Some foreigners never bother getting a landline phone in Beijing, such is the ubiquity and relatively good value of mobile telephony. Bear in mind, though, that with cell phones in China the receiver of a call pays a portion of the cost, so a fixed line may pay for itself if you’re getting lots of calls from your home country. Then again, isn’t that what Skype’s for? In any case, you’ll probably find the place you move into already has the line set up, so all you’ll have to do is take over paying the bills.
For mobile phones, there are two state providers: China Mobile (which supports GSM) and China Unicom (GSM and CDMA). Each offers a head-spinning range of subscription deals and handsets, and shops large and small sell handsets and packages (bring your passport). Beware of fakes if you decide to brave a big electronics mall to find a good deal on a handset. The simplest thing to do is choose the handset you want and buy a pay-as-you-go card. They come in units of RMB100 and you can top up by calling (English service provided) or texting. Cards are available on practically every street corner in newspaper kiosks and convenience stores, though China Unicom cards are carried by fewer vendors. Network coverage is excellent.
For a smart phone, you’ll probably want a package. Again, you can do this anywhere. Bigger shops should have someone who speaks enough English to walk you through the process. iPhones can be bought unlocked here (so you can use them with a pay-as-you-go card), but to get the best deal for 3G you should go to a China Unicom shop. If you take a long-term deal it can work out very cheap. If you already have your own, you’ll have to unlock it first.
Your landlord or compound manager will help you set up wireless Internet at home. China Telecom is the main provider, but you can also set up deals with companies such as OCN that are packaged with digital cable TV. A year usually costs around RMB1,200. Note that your apartment building or house may have the capacity for faster Internet – i.e. new cables have been installed in your area – but your landlord may be sticking with the same provider and same slow speeds. Ask that they sort out the fastest available Internet for you, since the prices are pretty much the same. You’ll find the Internet may be slower than you’re used to, for various reasons including monitoring and blocking and a lack of cooperation between providers. 3G coverage can be spotty, and people seem to find China Unicom the better provider in terms of this, but it’s not a big problem.
Free Wi-Fi is everywhere and taken for granted – it would be easier to list the cafés around town that don’t offer it than those that do. There are also extremely cheap Internet cafes all over the city, full of young people playing games and chatting online. Many of them offer snacks and drinks, and some can be rather impressive, but generally they’re crowded and hot. They cater mostly to locals, but they’re easy enough to use. They’ll ask for your name and passport number but you don’t have to actually bring your passport with you and this is a perfunctory check.
China Post Offices are everywhere, with small branches handling basic letters, stamps, bills and account work, while bigger branches deal with oversized packages, Western Union and money changing. You’ll need to speak Chinese or have someone to help you; however, if you’re sending a letter or postcard overseas you don’t need to write the address in Chinese, though it may help to add the country name in characters. In theory you could do this for domestic delivery as well (since letters arrive from overseas without Chinese characters), but in practice why take the risk? If you’re sending a package overseas, bring your passport and don’t seal anything until they’ve had a look at the contents.
Western Union, DHL and so on all have English-language hotlines. For citywide delivery, there are literally hundreds of kuaidi (courier) companies offering very fast, very cheap delivery. They’re the guys careering around the roads on motorbikes looking stressed. Get someone in your office or a friend to call them for you, and they’ll deliver around the city, usually for under RMB20. You can also set up an account so they know where to come for pick-up when you call.
The Great Firewall of China
The Chinese government can be a bit funny about the Internet, and you might find your favourite sites blocked. Perennial no-nos are BBC, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and (weirdly) movie site IMDB. The “Great Firewall of China” is quite sophisticated and perfectly capable of blocking individual links inside otherwise usable sites (for example, you might be able to read everything in your online newspaper except an article about Tibet). They also filter and block searches for the three Ts (Tibet, Tiananmen, Taiwan), pornography and anything else sensitive. Your best way round this, and for a generally easier (and often faster) experience is to get a VPN (Virtual Private Network). These are easy to set up online and will cost you a few dollars a month (the free ones have all been blocked). We recommend Golden Frog as the most reliable VPN provider in China.