Written by Rebekkah Mallicoat, (University of Texas at Austin) Student Correspondent CET Shanghai, Summer 2018
Travelling abroad can start out a little stressful: landing in a new place at a weird time of day, being surrounded by signs and conversations in different languages, seeing McDonald’s menu items that are completely strange, all while processing the reality of being away from your own environment, your friends and family, your TV shows, etc.
Despite this initial discomfort, the experience will likely be one of the most valued of your life. One thing that eases this transition, and that we are fortunate to have, is the cell phone.
The phone is the great equalizer. Equipped with translation programs and English versions of most websites, the cell phone eliminates many of the traditional barriers a person may have previously faced in a different country, especially one as different as China. Although most places in China have things like menus or products in English, the language can be a real barrier, and the cell phone has become the most essential tool for navigating these waters.
Upon your arrival, literally the first day you arrive in Shanghai, the CET staff invites English speaking representatives from the best mobile phone carrier to help you set up a plan. For people whose phones cannot operate, they send them – with their native Chinese speaking roommates/helpers/awesome guides – to reputable places to get phones within their budgets.
Those roommates will also help you set up a local bank account, if you’d like. In China, this is a really great thing to try if you get the chance. Once set up, you can open an Alipay account, and suddenly you can access China as a (slightly clumsy) native, no matter your language level.
In my 6 weeks in China, I have yet to use my bank card or any other more traditional method of payment. China has switched to QR codes, and they use them for everything. You can of course purchase anything by scanning a code, but you can also access coupons, find local stores, or save something to view later. There are QR codes on the corner of TV shows, on the backs of seats, and on most ads. When you want to keep in touch with a new acquaintance, someone inevitably says “Scan me.”
The phone is really all you need to get around China, so if you’re coming, which you definitely should, I would just offer this advice:
- Just because your phone is unlocked, doesn’t mean it will work here. Apple makes phones for the domestic US market and for the International market – check beforehand to find out which one you have. If it’s domestic, it will barely work, and not well, in China (I learned this the hard way).
- If you buy a phone in China, get a new one. They make phones in China, and the ones they make for China work better here. It’s affordable and saves you a lot of trouble. However, Apple products cost more here, so if that’s your preference, get it in the US.
- Get your family and friends on WeChat and make sure they know how to use it before you leave. Despite using a VPN, social media and email can be hit-and-miss, and international calls, while cheaper than in the US, are still expensive. WeChat is free and only requires the internet. A phone plan is around 60元 , or about $10 per month for 1GB/day of data.