Reduce your roaming rates by using a local SIM.
If you’re planning a trip to China, a good tip for keeping down costs is to switch to a local SIM card. Take advantage of better tariffs, plans and deals to dramatically reduce your roaming rates. China has some of the cheapest SIM card options in the world, but the coverage can be questionable in the more far-flung regions. You can get 1GB of data from China’s top telco providers for about RMB50 (AUD$12.50). So, whether you’re a short- or long-term traveller, you can save money by comparing your SIM card options on finder.com.au.
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There are three main telco providers in China: China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom. Both locals and travellers use SIM cards from all three networks, and they can be trusted regardless of the plan you choose. According to OpenSignal’s coverage map, China has a strong mobile phone network around Beijing as well as around other main cities and towns. However, other areas can be weak, and in some country regions it can be difficult to find a signal at all.
China’s operators offer good roaming rates and sell prepaid credit, which allow users to take advantage of cheap offers and deals. All networks offer customers 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE. Locals call their SIM cards “SIMs” or “SIM Kaa” and there are rules and regulations you need to follow when purchasing them. Tourists can only buy SIM cards from approved dealers after filling out the registration paperwork and showing a passport as proof of identification.
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China Mobile has the best coverage in the country and covers all provinces. Unfortunately, for international tourists using unlocked GSM phones, China Mobile can only offer 2G services since China Mobile’s 3G and 4G/LTE services run through platforms that are unique to China. These platforms are called TD-SCDMA on 3G and TDD-LTE on 4G. China Mobile can afford to run its own platforms because it has the largest customer base in the world with over 800 million users. If you plan on staying in China for an extended period, then we suggest purchasing a relatively cheap handset to access this unique network. The low costs over an extended period will dramatically reduce your bills.
In most provinces, China Mobile sells prepaid SIM cards under plan names rather than using their own brand. Easy Own (神州行= Shénzhōuxínɡ) and MZone (动感地带 = Dònggǎn Dìdài) are the two prepaid SIM cards currently on sale. You can buy China Mobile’s 4G SIM cards from most retailers, although prices and plans may differ according to province.
To add credit, make sure the top up card you purchase is from the same province in which you purchased the SIM card otherwise it won’t be valid. To update your credit, you will need to dial 138-0013-8000 or 138-0013-8000, then press “2” for English language options, followed by “1#” before entering your voucher or top-up card number.
For cheaper international calls, pop in to the nearest China Mobile store and ask the retailer to activate the special international call prefix for you. Prefix 12593 costs RMB1 per month and can save you substantial amounts on calls back home.
To check your balance, send an SMS with the word "ye" to 10086. For data SIMs, send an SMS with "1091" to 10086. The SMS replies will let you know the balance.
MZone plans include data allowances for Internet usage and in some provinces for Wi-Fi hotspots as well. Their plans also have free incoming calls and other benefits depending on the province. Be sure to check which plans and tariffs you can add to the SIM card you have purchased.
The following 4G plans (4G飞享套餐) include local voice minutes, data and free incoming calls:
|RMB28||100MB||50 minutes of voice|
|RMB38||300MB||50 minutes of voice|
|RMB48||500MB||50 minutes of voice|
|RMB58||500MB||100 minutes of voice|
|RMB88||700MB||220 minutes of voice|
|RMB138||1GB||500 minutes of voice|
|RMB158||2GB||500 minutes of voice|
|RMB238||2GB||1000 minutes of voice|
|RMB268||3GB||1000 minutes of voice|
|RMB338||3GB||2000 minutes of voice|
|RMB588||6GB||4000 minutes of voice|
The above-mentioned plans can be activated in-store or online. Unless you’re familiar with Mandarin, which is the official language used, then it’s highly advisable to go into a store and seek help from an English-speaking store assistant. The plans and prices can be extremely complicated and can vary according to the province.
Unused data will roll over to the following month. Overuse rates are RMB0.29 per MB and once you reach 60 RMB (at slightly above 200 MB), you will continue to get data for free until you reach 1GB.
China Unicom is the second largest provider in China and compatible with most international phones. It’s advisable to purchase SIM cards from official stores or approved resellers since street sellers can be unpredictable. You can add cheap international call prefixes to the prepaid SIM cards so ask the retailer what plan works best for your needs.
China Unicom stores are known as "WO" stores. WO SIM cards cost RMB75, which includes 1GB of data and 80 minutes of local calls. Purchasing credit is easy by using the automated kiosks in stores or by topping up online. It is advisable to seek help at the store if you don’t know any Mandarin because the plans and tariffs can be hard to understand. You can text "tycl" to 10010 to check your balance. The reply will come back in Mandarin so you might have to put it through Google Translate to understand it.
China Unicom also has a 4G value pack (4G 套餐) that offers many different voice and data plans:
|RMB76||400MB||200 minutes of voice|
|RMB106||800MB||300 minutes of voice|
|RMB136||1GB||500 minutes of voice|
|RMB296||4GB||1000 minutes of voice|
|RMB396||6GB||2000 minutes of voice|
|RMB596||11GB||3000 minutes of voice|
The standard data overuse rate is RMB0.15 per min for calls and RMB60 for 1GB of data. You will need to pay RMB0.1 for local SMS and RMB0.8 for an international SMS.
There is also a data-only SIM card for modems, tablets and routers. You can use this card in phones too, but you won’t have access to voice or text. You can purchase this SIM card for RMB480 and it is valid for a year. You can use it in most areas, but some plans can differ according to province, so make sure you are familiar with where you purchased it and what is on offer.
China Unicom offers customers a national refill card that you can use in all provinces. However, there have been a lot of teething problems with this service and customers have found that they are sometimes unable to update credit in another province. Try a small amount to start off with to see if it works!
China Unicom's APN is 3gnet, and its website is at http://eng.chinaunicom.com/.
China Telecom uses CDMA which is only compatible with some US phone networks, including Verizon and Sprint. Check to make sure that your device supports CDMA BC0. If you are using 4G/LTE, then your device must be able to operate on the following bands: 1, 3, 20, 40 and 41.
China Telecom has the smallest network out of all the providers with a 14% market share. However, it has the lowest prices and offers the best deals and plans plus significant bonus packages in a bid to attract new customers. For customers with compatible phones or tablets, China Telecom offers the best deals. They also offer CDMA USB dongles which you can use for Internet packages. This will give you massive savings if you plan on staying for a longer period.
Visitors requiring Chinese Telecom’s prepaid SIM cards will have to show their passport as an official form of identification. It’s better to purchase SIM cards at official stores because if you purchase the SIM card in a smaller store, you will still have to take it over to the official store to get it registered and activated.
Be warned you may need to pay a deposit of between RMB50 to RMB900 depending on the desired plan. These deposits are non-refundable, but sometimes you can use this fee against monthly plans so check with the store assistant when making your purchase.
You can add the following data packs to any prepaid SIM card:
|RMB50||1GB||Valid for 30 days|
|RMB100||2GB||Valid for 90 days|
|RMB300||6GB||Valid for 180 days|
|RMB600||12GB||Valid for 365 days|
Data-only SIM cards are known as "Internet cards" (liu liang ka). To purchase one, make sure you show your passport and give them your hotel phone number and address. Once they have registered the SIM, then you’re good to go!
- They speak Mandarin in China. Since it’s highly unlikely that you will know this language, download Google Translate onto your phone before you travel.
- Locals call a SIM card a “SIM Kaa” or “SIM”.
- Ask the seller to set up the SIM for you since they will know how to do it. If not, follow the instructions we have highlighted above or go to the official operator website to seek advice.
- There are currently roaming rates in force between different provinces, travelling from Shanghai to Beijing for example, but this will be scrapped in October 2017.
- We advise you to purchase your SIM card from official stores rather than through a street vendor.
- Get to the shops early to receive better assistance and to avoid the crowds.
While it’s well known for reviews, booking hotels, flights and holidays, TripAdvisor has many user comments that can help guide you through what SIM cards have been tried and tested in China.
Here are some top tips from TripAdvisor users:
- “For simple texting and calls within China, the cheapest is China Unicom for RMB100. For RMB150, you can make international calls and get Internet access.”
- “Please note: if you travel from Shanghai to, say, Beijing, roaming charges will apply! Your RMB100 will be gone in minutes!”
- “You can use the Chinese SIM card in your phone as long as the phone is unlocked. Do not rely much on the free Wi-Fi as this service is still significantly lacking in huge cities or public places like the stations, metro, Lujiazui area etc.”
All networks require you to have a SIM-unlocked GSM compatible phone. To check whether you have this phone, contact your provider before you set off on your travels.
- Good value for money
- Prepaid credit when required
- No in-store contract needed
- Could be compatible with your current phone
Some areas suffer from bad coverage
- No phone devices offered with the SIM card packages
- Can only be used on SIM-unlocked GSM phones
- Check whether there are roaming charges when traveling to different provinces
- Complicated rules and regulations make buying a SIM card difficult
Q: Is the signal really that bad in the countryside?
A: All networks will suffer in the countryside, no matter what provider you use. Chinese networks offer a relatively reliable service that is no worse than what you would get on a home phone in China, so it makes sense to opt for a local SIM card because the rates are ridiculously cheap.
Your phone is your lifeline, especially when travelling around China. Make sure you keep it safe and always make a note of where it is. The importance of having a direct link to family and friends via social media or through phone services can never be underestimated! If you do lose your phone, then retrace your steps and ask around. If you don’t have any luck, then report it missing. Finally, find a cheap replacement to keep in touch with the outside world, and don’t let this one out of your sight!