iOS Lessons I’ve Learned Traveling in Beijing


Traveling internationally this summer? I’ve been in Beijing for almost 3 weeks and I thought some of the lessons I’ve learned here might help inspire you to be prepared for your own travels. I decided to bring all of my iOS devices with me and have found them to be valuable assets along the way. Here are 5 things you need to know.

  1. T-Mobile is the only carrier that gives you free data and texting in over 100 countries. All of the rest charge you expensive rates and require an additional monthly fee just to activate international service. Since I am staying 5 weeks in Beijing I opted out of using cellular services completely because I knew I would have Wifi in my guesthouse at the university and I had a plan to handle all of my other travel needs. I had a lot of hopes for Skype WiFi, which promises access to WiFi in countries all over the world, but I haven’t been able to get it to work in China. Boingo is on my list to try this week, and it promises over 2000 hotspots in Beijing alone. If you plan on skipping cellular data then go to Settings > Cellular > Roaming and turn it off.

    251 Beijing 1

  2. Since I don’t have access to data and cellular coverage I have to find other ways to accomplish what I need. The first issue is finding my way around, and since I don’t have access to maps that require an active connection, I had to download an app which let’s me have offline maps. My choice is an app called Pocket Earth, which allows me to download a map of Beijing that includes information about stores, restaurants, and public transportation. Even without cellular data I can still receive GPS location information which allows me to track where I am, save locations for returning later, and find critical services. I have used this app almost more than any other while exploring the city.

    251 Beijing 4

  3. One unique challenge I face in China is that a lot of sites are not accessible. I can’t check FaceBook, watch YouTube, or use Google. Luckily my work has a VPN service I can use which allows me to access the internet as if I am in the States, but there are also paid VPN services you can subscribe to while traveling for a fee. In some countries you have to be very careful with this type of service because it may be considered illegal, but I only use it to check email and access banking information.

    251 Beijing 2

  4. When I am in my room I have an internet port that I connect my laptop to, which allows me to share my internet to all of my other devices. Even though Hotspots are coming to OS X this fall, there is already the ability to share an online connection via the sharing settings in the System Preferences. This is a great way to update apps, download maps, play WWF, and post to Instagram.

    251 Beijing 3

  5. Last but not least the most important thing I want to share is that I learned that it’s okay to leave my devices in their cases while I enjoy the sites around me. I primarily use my iPhone for taking pictures and my iPad for Skyping with my kids, which means the rest of the time I have been 100% more ‘present’ with the world around me. While I am not going to give up my connected lifestyle, I am certainly enjoying my time abroad, and it is definitely enhanced by iOS.

[all photos via my iPhone 5s]

About Sam: Teacher, writer, composer, and family man. Maker of delicious Halušky. Contact me via Twitter: @Sam_Denver

  • Justin Huang

    I live in Beijing…the information you gave is really off.

    • Lory Gil

      The information Sam gives is based on his current experience right now while temporarily living in Beijing. Everything he wrote is correct because it is exactly what he is experiencing. He is not implying that everyone else will have the same experience. He is simply telling us about how things have worked for him so far.

      • Justin Huang

        That’s fine. I enjoy reading some of the articles you guys provide here, but this one was really off base for me and I would not provide any of this advice for any of my first time traveling friends to Beijing or China.

        • Lory Gil

          Thanks for your comment. What are some suggestions you would give to friends visiting Beijing?

        • Sam

          Hi Justin, thanks for your comments! I shared this with my class of Chinese students and they thought I was actually really crazy for not using a cell phone data plan while I’m here… until I told them how much I would be paying. I think an interesting post would be to have them tell me all of the fun ways they use iOS here in Beijing.

          I have been having an absolute blast visiting this amazing city and you are lucky to live here. I’m sure there are a lot of things I could be doing differently but it seems to me that almost all of them cost more money than I want to spend and perhaps I should have made that more clear in the article since I took more of a ‘budget’ approach. As a teacher I don’t really have the luxury of getting a new phone, using a different SIM card, or paying the fees that my carrier wants me to pay, especially when I have been able to have everything I need without paying a cent.

          If you get a chance I would love to hear some of your ideas that I could incorporate into the remaining time here.

  • Justin Huang

    Look up an app called滴滴打车 “Di Di Da Che”. Ask your students about it. All white collar workers around the China world, Wanda center all use this app to try to catch a cab during heavy traffic. If you are lucky you’ll meet a cab driver who will have his whole life immersed in the apple system.

    There are also many good apps for maps that expats made here in Beijing. There is a magazine called The Beijinger that talks about different great iOs apps for foreigners or first time travelers that come to Beijing.

    I’m also amazed how you didn’t write about we chat. 微信. It’s taken over everything in the messaging and communication space.

    Since you’ve been in Beijing so long now you should start to realize that Beijing is slowly becoming like LA. Life in Beijing is different where you live, it sometimes feels you stepped into another city entirely.

    If you need recommendations for good restaurants to go to while you are here just ask. I’ve been living here for 25 years already but plan to finally move back to San Francisco this summer.

    • Sam

      Honestly I haven’t used a cab since I’ve been here since the buses and subway work so well. I have heard about the cab calling app but I haven’t used it yet. Google Maps is very useful in mapping out routes and I love getting around on the cheap. I travelled all day on Saturday to several markets and parks and spent under $3 total for travel. The public transit here is very good.

      My students had me sign up for wechat immediately but I don’t use it either. None of my friends in the states use it so it is pretty useless for me. I am only here for a few weeks and so I am keeping up with all of my chat apps that also work there.

      My article was about 5 things that I have found useful for me and not aimed at being 5 things every other person should do when they are here. Think of my post as inspiration to find out things about where you are traveling and not the definitive guide on Beijing. I don’t feel that after 2 week of living here that I could possibly be an expert on the best of everything. If you are interested in co-authoring a post about the state of iOS in China when I am done here then let me know. It sounds like you have some valuable experience.

      I completely agree with what you mean about Beijing becoming more like L.A. but there are so many things here which are way better. :-) They are certainly better at building walls!