I've been travelling to China on business since 1997. I also lived there for five years before moving my family back to Taiwan five years ago. Today, I continue to travel back and forth to China on business several times a month.
Staying connected with colleagues, family, and friends back home is essential for any business traveller. But as anyone who has been to China on business can attest, staying in touch can be a real challenge.
Thanks to tight government control over the internet, many of the most frequently used websites and apps are inaccessible in China, like Gmail, Facebook, and Twitter. And the time zone difference can complicate efforts to organize conference calls with colleagues back home.
Here are some workarounds you can use to make sure you stay connected while you're in China. Most are free. A few require a nominal investment. All are essential to staying connected while you're in China:
1. Forward your web-based email to a service that is not blocked
You never realize just how much you rely on web-based email applications to do what you need to do until the moment you can no longer access them. I use Gmail for a lot of my private email. But Gmail is blocked in China by the so-called "Great Firewall" -- the Chinese government's systematic blocking of websites it deems unacceptable.
Several years ago, China put every Google-owned domain on that list, including Gmail. So before landing in China, make sure you forward your email to another webmail system that is not on China's blacklist. I forward my Gmail to my Hotmail account, since it's not blocked in China.
2. Use a VPN
China's "Great Firewall" doesn't just block Google-related websites. Many other major communication apps and social networks don't work as well: Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Vimeo, and more. If you're a heavy user of those sites like I am, you'll need to download a Virtual Private Network (VPN) app to your laptop or mobile device to access them. The catch? The "Great Firewall" periodically blocks VPNs as well.
3. Use WeChat
If you're a heavy user of communication and collaboration apps like WhatsApp or Slack, you'll need to be prepared: They don't work in China without going through a VPN.
I suggest downloading and installing WeChat so you can stay in touch with colleagues, friends, and family. WeChat is the most popular communication app in China. Everyone uses it. And you don't have to read or write Chinese to use it: It's easy to use, it's free, and it'll allow you to build connections faster with your colleagues, customers, and vendors in China. It's a simple and free gesture that sends the message that you want to stay in touch on their terms.
4. Buy a local SIM card
Sure, you can roam in China on your own mobile plan. Your mobile provider will likely be more than happy to add these charges to your bill. Instead, I'd suggest purchasing a local SIM card with a Chinese mobile phone number. Like using WeChat, it'll make it that much easier for people to reach you--and it'll save you a ton of money.
5. Negotiate reasonable hours for conference calls
One of the toughest barriers to staying in touch while you're in China for business has little to do with technology. Before you take-off for China, make sure you tell your colleagues where you're going, and ask that no conference calls be scheduled during your sleeping hours.
Since this will mean avoiding calls during the busiest working hours back home, it will require a bit of give and take. Schedule some calls in your evening time while you're in China, when your colleagues are just getting into the office. And in return, ask that some calls be organized in the early morning hours when you're in China, which will mean a few after-hours calls for your colleagues back home.