China’s communications system has much improved in recent years and is still being rapidly updated. Internet access is cheap and increasingly available, international phone calls are reasonably priced, and on the whole it’s easy to phone or fax abroad, even from obscure towns, while the international mail services are reliable to or from any of the cities. Domestic calls are nearly as reliable, and within the country mail is very rapid.
The Chinese mail service is, on the whole, fast and reliable, with letters taking less than a day to reach destinations In the same city, two or more days to other destinations in China, and up to several weeks to destinations abroad. Overseas postage rates are becoming expensive; a postcard costs Y4.2, while a standard letter is Y5.4 or more, depending on the weight. Ideally you should have mail franked in front of you to stop anyone stealing and reusing the stamps. An Express Mall Service (EMS) operates to most countries and to most destinations within China ; besides cutting delivery times, the service ensures the letter or parcel is sent by registered delivery.
Main post offices are open seven days a week between 8am and 8pm : smaller offices may close earlier or for lunch, or be closed at weekends. As well as at post offices, you Can post letters in green postboxes, though are few and far between except in the biggest cities, or at tourist hotels, which usually a postbox at the front desk. Envelopes can be frustratingly scarce; try the stationery sections of department stores.
To send parcels, turn up at the main post with the goods you want to send and the staff will help you pack them, a service which costs only a few yuan; don’t try to do it yourself, as your package will have to be ked to ensure it is packed correctly. You can buy boxes at the post office, or your goods will be sewn into a linen packet like a case. Once packed, but before the parcel is sealed, it must be checked at the custom window in the post office. In some of the country, especially the south, you’ll find separate parcels offices near the office. A one-kilogram parcel should cost from around Y70 for surface mall, Y120 by air to Europe . Though parcel post from China is reliable, you’ll have to complete masses of paperwork, with forms in Chinese and French (the International language of postal services) only. If you are sending valuable goods bought in China, put the receipt or a photocopy of it in with the parcel, as it he opened for customs inspection farther down the line.
Poste restante services are available in any city. A nominal fee has to be paid to pick up mail, which will be kept for several months, and you will sometimes need to present ID when picking it up, Mall is often eccentrically filed – to cut down on misfiling, name should be printed clearly at the top the letter and the surname underlined, it’s still worth checking all the other pigeonholes just in case. Have letters addressed to you c/o Poste Restante, GPO, town or city, province. You can also leave a sage for someone in the poste restante but you’ll have to buy a stamp.
local calls are free from land lines, and long distance China-wide calls are fairly cheap. Note that everywhere in China has an area code which must be used when phoning from outside that locality; area codes are given for all telephone numbers throughout the guide. International calls cost at least Y16 a minute (much cheaper if you use an IP internet phone card-see below).
You can make international calls from offices of the state-run China Telecom, usually located next to or within the main post office and usually open 24 hours. You pay a deposit of Y200 and are told to go to a particular booth. When you have finished, the charge for the call is worked out automatically and you pay at the desk. You may find that a minimum charge for three minutes applies. Calls to Britain cost Y15 per minute, to the US and Australia Y18, and to Hong Kong Y5. You can also make IDD calls from streetside telephone shops (generally displaying “IDD” on a sign). These usually charge by the minute, but always check in advance.
Alternatively, tourist hotels offer direct dialing abroad from your room, but will add a surcharge, and a minimum charge equivalent to between one and three minutes will be levied even if the call goes unanswered. The business centres you’ll find in most big hotels offer fax, telephone, Internet and telex services (as well as photocopying and typing), and you don’t have to be a guest to use them – though prices for all these services are typically extortionate. Hotels also charge for receiving faxes, usually around V10 per page.
Card phones, widely available in major cities, are the cheapest way to make domestic long-distance calls (Y0.2 for 3min), and can also be used for international calls (generally over Y10 for 3min). They take IC Cards, which come in units of Y20, Y50 and Y100. There’s a fifty percent discount after 6pm and on weekends. You will be cut off when your card value drops below the amount needed for the next minute.
Yet another option is the IP (Internet Phone) card, which can be used from any phone, and comes in Y100 units. You dial a local number, then a PIN, then the number you’re calling. Rates are as low as Y2.4 per minute to the USA and Canada, Y3.2 to Europe.
Your home cellular phone may already be compatible with the Chinese network (visitors from North America should ensure their phones are GSM/Triband), though note that you will pay a premium to use it abroad, and that callers within China have to make an international call to reach your phone. For more information, check the manual that came with your phone, or with the manufacturer and/or your telephone service provider. Alternatively, once in China you can buy a GSM SIM card (around Y100) from any outlet of China Mobile, which allows you to use your phone as though it’s a local mobile; additionally, you’ll need to buy prepaid cards to pay for the calls. In big cities you can even rent mobile phones – look for the ads in expat magazines. Making and receiving domestic calls this way costs Y0.6 per minute.
Domestic interest in the Internet is huge, and with personal computer ownership still low, there are cramped Internet cafes (wangba) throughout the country, crammed with young people surfing (and indulging in networked gaming). A good place to find Net cafes is in the vicinity of colleges and universities, around which there’s usually a cluster. Alternatively, try the China Telecom office as a last resort, though note that many of their Net bars have closed down. In the unlikely event of your being turned away by a Net cafe, this is generally because many aren’t licensed, and don’t want the additional responsibility of hosting foreigners on the premises.
While getting online is cheap at Y2-5 an hour, generally you can’t be sure of actually getting at the websites you want, In response to the perceived threat of free access to information, the government has constructed a firewall (wryly nicknamed the – new Great Wall) to block access to politically sensitive sites. The way this is administered shifts regularly according to the mood among the powers that be – restrictions were loosened, for example, while Beijing was campaigning to be awarded the 2008 summer Olympics (the government was anxious to be seen not to be oppressing its subjects) – but in general you can be pretty sure you won’t be able to access the BBC or CNN or the White House, though newspaper websites tend to be left unhindered. Access to the search engine Google has actually been cut off from time to time, in 2002, for example, it was unavailable for a few days (because, officials claimed, if you typed “Jiang Zemln” into it a satirical game appeared among the top ten results).