Mobile Phones in China


You should check with your mobile operator to see if they have a roaming agreement with a Chinese mobile company. There’s a good chance they will, as the two major Chinese mobile companies have made a stack of such agreements. Roaming charges are, however, quite high. If you will be in China for a long period or will want to make a number of calls, it would be better to buy a local SIM card.

Buying a SIM card in China

The major mobile companies in China are China Mobile and China Unicom. China Mobile is the bigger of the two companies. They both offer a range of packages, including subscription-based options and pre-paid. The pre-paid options are best for visitors to China and are explained below.

China Mobile

The standard China Mobile pre-paid package is called EasyOwn or Shenzhouxing (神州行). A SIM card usually costs around ¥100-120 and generally includes ¥50 credit. You also pay more depending on how ‘lucky’ your phone number is. Staff at China Mobile will often try to charge you around ¥450 for a ‘very lucky’ number. Tell them you just want the cheapest one (assuming you don’t actually want a lucky number). Rates vary depending on the city where you buy the card but average call charges are ¥0.6 per minute and ¥0.15 per SMS. Once you move outside the city where you bought the card you have to pay slightly higher ‘internal roaming’ charges.
China Mobile Website:

China Unicom

The standard China Unicom pre-paid package is called Ruyi Tong (如意通). The price for a SIM card is the same as with China Mobile and call costs are basically the same as well.
China Unicom’s Website:

In fact, there are very few differences between the two products so just take your pick. However, China Unicom offers both GSM and CDMA networks, while China Mobile has only GSM. So if you have a CDMA handset, the choice has been made for you. On the other hand, China Mobile is perhaps more convenient since it is the bigger company and therefore has more outlets. Both companies have very extensive coverage throughout China. Unless you’re venturing to some very remote places, it’s unlikely you will ever be out of range.

Buying Phone Credit

Credit is sold at small shops and newsstands all over the place in either ¥50 or ¥100 top-up cards. Look for the China Mobile or China Unicom logo to find a place selling the cards. You can also buy the cards at China Mobile or China Unicom outlets. Adding the credit is quite easy as the recorded voice messages are in Chinese and English. Just follow the instructions on the back of the card (also in English).

Note that in China you are charged for incoming calls to your mobile. So if people call to your mobile from overseas it can chew up quite a bit of credit. It’s better if they call you on a landline.