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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.

Providers

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.

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