In China's major cities you shouldn't have any trouble getting online. Wi-Fi is growing exponentially—most hotels offer it for free. Many also have computer terminals in their business centers that you can use if you didn't bring along a laptop. Internet cafés are ubiquitous in big cities, and are rapidly spreading to smaller destinations. Known as wang ba in Chinese, they're not usually signposted in English, so ask your hotel to recommend one nearby. Prices (and cleanliness) vary considerably, but start at about Y3 to Y10 per hour.
Remember that there is strict government control of the Internet in China. Authorities frequently shut down Internet cafés, citing "spiritual pollution." There's usually no problem with accessing your email, but you may be unable to access news sites and even some blogs. To get around the restrictions, you can subscribe to a Virtual Private Network or use proxy servers to access certain sites. AnchorFree offers a free service called Hotspot Shield, although it includes annoying pop-up ads. More reliable VPN services, like those from WiTopia, cost about $50 a year for safe, fast surfing. If you're going to be in China for a while, investing in a VPN is worthwhile.
The country code for China is 86; the city code for Beijing is 10, and the city code for Shanghai is 21. Hong Kong has its own country code: 852. To call China from the United States or Canada, dial the international access code (011), followed by the country code (86), the area or city code, and the eight-digit phone number.
Numbers beginning with 800 within China are toll-free. Note that a call from China to a toll-free number in the United States or Hong Kong is a full-tariff international call. If you need to call home, use your computer and a service like Skype. Be sure to download the U.S. version of Skype, because the Chinese TOM-Skype is constantly monitored by the government.
Calling Within China
The Chinese phone system is cheap and efficient. Local calls are usually free, and long-distance rates are very low. Calling from your hotel room is a good option, as hotels can only add a 15% service charge.
Chinese phone numbers have eight digits—that's usually all you need to dial these when calling somewhere within the city. To call another city, dial 0, the city code, and the eight-digit phone number.
For directory assistance, dial 114. If you want information for other cities, dial the city code followed by 114 (this is considered a long-distance call). For example, if you're in Beijing and need directory assistance for Shanghai, dial 021–114. The operators do not speak English, so if you don't speak Chinese you're best off asking your hotel for help.
Calling Outside China
To make an international call from within China, dial 00 (the international access code) and then the country code, area code, and phone number. The United States country code is 1.
IDD (international direct dialing) service is available at all hotels, post offices, major shopping centers, and airports. Simply dial 108 (the local operator) and the local access codes from China: 811 (southern China) or 888 (northern China) for AT&T, 12 for MCI, and 13 for Sprint. Dialing instructions in English will follow.
AT&T Direct. 800/874–4000; 108–888; 108–11; www.att.com/esupport/traveler.jsp?tab=2.
MCI WorldPhone. 800/444–4444; 108–12; consumer.mci.com/international.
Sprint International Access. 800/793–1153; 108–13; www.sprint.com/international.
Calling cards are a key part of the Chinese phone system. There are two kinds: the IC card (integrated circuit; aicei ka), for local and domestic long-distance calls on pay phones; and the IP card (Internet protocol; aipi ka) for international calls from any phone. You can buy both at post offices, convenience stores, and street vendors.
IC cards come in denominations of Y20, Y50, and Y100, and can be used in any pay phone with a card slot—most urban pay phones have them. Local calls using them cost around Y0.30 a minute, and less on weekends and after 6 pm.
IP cards come with face values of Y20, Y30, Y50, and Y100. The going rate for them might be half that, so bargain with the vendors. To use IP cards, first dial a local access number. You then enter a card number and a PIN, and finally the phone number, complete with international dial codes. There are countless different card brands; China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom are usually reliable.
If you have a tri-band GSM or a CDMA phone, pick up a local SIM card (sim ka) from any branch of China Mobile or China Unicom: there are often branches at international airports. You'll be presented with a list of possible phone numbers, with varying prices—an "unlucky" phone number (one with lots of 4s) could be as cheap as Y50, whereas an auspicious one (full of 8s) could fetch Y300 or more. You then buy prepaid cards to charge minutes onto your SIM—do this straightaway, as you need credit to receive calls. Local calls to landlines cost Y0.25 per minute, and Y0.60 to cell phones. Rates can vary depending on the services you sign up for or add to your SIM. International calls from cell phones are very expensive.
Remember to bring an adapter for your phone charger. You can also buy cheap handsets from China Mobile—if you're planning to stay even a couple of days this is probably cheaper than renting a phone.
Cellular Abroad. Cellular Abroad rents and sells GMS phones and SIM card packages that work in many countries. 800/287–5072; www.cellularabroad.com.
Mobal. Mobal rents cell phones and sells GSM phones (starting at $49) that will operate in 170 countries. Per-call rates vary throughout the world. 888/888–9162; www.mobal.com.