Before you get to China consider downloading and signing up for a VPN service. The firewall in China eliminates access to Facebook, Instagram, and the New York Times, and severely hampers access to Google, FourSquare, and almost every other service located in the United States. Without a VPN it will be hard to read news, use maps, translate languages, check email, or message your friends. It can be crippling.
I tried three services: my own ssh based service4 which runs on this server and the VPN services offered by Astrill 1 and Cloak. Astrill is by far the fastest and most reliable, my own ssh based VPN didn't work behind certain wifi networks, and Cloak wouldn't connect at all in China 2.
If you decide to use Astrill make sure that you download the client for your computer and phone before entering mainland china. Download speeds to Astrill's servers are severely throttled in China3. Also sign up for the service or the 1 week trial before arriving in the mainland — signing up requires an SMS verification which is hard to do from abroad.
Astrill's VPN has three connections available: OpenWeb, OpenVPN and StealthVPN. "OpenWeb" is only good for web browsing, "OpenVPN" allows more than just web browsing (DropBox and SSH especially) but tends to be blocked in China. "StealthVPN" is the same as "OpenVPN" but it works inside China and costs $10/month. I'm using StealthVPN for a one week trial now and love it.
You should know that Astrill's minimum service plan is for 3 months. If your trip is less than a week you can use Astrill's 1 week free trial instead of paying for the service. For me it might make sense to have a secure VPN all the time that I travel — even when I'm not in China. I never know how shitty the internet will be in any point of the world and I never know how different services will be throttled in different countries. To me unrestricted, private access to information is worth at least $5-10/month.
I don't get anything if you sign up through this link. Astrill has an affiliate program but I haven't figured it out. ↩
I recieved an email from Cloak saying that their phone app should work fine in China, but not their desktop app. ↩
My connection to astrill.com ran at 5k/sec the first time I was in China. I was able to download the installer onto my DigitalOcean server at about 100k/sec and then download it from DigitalOcean to this computer at about 50k/sec. I think this means that my connection to astrill.com was throttled to 5k/sec when it could have run at 50k/sec. ↩