Tips

How To Set Up A New Phone In China

Technology
The Great Firewall

If you’re like me, the thought of going to a country for an extended period of time without access to social media is terrifying. Probably 95% of my communication with family and friends is through Facebook messenger. Being alone on the other side of the world is an isolating experience on it’s own. On the more challenging days, talking to loved ones back home is what gets me by.

In China, access to Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Google, and other popular Western sites is blocked. Not only will they not work, but you can’t even find them in app stores. The easiest way to get access to them is by 1) loading apps onto your devices before entering China and 2) getting a good Virtual Private Network (VPN) app.

Express VPN

Before I left, I made sure to research the best VPN to get through the Great Firewall of China. There are free VPN’s available, and if you’re only going on a short trip this may be sufficient. At home I rely on a free VPN for regular online activity. Since i was going to be in China for almost a year, I wanted something a little more reliable.



I signed up for ExpressVPN, the highest rated proxy for use in China, and downloaded it on all my devices. It was about $100 for a 1 year subscription, which allows you to access it on 3 devices. I use it on my laptop, tablet, and phone.

What is a VPN?

Getting a New Phone

Once in China, I planned to get a local SIM card for my Galaxy S4 and have access to all my apps. Perfect plan.

Even when I got it, it wasn’t a new model and apparently it didn’t age well. When I inserted the new SIM card I could only access the LTE network. Saying the internet was slow is an understatement. Being the stubborn person that I am, I could not give up my phone. This was the first time I’d had a phone for longer than my 2 year contract without shattering the screen, and I wasn’t going to give up on it now. A slow phone is better than a phone I wouldn’t use because I couldn’t get my regular apps.

For the next month I practiced extreme patience with loading screens and page time-outs, until finally my phone gave up on me. The battery wouldn’t charge at all. Thanks universe, I can take a hint. I needed a new phone. For once it was because it wasn’t working and not the result of my own clumsiness.

For my new phone I chose a Samsung J3. Never heard of it? Me neither. I wanted to stick with a familiar brand, but also didn’t want to pay an arm and a leg, so I got the least expensive Samsung. Phones aren’t any cheaper in China. This one was ¥1400, which is about $280 CAN. A new iPhone, for comparison, can be over $1000 CAN. I bought it at a local mall, and luckily the salesman spoke some English. He even changed the language on the phone for me before I left the store. The process was much easier than I had anticipated.

Finding Apps in China

I was going to at least try to get my regular apps on my new phone, but I wasn’t hopeful. Turns out that ExpressVPN is highly rated for a reason. I contacted their support to see if there was any way to download it without access to Google Play. After trying a few different methods, they sent me a link to a .apk file, which I put into the browser on my phone a voila! It started downloading automatically. I had a VPN on my Chinese phone!

Once I had my VPN, all I had to do was get the Google Play store. After learning about these .apk things from ExpressVPN, I started searching the web. I searched for “google play .apk” and found a download fairly quickly.

Once Google Play was on my phone, the world was my oyster! Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Pinterest, Maps, Spotify – All within my grasp!

Samsung Galaxy J3

The J3 isn’t my favourite phone I’ve had, but the camera works really well, and it has 32 GB of storage. I also transferred the 16 GB SD card from my S4, so no more “can’t update app” due to storage space warnings. Some of the pre-loaded apps are only available in Chinese, so there are quite a few mystery apps on the phone. My main issue is that it’s an older model, so finding a case for it has been a challenge. With my track record with smart phones it’s only a matter of time before I drop and break it. Knock on wood.

In retrospect, I should have got a new phone right away. It’s much easier to explore the city when you can find directions and bus schedules instantly. I know it’s just a phone, but with everything else in my life changing I was clinging to anything familiar.


As a disclaimer I will add that the link to ExpressVPN is an affiliate link, so if anyone signs up I will make a bit of commission off of it (at no additional cost to you). I will say, however, that I only signed up as an affiliate because I’m 100% satisfied with their product and support. I wouldn’t recommend them otherwise!

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