Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, is a popular and affordable way to stay connected while overseas. Skype (www.skype.com) is a well-known application that allows fellow Skype users to talk and/or videoconference for free, and also connects to landlines for affordable rates. Whatever VoIP you chose, I recommend downloading the software onto your computer in advance; that way you can familiarize yourself with it before you travel abroad.
To call China: -- 1. Dial the international access code: 011 in the U.S. and Canada, 00 in the U.K., Ireland, and New Zealand, or 0011 from Australia.
2. Dial the country code: 86 for China.
3. Dial the city code, omitting the leading zero, and then dial the number. To reach Beijing from the U.S., you would dial 011-86-10-plus the 8-digit number.
To call within China: For calls within the same city, omit the city code, which always begins with a zero when used (010 for Beijing, 020 for Guangzhou, for example). All hotel phones have direct dialing, and most have international dialing. Hotels are only allowed to add a service charge of up to 15% to the cost of the call, and even long-distance rates within China are very low. To use a public telephone you'll need an IC (integrated circuit) card (aicei ka), available from post offices, convenience stores, and street stalls, available in values beginning at ¥20 (wherever you can make out the letters IC among the Chinese characters). A brief local call is typically ¥.30 to ¥.50. Phones show you the value remaining on the card when you insert it, and count down as you talk.
To make international calls: First dial 00 and then dial the country code (U.S. or Canada 1, U.K. 44, Ireland 353, Australia 61, New Zealand 64). Next dial the area or city code, omitting any leading zero, and then dial the number. For example, if you want to call the British Embassy in Washington, D.C., you would dial 00-1-202-588-7800. Forget bringing access numbers for your local phone company -- you can call internationally for a fraction of the cost by using an IP (Internet Protocol) card (aipi ka), available wherever you see the letters IP. You should bargain to pay less than the face value of the card -- usually ¥40 for a ¥100 card from street vendors. Instructions for use are on the back, but you simply dial the access number given, choose English from the menu, and follow the instructions to dial in the number behind a scratch-off panel. Depending on where you call, ¥50 can give you an hour of talking. If using a public phone, you'll need an IC card to make the call. In emergencies, dial 108 to negotiate a collect call, but again, you'll need help from a Mandarin speaker.
For directory assistance dial 114. No English is spoken, and only local numbers are available. If you want numbers for other cities, dial the city code followed by 114 -- a long-distance call. You can text the name of the establishment you are looking for (in English) to a service called "Guanxi" at 010/669-588-2929, and for a small fee, the address will return in English. For an additional ¥1 you can get the address in Chinese, ready to show to your taxi driver.
For operator assistance: Just ask for help at your hotel.
Toll-free numbers: Numbers beginning with 800 within China are toll-free, but calling a 1-800 number in the States from China is a full-tariff international call, as is calling one in Hong Kong from mainland China, or vice versa.
All Europeans, most Australians, and many North Americans use GSM (Global System for Mobiles). But while everyone else can take a regular GSM phone to China, North Americans, who operate on a different frequency, need a more expensive tri-band model.
International roaming charges can be horrendously expensive. Buying a prepaid chip in China with a new number is far cheaper. You may need to call up your cellular operator to "unlock" your phone in order to use it with a local provider.
For Beijing, buying a phone is the best option. Last year's now unfashionable model can be bought, with a chip (quanqiutong) and ¥100 of prepaid airtime, for about ¥800; you pay less if a Chinese model is chosen. Europeans taking their GSM phones, and North Americans with tri-band phones, can buy chips for about ¥100. Recharge cards (chongzhi ka) are available at post offices, newspaper stands, and mobile-phone shops. Calling rates are low, although those receiving calls pay part of the cost.
Internet & Email
Despite highly publicized clampdowns on cybercafes, monitoring of traffic, and blocking of websites, China remains one of the easiest countries in the world in which to get online.
Without Your Own Computer -- In central Beijing, government clampdowns have significantly reduced the number of Internet cafes (wangba). Those still in operation tend to charge from ¥4 to ¥20 per hour. Keep your eyes open for the wangba characters.
Many media websites, and those with financial information or any data whatsoever on China which disagrees with the Party line, are blocked from mainland China, as are even some search engines and social networking sites.
With Your Own Computer -- Many cafes and hotels in Beijing offer wireless connectivity in public areas. Most hotels also offer free in-room Wi-Fi connections.
Mainland China uses the standard U.S.-style RJ11 telephone jack also used as the port for laptops worldwide. Cables with RJ11 jacks at both ends can be picked up for around ¥10 in Beijing department stores and electrical shops. Standard electrical voltage across China is 220v, 50Hz, which most laptops can handle, but North American users in particular should check.
Those with onboard Ethernet can take advantage of broadband services, which are sometimes free in major hotels. Ethernet cables are often provided, but it's best to bring your own.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.