still need to activate international roaming or purchase a Chinese SIM card. Since international roaming fees are usually very expensive, a SIM card can be the better option.

To find out more, check out our guide to getting your smartphone to work in China.

Bypassing Chinese Censorship with a VPN

You can avoid most of these problems by using a VPN. A VPN will mask your IP address, allowing you to bypass the Great Firewall and access your favorite apps and websites.

But it’s absolutely essential to use the right VPN.

Currently, VPNs are illegal in China — except for government-approved VPNs, which are not secure or safe to use. To make matters worse, the Great Firewall is famously powerful and adept at detecting and blocking VPN traffic.

The good news is that there are VPNs that work in China. Our recommendation is NordVPN.

NordVPN works in China for several reasons. First, it doesn’t have any servers in the country, helping it to stay undetected. Secondly, it has special obfuscated servers that camouflage OpenVPN traffic, so the Great Firewall cannot detect that you’re using a VPN.

Since VPN sites and apps are blocked in China, remember to install your VPN before you go. But if you forget, don’t panic — there are ways to unblock sites in China when you’re already there.

Further Reading

Don’t want to use a paid service to unblock content during your travels? Here’s a list of the 5 best free VPNs for China.

You can also check out our complete list of blocked websites in China or use our tool for checking if websites are blocked in China in real time.

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