A Dummy’s Guide to Cell Phones and Services in China

john  —  November 10, 2012

Anyone who has been on a subway in a major Chinese city can vouch for the abundance of mobile users in the Middle Kingdom. One could rightly assume that getting a cell phone and plan would be as easy as buying a bottle of water. Unfortunately, the process can prove to be confusing and reliable information is difficult to obtain online, especially in English. But with a few key pointers, you’ll be freely tapping away on your touch screen in no time.


1) China Mobile

As the world’s largest mobile phone operator, China Mobile would appear to be your best option. China Mobile has the most reliable and widespread coverage; it’s estimated that they cover 97% of the entire population.

For international calling, you must buy an IP (voice over IP) card. You can purchase these at the same place you buy a SIM card or refill cards. Simply follow the instructions on the card and be sure to double-check the rates to your home country so you don’t run out quickly. International text messages start at about 0.45 RMB per text, but receiving international texts is free. Make sure you enter the appropriate country code before sending your SMS.

You can purchase a new China Mobile SIM card almost anywhere they sell cell phones, and even from street vendors; just point to your phone and say “SIM kǎ”. Often you will purchase a SIM card with 50 RMB credit. Certain numbers will cost you more if they contain more “lucky numbers”; 8’s are associated with wealth and prosperity while 4’s hold connotations of death and bad luck. A cell number with lots of 4’s may be significantly cheaper to purchase. You can purchase refill cards (sometimes slip receipts) at most convenience stores and street vendors; say “你卖手机充值卡吗?”(Nǐ mài shǒujī chōngzhí kǎ ma?). Be sure to specify your provider as cards are exclusive to each company (Zhōngguó yídòng中国移动is China Mobile; Zhōngguó liántōng中国联通 is China Unicom). These are usually in 50 and 100 RMB increments.

You will be able to choose your plan when you purchase your SIM card. The most common prepaid package is called M-Zone, and the most basic plan is about 0.12 RMB per minute (domestic calls) and 0.08 RMB per text message (domestic). You can change your plan, add more text messages or up your data plan by calling 10086.

If you want to use a data plan, you must activate it when you purchase the SIM card.  China Mobile was previously limited to 2G (TDMA-based) coverage, but has begun to offer 3G (TD-SCDMA) coverage even for prepaid customers. You can use the prepaid option (10 RMB per megabyte) or activate a monthly data plan (20 RMB for 150 MB all the way up to 200 RMB for 5 GB). Call the hotline (dial 10086, press 2 for English) to see how you can purchase and activate your data plan.

Pros: Widespread coverage, easy to use, great prepaid options

Cons: Limited (but expanding) data speeds, no iPhone packages

2) China Unicom

Unicom is a close second for major cell providers in China, and the biggest pull is that, until recently, they were the only service that provided 3G (UMTS-based) coverage. Signal strength is very comparable to China Mobile in all major cities.

International calling is very similar to China Mobile; you must purchase an IP card that is exclusive to the provider, found at the same outlets where you purchase SIM and refill cards. Text messages to other countries start at 1.86 RMB per text; check this list for the most current rates: http://info.10010.com/xa2011/nr10.jsp

To purchase a Unicom SIM card you must go to one of their offices and sign up for a plan. You will sign a contract and pay a deposit for activation of service (15 RMB per month). After that, you can pay your bill online, set up automatic billing or take your receipt into a Unicom store and pay in person. For those staying in China long-term, Unicom has recently begun to offer complimentary iPhone 4’s in exchange for a multiyear contract with a data plan, similar to standard offers from major US carriers.

Plans start at around 46 RMB per month (120 minutes and 40 MB of data usage) and can be as high as 886 RMB per month (3000 minutes and 3 GB of data usage). Be sure to bring in your passport to activate and register for a 3G plan; the government does this for contracted cell phone plans for regulation and tracking cell phone-based internet activity.

Pros: iPhone packages, faster data speeds, automatic billing

Cons: Necessitates a contract and deposit, expensive if you go over limits

3) China Telecom

In 2009, China Telecom purchased Unicom’s CDMA business and took over plans of millions of mobile subscribers. As it has expanded into offering its own 3G service, China Telecom has become a more viable option, especially with the announcement that they will be selling iPhones in March of this year.

To sign up for this service you need to go to your local Telecom business office, and be sure to bring your passport. The prepaid services available for foreigners are similar to the other providers; you will purchase a SIM card with a standard 50 RMB of credit. The most basic package is 5 RMB per month for activation of service, with 150 minutes (0.15 RMB per minute after), 0.1 RMB per text message and 20 MB of data. Add-on data packages range from 5 RMB for 30 MB to 200 RMB for 5 GB. There is no rollover for data, so make sure you only pay for what you will use.

International communication is much easier with Telecom; international texting starts at 0.4 RMB per text and international calls start at 0.8 RMB per minute. For calls, you do not need an IP card. Simply dial 11808 + 00 + country code and call directly from your Chinese number.

Pros: Easy and affordable international usage, 3G service, rapid expansion means more up-to-date services

Cons: Can be harder to find refill cards, pricier prepaid rates, phone must be able to use CDMA

Losing your phone

If you purchased your SIM card at a China Mobile or Unicom store, you can bring in your passport and they will give you your number back with as much credit as you had before. If your card wasn’t purchased with your passport, all you need to do is recall 5-10 of your friends’ phone numbers (or anyone you call often), and they can trace it and get you your number back. Just don’t use this service as an excuse to be careless with your phone, especially if you have important or sensitive information stored on it.

Bringing cell phones from other countries

Your phone must be unlocked for you to be able to use a Chinese SIM card. Unlock codes can be obtained from your domestic network provider or online through official sites. You can also get your phone unlocked by the China Mobile attendant, depending on the make and model (iPhones are commonly unlocked here). Make sure that your phone can operate on GSM 1800 or 900, as these are the common bandwidths of service providers in China. Some features or applications may not work while in China due to spotty GPS service and lack of support on Chinese networks. Some applications like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube may be accessed by connecting to a VPN.

iPhone users can access the Apple app store without restrictions, and if you are connected to a VPN you will be able to download and use applications that may otherwise be blocked. Jailbreaking your iPhone will grant you access to applications and services outside of the official app store. This may void your warranty, but will provide you with expanded features and customisation (iOS 5 and iPhone 4S can both be jailbroken along with previous versions).

For those with Android phones, you will only be able to access the Chinese Android market, even if you are connected to a VPN. This can be bypassed by rooting your phone (the same process as jailbreaking) and installing a few key applications (Superuser and Market Enabler). Don’t use this option unless you are tech-savvy as you run the risk of breaking your phone and voiding your warranty.

Buying a Cell Phone in China

Standard candy bar phones are plentiful in China and are mostly interchangeable. Phones from Motorola, Nokia and Samsung are always good options, as well as those from Chinese manufacturers like Huawei and Lenovo. These should be bought from electronics stores or official vendors to ensure full functionality, and are usually between 200 – 500 RMB.

Don’t try to purchase a fancy smartphone in China. If you buy one from a fake market, it won’t even be worth the highly reduced rate you pay for it.  If you go the official route, real smartphones are up to 30% more expensive than normal retail price due to VAT added on for China. If you ever travel to Hong Kong, consider researching and purchasing a smartphone there, where you won’t have to pay the Mainland markup.

Different cell phones for different uses

Have you ever drunk dialled your boss by accident? This can be easily avoided in a few different ways. Consider using an old cell phone with a different SIM card that you only use for personal calls and weekend use, when your phone is more likely to get lost or stolen. Your work contacts will also stay far away from your social life.

Since basic cell phones and “unlucky” SIM cards are fairly cheap, it might be a viable option for you to have a number for work and a number for weekends. You can also purchase a cell phone with dual SIM card slots, which means you can switch between numbers at your own discretion. Avoid weekend calls from your professional contacts by switching to your “social” number.

(Blog posted by Campbell Browne on Mar 01, 2012. You can see the original article by following this link to eChinacities.com)