How to Set Up a Cell Phone in China & Get a China SIM Card

Liz Smith
Liz Smith

Liz Smith left the daily grind in the States to travel the world with her husband. Eventually teaching English in China & loving it, she began sharing her experience with others who are interested in embarking on this new adventure!

 / Dec 28, 2017

Staying connected is critical in today's world. So it's only natural for new expats coming to live in China (or even visitors) to worry about how they can use their cell phone to communicate with people during their time in China.  There are a few different options for using a cell phone in China.  One way is to use your existing phone with either an international or a China SIM card.  Another option is to purchase a cheap China phone on arrival.  We'll explore the pros & cons of each, as well as showing you how to buy just the right China SIM card for your needs.


Bring Your Phone or Buy a Phone in China?

Many people assume they can bring their own phone anywhere in the world and use it, but that's not always the case.  It depends on your country, the type of phone, and the cell phone plan you have with your provider.  


International Roaming Charges

Some cell phone plans will allow you to roam internationally, for a fee.  So if you want to bring your own phone to China, you need to check to see if it will work in China and find out what the roaming fees will be.  Some plans will also give you the option to buy "international plans" for a period of time - where you can basically get a discount on those roaming fees.  However, international roaming charges are still pretty expensive for the long term. 


So if you plan to live in a country, like China, for an extended amount of time, your best bet is to get a new SIM card for your phone.


Unlocked vs. Locked Cell Phones -- the Real Deal Breaker!

This is really the key question to whether or not you can bring your phone to China.  You must find out if your phone is locked or unlocked, because locked phones will NOT let you put in a different SIM card.  That means you can't use any other kind of international SIM card in your phone.


For example, in the USA most people have contracted phones through a large telecom provider like AT&T or Verizon.  In those cases, most people have a LOCKED cell phone - meaning that they can ONLY use the SIM cards from their contracted provider for the term of their contract.  So you CANNOT take out their SIM card and put a new one in your phone!


In most of these cases, the only way to unlock your phone is to pay a hefty fee.  Some people find it's worth it to pay the fee to unlock it, others may not want to do this.  In the ladder case, that's when it may be beneficial for you just to buy a cheap phone in China when you arrive.   


How to Buy a China SIM Card for Your Phone

Whether you bring your unlocked phone to China or buy a cheap China phone when you arrive, you will need to get a China SIM card.  This is actually a fairly straight forward process -- and it's cheap!  In fact, getting a local China SIM card is by far the most cost-effective way to make phone calls and to surf the internet (which is really cheap compared to the States!). 


To help guide you in this process, we have put together a step-by-step guide with all the information you need on getting a SIM card in China.

 

Step 1: Choose a Package


There are 3 mobile networks in China, each with their own packages and plans. Choose the option based on your own needs.


  • China Mobile (中国移动)

  • China Unicom (中国联通)

  • China Telecom (中国电信)

 

General Pricing to Expect


Here is a quick summary / price comparison based on a research search of these major providers:


 

 

Data

China   Mobile

(calling   mins.

In   fixed plan)

China   Unicom

(total   price of the customizable plan to include    calling mins)


China   Telecom

(total   price of the customizable plan to include calling mins)

500MB

RMB58

(includes 100mins)

RMB56

(includes 100mins)

RMB59

(includes 100mins)


1GB

RMB138

(include 500mins)

RMB106

(includes 300mins)

RMB129

(includes 500mins)


2GB

RMB158

(includes 500mins)

RMB166

(includes 500mins)

RMB169

(includes 700mins)


3GB

RMB268

(includes 1000mins)

RMB196

(includes 500mins)

RMB199

(includes 700mins)


 

 

Tips:

1. In some remote areas, the signal quality of China Mobile is relatively better than those of the others.

2. There is a domestic roaming fee for phone calls that you make outside of your coverage area. However, the good news is that the domestic roaming fee will be cancelled by October 1st, 2017.

 

Step 2: What You Need to Get Your China SIM Card

Before go getting a SIM card, make sure you have the following:


  • An unlocked phone

  • Your Passport

  • Cash or bank card 

 

Step 3: Where to Buy a China SIM Card

To buy a SIM card in China, here are 3 options:

 

Option 1: Get a SIM card in offline stores


You can get a SIM card in official stores, shopfronts or counters of China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom. In big cities, they are almost everywhere. Generally, they look like these:



It is also possible to buy SIM cards from some mobile phone vendors.

 

Here’s a general step-by-step process to buy a SIM card in stores:


  • Go to a store.

  • Ask for the mobile package that you want, or simply point to the brochure which lists all the packages they provide.

  • Show your passport.

  • Tell the staff which SIM card size you want: Normal, Micro or Nano.



  • Purchase and register.

 

Tips:

1.    If you go to an official store, try speaking English. Some staff may speak English.

2.    If they don’t speak English, here are commonly used sentences when buying a SIM card in a store. You can simply show them to the staff:

        我想买一张手机卡。 I’d like to buy a SIM card.

        我要这个套餐。  I’d like to subscribe this package.

3.  Another option is to ask a colleague at your work, or even the Career China ground service team for some assistance.

 

Option 2: Order a SIM card on China Unicom’s English website


For those who are determined to buy a China Unicom’s package, you can order a SIM card on its English website (Click Here ), and pick up at several locations in the city. 

 

Option 3: Order a SIM card on Chinese official websites


All the packages and services can be found on Chinese official sites of these three mobile carriers. If you have friends who can help you with Chinese (or colleagues), you can simply order a SIM card online. It will be delivered to you in a couple of days. 


  • China Mobile:  http://www.10086.cn;

  • China Unicom:  http://www.10010.com/bj/;

  • China Telecom:  http://www.189.cn/

 

Step 4: Top Up Your SIM Card Balance

Loading credits onto your China SIM card is easy.  You can simply go to shopfronts, counters or official stores of your mobile carriers, then give them cash and your phone number.  But one of the most convenient ways to top up your phone balance is to connect your China bank account to your WeChat app on your phone.  WeChat is China's most popular social media app -- but it's more than that.  It has a WeChat Wallet feature that let's you connect to your bank so you can purchase many things with your phone, including topping up your SIM card balance in just a couple clicks.

 

Staying Connected in China is Inexpensive!


China has a robust mobile phone network, in fact, they have one of the biggest markets for mobile phone usage due to the population size.  You will find that you get service almost anywhere aside from super rural areas.  Further, public wifi is widely available in major Chinese cities so you can browse the internet virtually for free.  However, don't worry if you can't find wifi - because the prices of data are extremely cheap in China as well.  Many foreigners are surprised at just how long their balance will last on their China SIM Card before they need to top up.  So don't worry about staying connected, and chatting with your friends!

 

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Liz Smith

Liz Smith left the daily grind in the States to travel the world with her husband. Eventually teaching English in China & loving it, she began sharing her experience with others who are interested in embarking on this new adventure!