Beijing is a very Internet-friendly place for travelers with laptops. Most mid-range to high-end hotels have in-room Wi-Fi access, but you might have to pay extra for it. Most hotels have a computer with Internet access that you can use for a fee.
When you're out and about, coffee chains like Starbucks are good places to find Wi-Fi connections. Internet cafés are ubiquitous (look for signs reading); new ones open and close all the time, so ask your hotel for a recommendation. Prices vary considerably. Near the northern university districts you could pay as little as Y2 to Y3 per hour; slicker downtown places could cost 10 times that.
Remember that there is strict government control of the Internet in China. Google and Gmail are accessible, if tooth-grindingly slow. It's impossible to access some news sites and blogs without using a virtual private network (VPN), which circumnavigates the government’s attempts to block.
The country code for China is 86; the city code for Beijing is 010 (omit the first "0"), and the city code for Shanghai is 21. 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.
Calling Within China
The Chinese phone system is cheap and efficient. You can make local and long-distance calls from your hotel or any public phone on the street. Some pay phones accept coins, but it's easier to buy an IC calling card, available at convenience stores and newsstands. Local calls are generally free from landlines, though your hotel might charge a nominal rate. Long-distance rates in China are very low. Calling from your hotel room is a viable option, as hotels can only add a 15% service charge.
Beijing's city code is 010, and Beijing phone numbers have eight digits. When calling within the city, you can drop the city code. In general, city codes appear written with a 0 in front of them; if not, you need to add this when calling another city within China.
For directory assistance, dial 114 (Chinese), or 2689–0114 (for help in English, though you may not get through). If you want information for other cities, dial the city code followed by 114 (note that this is considered a long-distance call). For example, if you're in Beijing and need directory assistance for a Shanghai number, 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 within China) and then the country code, area code, and phone number. The country code for the United States is 1.
International direct dialing is available at all hotels, post offices, shopping centers, and airports. By international standards the prices aren't unreasonable, but it's vastly cheaper to use a long-distance calling card, known as an IP card. The rates also beat AT&T, MCI, and Sprint hands down.
Calling cards are a key part of the Chinese phone system. There are two kinds: the IC card for local and domestic long-distance calls using a pay phone; and the IP card for international calls from any phone. You can buy both at post offices, convenience stores, and street vendors.
IC cards come in values of Y20, Y50, and Y100 and can be used in any pay phone with a card slot—most Beijing pay phones have them. Local calls using them cost around Y0.30 a minute, and less on weekends and after 6 pm.
To use IP cards, you first dial a local access number, then press 2 for English instructions. This is often free from hotels, however at public phones you need an IC card to dial the access number. You then enter a card number and PIN, and finally the phone number complete with international dial codes. Minutes from both cards are deducted at the same time. There are countless different card brands; China Unicom is one that's usually reliable. IP cards come with values of Y20, Y30, Y50, and Y100; however, the going rate is much less, so bargain vendors down.
If you have a multiband phone and your service provider uses the world-standard GSM network (as do AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon), you can probably use your phone abroad. Roaming fees can be steep, however: 99¢ a minute is considered reasonable. And overseas you normally pay the toll charges for incoming calls. It's almost always cheaper to send a text message than to make a call, since text messages have a very low set fee (often less than 5¢).
If you just want to make local calls, consider buying a new SIM card (note that your provider may have to unlock your phone for you to use a different SIM card) and a prepaid service plan in the destination. You'll then have a local number and can make local calls at local rates. If your trip is extensive, you could also simply buy a new cell phone in your destination, as the initial cost will be offset over time.
If you travel internationally frequently, save one of your old cell phones or buy a cheap one on the Internet; ask your cell-phone company to unlock it for you, and take it with you as a travel phone, buying a new SIM card with pay-as-you-go service in each destination.
If you have a GSM phone, pick up a local SIM card (sim ka) from any branch of China Mobile or China Unicom. 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 a minute, and to cell phones, Y0.60. 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.
Beijing Limo rents cell phones, which they can deliver to your hotel or at the airport. Renting a handset starts at $5 a day, and you buy a prepaid package with a certain amount of call time; prices start at $49. Beijing Impression travel agency rents handsets at similar rates, and you buy a regular prepaid card for calls. For that money, you may as well buy your own pay-as-you-go cell phone once you arrive (the cheapest Nokia handset goes for around Y220). Cell phone shops are plentiful, though you may need an interpreter to help you deal with the people behind the counter and to reset the language.
Beijing Impression (010/6400–0300. www.beijingimpression.cn.)
Beijing Limo (010/6546–1588. www.beijinglimo.com/english.)
Cellular Abroad (800/287–5072. www.cellularabroad.com.)
China Mobile (10086 English-language assistance. www.chinamobileltd.com.)
China Unicom (010/116–114 English-language assistance. www.chinaunicom.com.)
Planet Fone (888/988–4777. www.planetfone.com.)
Learn a little of the local language. You need not strive for fluency; even just mastering a few basic words and terms is bound to make chatting with the locals more rewarding.
Everyone in Beijing speaks Putonghua ("the common language") as the national language of China is known. It's written using ideograms, or characters; in the 1950s the government also introduced a phonetic writing system that uses the Roman alphabet. Known as pinyin, it's widely used to label public buildings and station names. Even if you don't speak or read Chinese, you can easily compare pinyin names with a map, but be warned: written pinyin is lost on taxi drivers, so always come prepared with your destination written in Chinese characters.