Set up the VPN
It's a good idea to set up and test the VPN before you leave the States, so you can work out any problems with the help of the VPN provider's support, if needed. (Yes, you can use a VPN without going abroad. In fact, you might consider using a VPN all the time, if you're concerned about privacy.)
ExpressVPN's iOS app takes care of the setup process for you. That's one appealing aspect of going with a VPN from a company that has a mobile app: If you're skittish about network configurations, using such an app lets you avoid dealing with most of the technical details.
AirVPN requires the OpenVPN Connect app, and the setup isn't as friendly as ExpressVPN's is: You have to visit the AirVPN website, set up configuration files online, and then download those files to your device. Then you use the OpenVPN app, instead of iOS's Settings app, to connect to the VPN.
Once both services' settings were configured, I tested each VPN. To open an ExpressVPN connection, I used the VPN screen of iOS's Settings app, selected a server, and toggled the VPN to the On position. For AirVPN, I launched the OpenVPN app, tapped the Autologin Profile box, selected a server, tapped the OpenVPN button in the upper left, and then turned on the VPN. With each service, the server you select here becomes the default server for future connections (though you can change that server at any time).
Get a SIM card
Buying a SIM card—which I had to do once I got to China—was the most difficult part of the process, owing to the language barrier. The store we visited had a clerk who spoke some English, but the transaction required patience and some time. Pro tip: Don't try to buy a SIM card when the store is about to close for the night, as I did.
I decided to buy a SIM card from China Unicom because the company is an iPhone carrier, so I figured that the store clerks could easily set up my iPhone 3GS. I bought a SIM card that was good for a month and included 420 minutes of local phone service and 500MB of data for ¥156 (about $25). Monthly SIM cards were available with as little as 50 minutes and 150MB of data (¥46/$8), or as much as 3000 minutes and 3GB of data (¥886/$145). The clerks installed the card for me and set up my phone.
As I mentioned earlier, the Chinese government wants complete user information for any mobile account, so the store clerks spent a lot of time with my passport. The process took about 20 minutes, and the clerks had a lot of paperwork to fill out.
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