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Visiting China is a great way to realize just how much you rely on Google

It took me a few moments to realize what was happening. Landing in Shanghai after a 12-hour Air Canada flight, you could forgive me for being a little groggy when I walked into the terminal, hopped on the free Wi-Fi and said "hmm, my connection isn't working." Even though I could load androidcentral.com, nothing else on my phone worked. Gmail wouldn't sync. Hangouts messages to family members saying I had landed were stuck sending. Google Now wouldn't refresh to show my current location and weather. The Play Store wouldn't let me update apps.

It's telling that the first half-dozen apps I tried to use after landing were all from Google.

The connection speed was fine — it just so happened that the first half-dozen apps I wanted to check immediately upon entering the terminal were Google apps, and they don't work at all in China. After pulling my brain back together from the long flight, I was obviously aware of the situation. Google services, of course, aren't available in China — alongside countless other popular services including Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox and WhatsApp.

There are plenty of ways to get around the so-called "Great Firewall" and start using the Google services, but that isn't what this was about. It was more the immediate surprise of realizing just how reliant I am on Google services — and it took mere minutes of being on a Chinese internet connection to realize it.

The issue is particularly pronounced when you visit the country using a Google Pixel phone. My only browser is Google Chrome, only mail app is Gmail, only photo app is Photos ... Google Now is built into the home screen, and Google Assistant is waiting behind the home button. Except, none of it works. Even using voice dictation in Gboard, as I so casually do for dictating several sentences at a time into messaging apps, simply times out and fails because it relies on Google's cloud.

When you use a Google-branded phone, it's easy to forget how reliant you are on its services.

When you have a Google-branded phone and make ample use of a dozen different Google apps and services every single day, you sort of forget just how simple and seamless it all is — that is until none of it works, and you're left scrambling to figure out what alternatives you'd have to use. And because I've lived in the Google ecosystem for so long, now embedded so deeply, I don't actually have an idea of what the best alternatives are. If you look at it a level deeper, installing a new app doesn't even fix this problem of an over-reliance on Google — installing another email app still won't give me access to my Gmail account; another calendar app won't sync my Google Calendar; there's no third-party app to handle my Google Docs files.

Ironically it's Google's own mobile carrier, Project Fi, that provided me with the only way to reliably access all of my Google apps and services with its roaming LTE data (a common strategy for travelers).

This isn't going to make you switch from Google — but you should keep your eyes open to alternatives.

But even on roaming data, where the Google services are ostensibly not blocked, they're more of a hassle to use. Services that are designed to lean heavily on Wi-Fi, like Google Photos, YouTube, Google Play Music and Google Drive, become far more burdensome to manage when you're using them purely over mobile data. What typically feels like a smooth and consistent experience, having data backed up or cached in the background when you're on Wi-Fi, all becomes far less magical when it's purely done over LTE. Things don't just "happen" without your input anymore — sync intervals increase, data isn't backed up or synced automatically, and apps that require live data streams slow down.

Is being this reliant on Google in itself a bad thing? Unless you plan on visiting China on a regular basis, probably not. Google makes fantastic apps that work extremely well and, for the most part, are completely free. And I'll keep using them because of that. Returning from my trip today I'm not particularly likely to kick Google Photos, YouTube or Gmail to the curb just because I had a hassle using them in China for the better part of a week.

But what this experience does make me consider is checking out the alternative apps and services the next time one comes around, or Google makes a shift of strategy on one of its core apps. Using a bunch of Google apps on a daily basis is fine, but keeping your eyes closed to the alternatives other parts of the world have to offer isn't a good idea — it just took a few days in China to remind me of that fact.

Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.

63 Comments
  • No you should not use or care about anything not "Google" because..... They don't exist to you and should never have existed in the first place according to you. Continue to think Google is everything you'll ever want untill you end up with nothing.
  • That makes absolutely no sense.
  • Sorry, not sure I follow.
  • Don't worry about it Andrew, I'm not sure anyone else follows :)
  • Using VPN concentrator on the box at home or on the El Cheapo AWS instance would resolve most, if not all of these issues. This IMHO, is not a bad idea whether country, you are visiting blocking services, pushes their own certificates at your phone or does none of the above. Key words here being “at home or on AWS instance”, because a) you are not known to powers that be as a VPN provider and b) you can pick your own port and thus look like something they would not block wholesale. This is by no means an endorsement for the eclusive use of Google service — I, personally, do not do that, but I don’t think this is what is being discussed here.
  • I think TOR might work while running it as a VPN service. I believe it tunnels all traffic. That would probably be the way if you don't already have a VPN.
  • China is particularly good at detecting and blocking VPN traffic.
  • @Moislopez wtf are you taking about ?
  • I would need to Google what to do.
    How do the Chinese get home without Google maps?
  • For every Google service on your phone there's a BETTER alternative - except search and Youtube of course.
  • Map's, (street view) and Gmail I also use more than others.
  • "Better" is always subjective... even in all caps.
  • No way bro, all caps makes it definitive! 😋
  • That's subjective. Not saying you're wrong, it's just rhya every individual person has different perferences.
  • Absolutely. I was just countering the assertion that a smartphone is useless without Google services. I use a Pixel with minimal Google services everyday.
  • Please, do tell. What works better then gmail?
  • Outlook.
  • Any other email client?
  • This is the reason why china is so progressive, they don't rely on Google
  • I'll probably pass from this Earth without ever visiting China or even traveling beyond the shores of the US. I've always thought I'd like to visit the UK ( land of family origins ) but at my age and the expense of trans Atlantic jaunts it grows more unlikely with each passing day.
  • I kinda feel bad for you. You should put it in your bucket list and try your best to go somewhere across the Atlantic. You'll be thankful you did.
  • I'm only 36 and I've lived on 3 continents. Hope to visit all the others before I go kaput. You need to go out more.
  • That sounds sad
  • I guess a Chromebook would be useless there then?
  • Lol
  • Very much yes.
  • This is exactly what I felt when I went to Beijing last year! It was very inconvenient
  • Maybe you should look at alternatives for Project Fi as well, because it's not available outside of the US.
  • Um, Project Fi has roaming agreements with many carriers outside of the United States.
  • Then I guess it was a figment of my imagination when I used my Project Fi data to get directions using Google Maps while in Nassau (Bahamas). No, it's not available to people with addresses outside the US, in that you are correct. However, Andrew even mentions IN THE ARTICLE that he used Project Fi's data roaming to get access to Google services. I'd say it works in China also...
  • I think the point being made is FI is no solution for us in the rest of the world.
    The article didn't make that clear. It's' a US only solution.
  • Project Fi has international roaming agreements to use in most countries around the world, including China. The data service was good!
  • The much much larger question here is that we all better start paying closer attention to what the "little emperor" and his permanently elected minions are doing in CN. If such authoritarian controls in the most populous nation on earth don't keep you awake at night... well then you're just not paying attention.
  • Ok, so you established the problem for someone in your situation while in China. I think it would be a good article to provide the strategies or workarounds for a future visitor. What should you do once in China!?
  • This.
  • Indeed. This would've been great info to include in his piece. Perhaps he'll put something together for a subsequent article.
  • I googled it.
    https://www.tripsavvy.com/best-china-travel-apps-1494818
  • Coming from an expat who lives and works in China. 1. Google services are not available. Apple and Microsoft services are available. Chinese law requires such service providers to store data locally. It is believed that authorities have access to this data. Google disagreed and pulled services. Apple and Microsoft complied. 2. Then there is the "Great Firewall" which blocks access to FB, Twitter, WhatsApp, Dropbox and a host of overseas websites. Access to almost any kind of blog is blocked. 3. This may seem like a major limitation but honestly only the foreigners residing here and visitors feel it. Local citizens primarily use homegrown alternatives to all of these services. In fact the generation ushered into the net access era over the last decade has not seen any other services. 4. As a visitor get a 7 or 30 day VPN trial which should help get access to your apps and services. It's better to download and activate a day before arrival. A VPN previously not activated and running overseas may not function or register if the first attempt is made from within China. 5. Some overseas visitors report no interruption in access to blocked services as long as they use roaming data service of their home carrier. But this is hit and miss. It works for some and not for others. Also, if you do not have a fixed cost data package paying roaming data charges per MB can burn a hole in your pocket. 6. Google's Translate app officially works in China and is a must have. But remember to download the "Chinese Simplified" language pack as this allows simple offline translations as well without internet access. If you have WiFi / data the Apps feature of live translations (of what the camera is pointed at) or taking a picture and selecting text to translate is a real life saver. 7. If you have local Chinese business contacts, associates or friends the defacto messaging app is WeChat. It is incredibly powerful and versatile. Pretty much an all in one WhatsApp, Microblog, Instagram, Android/Apple Pay wrapped into one. Messages exchanged with someone who does not speak the same language can be translated into the default language of your mobile device just by selecting and long pressing a message - extremely convenient. But be aware that T&C requires WeChat to give access to authorities for any data exchanged on this service. Inspite of that it has over 700 million active users. There are many more tips n tricks to share as a foreigners survival guide to living in China and I could write a whole article on it. But for now I hope the above helps.
  • Great post. Thank you.
  • Ah, the answers we needed. Thanks.
  • I was expecting something of the sort as well.
  • That's not the point here. This was only fanboy's expression of disdain for everything not Google.
  • What article where you reading? "But what this experience does make me consider is checking out the alternative apps and services the next time one comes around, or Google makes a shift of strategy on one of its core apps. Using a bunch of Google apps on a daily basis is fine, but keeping your eyes closed to the alternatives other parts of the world have to offer isn't a good idea — it just took a few days in China to remind me of that fact."
  • Not sure how you reached that conclusion.
  • There are a LOT of articles about visiting China and using smartphones/computers while you're there. I took one 4-day trip on short notice, I'm not really in a position to say what the best apps/services to use are.
  • My friend recently moved to China for work. Before leaving, he asked everyone who wants to stay in touch to install "We chat" app. I looked into it and hated all about it. I won't be using it on my daily driver for sure.
  • The chi-gummint ABSOLUTELY eavesdrops and censors Wechat.
  • Google pulled their services out of China as a protestation over government censorship and violations of human rights. There's nothing progressive about China apart from their recent focus on renewal energy, and even that is a result of sloppy energy policies of preceding decades.
  • A VPN is the simplest way to avoid this scenario.
  • Theoretically, yes, but China is good at blocking VPNs too.
  • With the exception of Youtube, I use all Microsoft products on my S8+ so if that was the case for me, I would function as normal. Is there an issue with MSFT, Apple, etc. or is it specifically Google services?
  • My daughter had no problems with her iPhone whilst working in China, although she only contacted us over wi-fi.
  • As I understand it, Apple products work, but China requires that iCloud data be backed up to servers within the country, which the government can access. I'm not sure if that applies only to local users or if everyone who uses an iPhone or iPad within the country has their data sucked up while they're there.
  • I would bet on the later. I was once told by a RCMP agent (the equivalent to the US FBI) that any persons who travels to China and that are federal employees are told to throw their phones in the garbage upon their returns and not to bring their personal phones while there.
  • Thanks for the article. Pretty eye opening, and quite interesting. Food for thought. Thanks.
  • If a phone doesn't have a Google logo especially, and Google services and apps then I'm not interested and thankfully all my phones as well as my Pixel 2 XL (my main phone) has Google on it, including some Chinese phones I own (Leagoo M9 and Oukitel K6)
  • Well the whole point of this article flew right over your head since you are unable to see past your insatiable love for Google.... 
  • Lol true
  • Lmao
  • Didn't think this one through. Yep, I know. This is why I keep most of my stuff local. You just never know. The email thing might really bother me though.
  • Saying you're over-reliant on Google for apps and services is like saying you're over-reliant on the internal combustion engine for your cars. There aren't any serious alternatives for most of them.
  • Apple might not agree with you.
  • Imagine a Google free internet space🤔