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Paper lanterns in Yangshuo city centre

China Tips

WeChat, not WhatsApp

  • WhatsApp is blocked in China, so everyone uses WeChat instead.
  • If you book small-medium size hotels, they’ll probably ask for your WeChat. It’s also handy if you hire a driver, because you can easily communicate even if they don’t speak your language.
  • The app has built in translation – some chats are auto translated, while others I have to long press and select “Translate”. Needless to say the translations sometimes don’t make sense and it ends up requiring follow up questions.

Registering on WeChat

  • Right now (March 2019), it’s a bit hard to register a new account because you need an existing user to verify you, but they have several rules such as the user has to be from the same country as yourself or from mainland China and they have limits on how many new users they can verify per month (I could only do 1 verification within 30 days).
  • After you’re verified, make sure you add contacts and use the chat from time to time. I know new users that have been locked out due to “suspicious activities”, which we guess is because WeChat wasn’t used at all. These users had to find someone to verify them again in order to use the app.

Internet and mobile data

WiFi and VPN

  • Several sites and services are blocked while on WiFi – e.g. anything related to Google such as Google Photos, Play, Gmail, YouTube; or Facebook; and several western new sites. Even if you think you can get by without accessing these, it is very likely that at some point you’ll want to unblock access (to backup your pictures in Google Photos, for example).
  • To have full access to sites and services via WiFi, you’ll need a VPN. After some research, we decided to use Express VPN, for US$ 12.99 per month but you can get your money back within 30 days if you’re not happy with it.
  • My advice is to download the app and purchase the VPN before you get to China, otherwise you won’t be able to download it from Google Play (not sure if Apple app store is blocked).
  • Some internet providers block access to some VPN locations. This happened to us on the first 2 WiFis we used in China, but Express VPN provides a chat where you can resolve the problem while chatting to them (bear in mind you need 2 devices in order to investigate and resolve the issue over chat, since the 2nd device is used to run some tests that require losing connection).
  • With Express VPN, so far the most reliable location to connect to is Los Angeles 5. Other locations work on some WiFis but not in others.
  • It’s also worth noting that while the VPN app is trying to connect to the selected location, you have no internet access.

Mobile data

  • Since we went to Hong Kong and Macau first, we decided to buy a SIM card from China Mobile with a HK number and a package we can use data and calls while in China too.
  • Advantages of this package: while on mobile data, you have access to all sites and services without needing a VPN. It’s less hassle to do in HK or Macau, where you don’t need ID and people speak English.
  • Disadvantages: you cannot top up or you can top up only once per month, depending on the package you buy. It’s also probably cheaper to buy in China.

Packages we bought

  • At the airport, we paid around £25.40 for a 30 days package with 4GB and 100 minutes call to HK, Macau and China. The trick: the package is valid for 30 days only and you cannot top up, so if you used your 4GB and need more, you’ll have to buy a new SIM.
  • In town we bought a package of 2GB for around £16.50. You can buy this same SIM, top up by £8 before you select a package and then get 4GB. The trick: you can top up only once a month (cause it makes total sense!).
  • To top up, we tried China Mobile website and app (MyLink) but they don’t work with foreign cards, so we had to call them and do the top up over the phone. But later I read that it probably works with WeChat or AliPay since it’s an online transaction. But if you’re still in HK and Macau when you need to top up, you can probably go to a China Mobile shop or convenience store that sells top up vouchers. But you can’t use China Mobile shots on the mainland for this to up, as it’s a Hong Kong SIM.

Cash and credit cards

  • With the exception of few hotels and posh restaurants, no one seems to accept credit cards, so it’s better to carry plenty of cash. Don’t expect all train stations to have an ATM (we learned that the hard way!). Not even McDonald’s accept cards.
  • Some credit cards machines don’t accept pre-paid credit cards or debit cards.
  • And some machines only accept 6 digit PIN, so if you have 4 digit PIN, you can try to add 00 to the beginning or end of your PIN. We tried 00 at the beginning on our Halifax MasterCard but it didn’t work. Some people online reported that one of the options worked for them, I guess it depends on the bank.
  • People also reported that some ATMs only accept 6 digit PIN, though we haven’t come across one of these. Our pre-paid Revolut Visa card worked on all ATMs that has the Visa logo.
  • Most credit card machines have contactless, but none of them worked with our cards, so we always need to enter the PIN.

AliPay and WeChat Pay

Almost every place (no matter how small) accepts AliPay and/or WeChat pay, but (long story short) as of 19 March 2019, you must have a Chinese mainland bank account in order to be able to pay offline using the app. “Pay offline” means either scanning the shop QR code, or scanning your QR code on their machine.

AliPay

  • I could register my foreign card but when tried to scan my QR code, it said the card was invalid. I didn’t try any further since many people online said it only worked with mainland bank cards.
  • When you register your card, AliPay will debit 0 just to check it’s valid.
  • There’s also an AliPay HK app but we haven’t tried it because we read online reports that it wouldn’t work on mainland China.

WeChat Pay

  • To pay by QR code without a mainland bank account, the only 2 alternatives I found (after spending hours researching and trial and errors) are: (1) find someone with WeChat in China to transfer the money to your wallet and you give them cash; (2) or use an online service to transfer cash to your wallet, but from what I read, they charge almost 10% commission that is actually hidden in their exchange rate.
  • We didn’t think any of the alternatives were scalable, so we decided to use cash. If you don’t want to go with them either, I’d say there’s no point in even trying to setup a wallet, unless you want to try to use it for online payment (which we haven’t tried).
  • Note WeChat will debit 0.34RMB from your card even if you’re not able to use the card for any payment. A lot of people complained there’s no way to get the money back. WeChat must be making a lot of money!
  • According to some comments on this site, a few people could use foreign card without a mainland bank account to make online payments such as top up mobile phone online, JD website (their Amazon), etc, but we haven’t tried it ourselves.
  • WeChat Wallet: If you were able to register and activate WeChat (if not, please see above), you may or may not have a wallet. It should be in the “Me” tab.
  • In my opinion there’s a lot of confusion about who has wallet or not. Some claim it depends where you install the app from, but from my experience, it only depends on country of your phone number. I have 2 accounts registered on the same phone – the one from the UK didn’t have a wallet, while the one from HK did.

How to activate your wallet if you don’t have one

Bear in mind your card will be charged 0.34RMB. I’ve summarise below what worked for me following the instructions of one of the comments on the site linked further above (note translations on the app seem to change a bit over time):

  • (1) On the “Chat” screen, tap the (+) icon located on top right. then tap “Money”.
  • (2) It will open a green screen – tap “Receive money”.
  • (3) Enter your credit card details. Even if it gives you an error, your card was probably debited.
  • (4) The app will say something like.”you’re now verified”, and you can activate a 6 digit passcode which is used to show your QR code, which is scanned to make offline payments (that’s why you want to protect it).
  • (5) Go back, tap “Me” and you should see the WeChat wallet link.
  • If you don’t see what’s in (4) and (5), try quitting the app and restarting it. It took a few trial and errors for us to see the wallet in our UK WeChat user.
  • The wallet will have 0, and to make offline payments you can top up using one of the 2 alternatives described above.

Trains

  • Right now you cannot buy train tickets with foreign cards (why would you want to do that?).
  • We bought all our tickets via China Highlights, as recommended by Seat 61.
  • Usually tickets become available 28 days before departure date, but you can buy from China Highlights months ahead and when tickets become available they will buy them and email you. If your preferred class or train isn’t available, they will email you alternatives. If it costs more, they’ll send you another invoice with the difference, and if it’s less, they will refund you (that happened to us).
  • We had a change of plans and wanted to get new tickets on a Sunday and called China Highlights and they promptly helped us with great English.
  • Tickets can be posted or collected at the station.

Collecting tickets at the station

  • Small stations are straight forward, but larger ones can be confusing because not all windows issue tickets bought online. Many only sell tickets, and don’t expect anything to be translated to English.
  • So if you need to collect before boarding the train, arrive with plenty of time to avoid disappointment.
  • At Kunming station (which is mid size), there were massive queues of people and around 15 windows. I showed some people the translation asking where to collect online tickets, but they either couldn’t read or pointed me to the wrong location, where there’s an automated machine that only Chinese citizens (and maybe residents) can use.
  • My rule of thumb is to try the shortest queue if you have no idea which one is the correct window. That worked for us at Kunming where there was one window with 2 people queueing. It’s not that easy to find the shortest queue because people tend. To gather in unorganised queues.

Red vs blue tickets

  • The tickets delivered over the post were red, but the ones we collected at the station were blue.
  • You can use either of them to board the train.
  • The only difference is that the red ticket cannot be inserted into the barrier machines, so you need to show them to someone that will be by the barrier.
  • Usually, there are separate queues for red and blue tickets. It’s best to show your ticket and ask someone station staff that is by the gate if you’re in the right queue. I wouldn’t queue with a red ticket where you can see that there is an automated gate, but having said that, at Kunming they decided to open the gate and have station staff checking all tickets.

At the station before boarding the train

  • Some stations have a “waiting” area and the departure board will show which area you should wait for. I find this concept quite confusing but I think all it means is that you’re closer to your train platform.
  • The platform where the train will depart is usually announced way in advance, but you cannot go to the platform until your train number is displayed above the barriers AND it displays green status “boarding” (in Chinese).
  • There’s a lot of pushing, skipping queue and forming a 3rd and 4th queue. Any empty space between you and the person in front of you is likely to be taken by someone else.
  • Seats are allocated, so I guess the rush to board is force or habit and maybe to make sure they can choose where to put their luggage. We were only travelling with a backpack each so we don’t know whether it’s easy to store wheely bags on trains.

Maps

  • We found Google maps to be very unreliable in China. Many places and streets aren’t on their maps. And some businesses are 100-500m from the correct location.
  • We haven’t looked much for alternatives, but read online that Bing (no mobile apps though) and Baidu (Chinese only) are much better.

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