The People’s Republic of China is a very special country to buy a local SIM card. Although almost every mobile device is produced here in these days, buying a SIM card can be quite complicated, especially as very few people understand or speak English. This article applies only to mainland China and doesn’t refer to the special administration areas of Hong Kong and Macau where other laws are enforced and providers operate (see Hong Kong and Macau chapter).
China has three national networks:
- China Mobile (中国移动)
- China Unicom (中国联通)
- China Telecom (中国电信)
All three are state- (or “people's-“) owned and controlled. China Mobile is the largest mobile provider of the world with more than 800 Mio. customers and almost 2/3 share of the market, followed by China Unicom with 24 % and China Telecom with 14 % market share.
Frequencies, compatiblity and coverage Edit
|China Mobile||900, 1800 Mhz||*TD-SCMA*||*TDD-LTE*|
|China Unicom||900, 1800 Mhz||2100 Mhz||1800 Mhz FDD-LTE, *TDD-LTE*|
|China Telecom||*CDMA*||*EVDO*||1800 Mhz FDD-LTE, *TDD-LTE*|
* = not compatible with usual GSM-devices
So China Mobile’s and China Unicom’s 2G (up to EDGE speed) are compatible with common GSM-2G phones (although US-models need quad-band). China Mobile’s 3G service is based on a weird Chinese-made TD-SCDMA standard, which unfortunately is not compatible with any phones from outside China. Again, if you brought your own phone from outside China, you will not be able to use 3G on China Mobile’s Network.
Only China Unicom’s 3G network is compatible with any unlocked phone that supports 2100 Mhz 3G, which covers most modern smartphones in up to HSPA+ speed (max. 21.1 Mbit/s).
China Telecom uses a CDMA network which is incompatible with all GSM-phones purchased outside China. Only a few CDMA devices from the US or Asia can adapt to their frequencies (for more details see China Telecom section below).
4G/LTE started in 2013 on China Mobile as TDD-LTE mostly on 2500 Mhz, which is now starting to be used in Japan and the United States. Certain phones brought from there are usable on China Mobile's 4G network. China Unicom and China Telecom meanwhile are given trial licenses for 1800 Mhz FDD-LTE which are much more compatible and are now on the air in major city centers.
The hilarious reasons for this frequency situation are described in detail by Michael Jennings: here (His story is still accurate, but needs an update: In early 2014 China Mobile has teamed up with Apple and since then the biggest operator of the world sells the iPhone at last).
China Mobile has the best coverage in the country, covering the whole nation in 2G. But you will get it only in up to EDGE speed (around a max. of 320 kbps). This is sufficient for phone calls and texts and basic data like: maps, WAP sites, instant messaging. But it is pretty useless for mobile internet or VoIP calls. For this, your only choice is China Unicom on 3G, which still has a reasonable coverage.
Starting up Edit
It’s very easy to get a local SIM card. There are no regulations that you have to live in the country or province. Some vendors are trying to sell mostly China Mobile SIM cards on the street. This is not recommended, as you don’t know, if they are valid or terminated. This way, you can skip the registration, which is mandatory since a few years, but you will get no support whatsoever.
Better go to small mobile shops or the official shops of the operators showing your passport and say “SIM Kaa” pointing at your device. Don’t expect anybody to speak English (you may be luckier if you are in a foreigner area of a big city). You may make a print copy in Chinese of the products which are featured on this site before going to the store..
Start up prices for the SIM cards can be very variable depending on the number. While a 8 in your number means good luck and an extra surcharge, a 4 in contrast is seen as bad luck and discounted. So prices are around 60 RMB for bad numbers up to 300 RMB for very lucky ones.
Update February 2015: China Mobile (and probably the other operators too) don't charge for new basic SIM cards (5RMB supplement applies for microSIM, unknown for nanoSIM). The minimum initial credit is 100 RMB and you have to choose a package for service, which starts at 8 RMB per month with no inclusive minutes or SMS. You can pay more (between 18RMB and 588 RMB per month) for a variety of combinations of minutes, SMS and data. Call costs vary depending on whether you are in or out of the province where you bought and registered the SIM card, and if you are out of province, then you also pay to receive calls.
The registration can lead to some paperwork but should be done in a couple of minutes even if you don’t speak the language. These shops are very recommended especially if someone speaks English there, as he/she can help you with problems using the service. On the other side, it’s not recommended to buy the SIM card at airports, as the prices tend to be higher there, although you will easier find someone who speaks English.
Another option is to consider buying a Hong Kong-based SIM and roaming in the mainland with it. Both China Mobile and China Unicom sell dual-number SIMs in Hong Kong with very reasonably priced data packages that allow access to websites ordinarily not allowed (Great Firewall) as well as cheap voice calls and texts.
Normally, all three sizes of SIM cards are available. If not, someone will cut it to size for you.
Real Name Registration Edit
A real name registration policy for mobile users in China was issued on September 1st, 2010, requiring people to show their national identification card and complete a registration form when purchasing a new SIM card to activate mobile services. Started on September 1st, 2013, all new mobile phone users have to register their real names in order to use any services. You might easy to get a SIM card from a retail store on street, but you still have to go to the service hall of the carrier for registration and activation before using it.
Regional organization Edit
All three providers are organized regionally. You get a SIM card for your province/town which is associated with its number like in the US or Russia. All calls are charged equally within the province, around 0.2 RMB per minute. And you are charged the same being called and calling out. Calls outside the province will have a surcharge again inbound and outbound, international (IDD) calls can be very expensive and often not enabled at all.
This national roaming exists not only for incoming calls but for data too. On many tariffs local and national data are distinguished. So try to buy your SIM at the place you intend to use it most or buy another SIM in the next province.
Cheap foreign (IDD) calls can be made from landlines using special long-distance value cards called “ID cards” or using VoIP from your mobile if you have a stable 3G connection or a Wifi access. Be aware that an IP card costs about 20 to 25 CNY and has a credit of 100 CNY!
The regional organization of the mobile providers does mean that you have nationwide coverage, but topping up you SIM card outside of the province where you have bought it can be a formidable task. Recharge vouchers / top-up cards sold all over the country only work in the province where there are sold! This makes it very annoying for travelers to recharge their SIM cards.
So try to load enough credit in your “home” province, or you have to ask a local if he can help you. Of course online on the website of the provider or the platform of Taobao extra credit can be added from everywhere, but using a Chinese credit card only. Some travelers succeeded in topping up not by scratch cards sold all over but to look for the few agencies which provide direct / electronic top-up giving their phone number and paying in cash. Furthermore, there are reload agencies on the web, doing the top-up for a surcharge. Running out of credit is not a good idea, as your phone will be blocked for incoming calls too. Even your text messages will be deleted, if you have not stored them before in your phone.
Further particularities Edit
You will get a lot of advertisement, which you can’t block. Ad text messages are the least annoying and can be deleted right away. But you will get calls in the middle of the night as well with only one ring. The idea is to make you call back an expensive premium number, what you should better not do. You will also get the data balance popping on your phone every time it disconnects from the network and this can be quite often.
If you try to avoid mobile internet therefore and stick to Wifis instead, you should know that a lot of public access points in places like Starbucks, McDonald’s or at airports need a verification code to be sent to a Chinese mobile number which you need to provide.
Instant messaging has become a usual form of communication in China too. There WeChat is generally preferred to Whatsapp, but certain other apps like LINE and KakaoTalk are outright blocked.
The censorship in China is so widespread and notorious that it needs to be addressed in more detail as it will certainly hamper your internet access and operations. This is often referred to as “Great Firewall of China”.
Access to lot of websites is simply blocked. Not only political but usual sites like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Even Google including Google Maps is blocked since it discontinued its cooperation with the Chinese authorities. Here is a updated survey of the websites inaccessible from China: Websites blocked in China
All social messaging (like WeChat or Whatsapp) and even text messages are screened for certain terms and can be censored. This surveillance normally applies to texts in Mandarin (Chinese) language only and English will not be filtered.
The usual way to circumvent this blocking, is to use a VPN or proxy app or software. Before travelling to China, you should download and try out some of them and possibly sing up to one and get familiar with its handling.
Be sure that they are not blocked as the Chinese government or operators (esp. China Unicom) try to sniff and kill the connection if they detect a VPN.
Here is a manual how to implement a VPN on an iPhone: how to break through the great firewall of China
Here is a constantly updated list of working VPN proxies for China: the best VPNs to use in China
Access to VoIP (Skype and others) is not restricted and tethering allowed on all Chinese SIM cards. This censorship is not carried out, if you are using an international SIM card (even one from Hong Kong or Macau) on roaming in China.
China Mobile (中国移动) Edit
Normally, China Mobile should not be part of the list as it uses a very own and totally incompatible 3G version called TD-SCDMA (see frequencies above). It has the most developed LTE network too, but again it uses a very Chinese 2500 Mhz TDD-LTE which is only just starting to be used in only two other countries.
On the other side, it’s the biggest operator of the world with more than 800 million customers (that’s more as twice as much as all mobile subscribers in the US on all networks together), and there are operators outside China startind to adopt TDD-LTE as well (meaning in the future more devices sold outside the country will support it). So we should make an exception.
Without doubt, it has the best network in all provinces and is your first choice for voice and text as theses rates don’t differ so much among the providers. For data you will probably get only EDGE speed up to 384 kbit/s, but often slower. So desktop websites, VPN use (see above) or VoIP are not feasible on China Mobile on most GSM-devices. The newest iPhones (6/6+) and certain Sony phones sold in Japan (Xperia ZL2 and Z3) support the 4G used by China Mobile, resulting in a much better data experience.
Easy Own and MZone Edit
China Mobile doesn’t sell their prepaid cards under its own brand name but under other names:
- Easy Own (神州行 Shénzhōuxínɡ)
- MZone ( 动感地带 Dònggǎn Dìdài)
are the two most popular and widespread prepaid cards.
Easy own is more directed to the rural population, while MZone more to the urban youth. Easy own is green and used to have only WAP access but has GPRS and the same data rates as MZone now. MZone is orange and supports full GPRS, but at slightly higher call rates and lower text rates.
Their SIM card is available everywhere (for prices and where to buy see Basics chapter). Prices are variable according to provinces too.
To add value, remember value cards only work within the province: They’ll either be a scratch-off card, or a tear-off voucher, a typical value is 100 RMB For China Mobile, dial [tel:138-0013-8000 138-0013-8000], press “2″ for English, then press “1#,” and enter the number printed on your voucher or card.
For cheap international calls, you need to activate certain IDD prefixes. This requires a deposit and a visit to a China Mobile shop.
You can check your balance at any time by sending an SMS with the text "ye" to the number 10086. If you have a data plan, you can send an SMS with the text "1091" to 10086, and you'll receive a reply stating how much data you've used and how much is remaining.
Data feature packs Edit
Standard rate outside package is 0.1 RMB per MB. These monthly packages are for MZone as well as Easy Own cards:
- 150 MB: 20 RMB
- 500 MB: 50 RMB
- 2 GB: 100 RMB
- 5 GB: 200 RMB
- "unlimited" = FUP 15 GB: 500 RMB
Over limit charge : 1 RMB per MB. To activate, send SMS to 10086 with text: KT20, KT50, KT100, KT200 or KT500 and it should automatically switch to a data plan. If KT## does not work, try KTSJLL##. Text CXGPRS to 10086, to receive a statistics of using and your data limits.
Roaming SIM cards from China Mobile Hong Kong
Unlike China Unicom, China Mobile has its own network in Hong Kong. However, this does not prevent it from offering its own "Roaming" SIM, and comes with many of the same benefits, like bypassing the Great Firewall, skipping registration, and being able to top up with a foreign credit card. Additionally, China Mobile HK offers a bonus scheme for users who reload online. However, their roaming SIMs are harder to find online, usually being limited to sales on eBay from third parties. If you are transiting Hong Kong on the way to China and have the time to step outside, there is a China Mobile kiosk just before security on the Departures level.
There are two SIMs. The nationwide SIM is the 1-Card-2-Number Prepaid SIM Card, which officially costs HK$120 but is often discounted to around HK$70 and comes with HK$60 of credit. Voice is HK$0.60/minute, texts are either HK$0.50 or HK$1.80 each depending on whether they are being sent within China/HK or outside it, and basic data is HK$1.50/MB capped at HK$38 daily.
The second SIM is the 1-Card-2-Number Prepaid SIM Card (Guangdong), which as the name implies, is intended mostly for those not going beyond Guangdong province. It officially costs HK$148 and comes with HK$75 of credit. The benefit is free incoming calls to the China number and only HK$0.25/minute incoming calls to the Hong Kong number while in Guangdong. Everything else is functionally identical to the nationwide version, so even for those going to Guangdong, this SIM is only of benefit to those expecting to frequently receive calls rather than make them while in the province.
Both SIMs participate in CMHK's top-up bonus scheme. The following bonuses apply for online top-ups:
- HK$30-HK$49 for a 5% bonus
- HK$50-HK$199 for a 15% bonus
- HK$200-HK$299 for a 20%+HK$10 bonus
- HK$300+ for a 30%+HK$10 bonus
For both SIMs there are also the following data packs available for purchase as well as the daily option:
- 200MB for HK$38
- 1GB for HK$98
- 2.5GB for HK$148
All of these are 2G/3G only, meaning those without phones capable of TD-SCDMA will be limited to EDGE. Thus, this is a better option for those who already have a 3G phone from China or need uncensored data in rural areas.
More info Edit
- APN: cmnet
- China Mobile Customer Service Hotline: 10086 (free, English available)
- Website: in Mandarin: http://www.bj.10086.cn/index/
China Unicom (中国联通) Edit
China Unicom is the 2nd provider in the country and should be your preferred choice for data as it’s the only one which uses 3G UMTS up to HSPA+ speed on 2100 Mhz like in most other places in Asia, Europe or Australia (see Basics chapter).
Their coverage is not as good as China Mobile’s but still reasonable and sufficient. They even started FDD-LTE on 1800 Mhz in some city centers in 2014 which is mostly used for LTE in other countries too.
It is recommended to buy their SIM cards in their shops or small mobile outlets with registration. As Google Maps are currently blocked in China, search on YAHOO or Bing to find the nearest store.
3G value pack (3G 套餐) Edit
This is their universal voice and data SIM valid nationwide in China. Try to get the 3G “A” tariff line, which is better for data than B or C. Here is a copy of their tariffs for print out: http://3g.10010.com/3gindex/card_money.html (in Chinese) or in English here: http://www.3gsolutions.com.cn/page/mthplan
This is officially a “contract”, but can be terminated by just not topping up in the following month. You are supposed to give a local address. So bring a hotel card with an address along.
For monthly RMB 69 for instance you get 300 MB data and 50 domestic minutes in and out. Additional calls will be 0.20 RMB and additional data 0.0003 per KB.
You might print out their prepaid tariffs as well: http://3g.10010.com/3gindex/3gfee/yu_plan.html
Here you see that only the small packages up to 96 RMB are for prepaid only. When they want to charge you a deposit, direct them to their prepaid survey, or make a “contract”. For all higher values, they like to see a deposit, which is inconvenient as it pays back only slowly in the following months.
However, the default rate of data stays at 0.0003 RMB per KB all the time, that’s 0.3 RMB per MB or 30 RMB for 100 MB. But in packages 450 MB more data costs you around 130 RMB more or 1 GB costs around 300 RMB, which is both about the same as the default rate. The packages only make sense if you use a lot of local calls too, which are included. So for more data only just use the cheap default rate and don’t buy a larger pack.
Remember the value pack has a recurring billing cycle. You add credit to your China Unicom account and fees will be deducted, in advance, on the 1st day of each month. Keep in mind, though, that China Unicom’s billing cycle begins on the 1st day of each month regardless of the day on which you opened your account. This means that if you opened your account on May 29, you will be billed immediately a full month’s worth of charges for services between May 29 and 31, and a new billing cycle still begins on June 1.
For temporary visitors of China, 3G value pack also offers an option to switch the account to dormant mode when you leave the country. Once enabled, your account is required to stay dormant for a minimum of 3 billing months. Dormant mode gives you the option to preserve your +186 number in China while you are away from the country and reactivate your SIM immediately upon return. You dial 10010 to change these options, and customer service handles requests in English. When your account is dormant, a service fee of 5 RMB is deducted on the 1st day of each month.
3G Web Surfing Pass (3G 上网卡) Edit
This is a data-only SIM directed to modems, tablets and routers for heavy data volumes in 3G. You can use it in phones too, but it has no voice nor text or 4G/LTE.
It is a one-off prepaid card without any obligations available in two denominations:
- 3 GB valid for 6 months: 3 GB national data: ¥ 300
- 6 GB valid for one year: 6 GB national data: ¥ 600
Some prepaid card offering addtional local data bonus, it's various depends on province. Note that these cards distinguish national and provincial data. You get the local bonus only in the province associated to the SIM card (see Basics chapter). Product link (Beijing for example, in Chnese): http://s.10010.com/CardList
Topping up Edit
China Unicom claims to have released a nationwide refill card. A lot of users however were not able to top it up outside the province the SIM card is attached too. So try it with a small amount (e.g. 20 RMB) first if it really works.
If you fail, you can ask a Chinese friend to load it on their website with a Chinese credit card, try to find a location which is able to make a direct (electronic) top up or use one of the internet agencies which do top ups for a surcharge like ezetop or worldremit and others.
Roaming SIM cards from China Unicom Hong Kong Edit
China Unicom also operates a MVNO in Hong Kong. They sell dual-number roaming SIMs that work in both Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. One reason to get a SIM in Hong Kong instead of mainland China is because a China Unicom HK SIM will pass all data through Hong Kong, allowing through the “Great Firewall of China” (see Basics). Another reason is to be able to add money using a foreign Visa/MasterCard or PayPal, which you can't do with a mainland SIM. This also conveniently avoids the issue of out-of-province top-ups since it's all done online. You can skip registration for these cards too.
Caution: Only use mainland recharge vouchers as a last resort with a Hong Kong SIM. Vouchers from any province will work, but the HKD conversion happens at a 1:1 rate, meaning you lose over HK$20 per 100RMB topped up.
However these cards need to be purchased before travelling to mainland China in Hong Kong or online out of Hong Kong as they are not available in mainland China.
Their “Cross Border King Dual Number Prepaid SIM” is sold officially for HK$ 120 but often discounted to HK$ 80 or less with HK$ 66 credit. Default data is HK$ 2 per MB for Hong Kong and China and a monthly administration fee of HK$ 6 is debited. Voice costs HK$0.45/minute in Guangdong and HK$0.60/minute elsewhere. Two data passes can be bought:
- 1 day: 300 MB for HK$ 38. Activation: *118*441#
- 7 days: 500 MB for HK$ 78. Activation: *118*500#
Days are 0.00-23.59h Hong Kong time, passes don’t renew automatically and overuse is charged by the default rate. Product Link: http://store.hk.chinaunicom.com/jsp/sys/mall/netcard-detail.jsp?salproid=453433
They have a very similar product also called “Cross Border King Dual Number Prepaid SIM” for HK$ 138, often discounted to HK$ 118 with HK$80 credit. This card is better value, as incoming calls are free, calls in all provinces are only HK$0.45/minute, default data is HK$ 0.6 per MB, and these packages are available:
- 7 days: 300 MB for HK$ 48 Activation: *118*448#
- 30 days: 500 MB for HK$ 68. Activation: *118*468#
Finally, they have a data-only SIM for Hong Kong and China, sold for HK$ 150, often discounted to HK$ 128 with 1 GB of data in Hong Kong (on 3 network) or China in 7 days. This SIM is available in nano or micro size only. You can recharge by credit card or HK$ 100 vouchers available in 7-Eleven stores in HK another 1 GB within 7 days for HK$ 100.
Product link: http://store.hk.chinaunicom.com/jsp/sys/mall/netcard-detail.jsp?salproid=453512 (don’t mix it up with similar looking roaming cards for other countries)
More info Edit
- APN: 3gnet for all SIMs
- Customer Service (in English available): 10010 for mainland SIMs or [tel:13068400177 13068400177] for Hong Kong SIMs
- Website in Mandarin only: http://3g.10010.com for mainland SIMs or http://store.hk.chinaunicom.com for Hong Kong SIMs.
China Telecom (中国电信) Edit
China Telecom uses CDMA (and thus EVDO for 3G) like (Sprint and Verizon) in the US and in a few other Asian countries, which is incompatible with GSM-devices (see above). Their reliance on R-UIMs instead of the traditional North American method of storing programming data in the phone means that from overseas, only a select few unlockable devices from the Japanese CDMA provider “au” and some Verizon phones from the US (and the latest generation of Verizon/Sprint-models with LTE and SIM/R-UIM slots) are capable of using their network for voice and text. Older Verizon and most Sprint phones without card slots can be made to function on the network. However this usually requires the buyer to purchase their prepaid starter pack online and also requires to have a lot of technical knowledge depending on the phone in question.
Furthermore China Telecom has the smallest network with a market share of around 14 %. As a consequence, it has much lower-priced plans and a long-standing practice of offering significant amounts of bonus credit with new subscriptions to attract more customers. For customers with compatible phones or tablets, China Telecom will most likely be a better deal. Do note, however, that only Verizon and unlockable au LTE-capable CDMA devices will completely function upon insertion of a China Telecom R-UIM; while older Android handsets will only function with voice and text without additional software modification, newer handsets will only need to be modified if your local area has been upgraded to eHRPD data (an enhancement to existing 3G to allow easier hand-offs to LTE in the future).
With these rates being so much lower than on the two major players, you might think of getting a CDMA USB-dongle or Mifi for data which is available for a few hundred RMBs if you stay longer in China.
Start up and availability Edit
Overseas visitors requiring Chinese prepaid SIM cards will need to show a passport only when buying at an official China Telecom location. It may be better to purchase a R-UIM from a generic mobile shop. They do not require a passport and they invariably have a wider selection of plans to choose from (especially useful in some cities where the local China Telecom offices are told to push certain packages).
Deposit required varies from 50 to 900 RMB depending on desired plan but monthly charges can be taken from this. Be careful; the deposit with China Telecom is not refundable. However, the plan will typically leave little credit after the monthly plan charge is deducted.
Data feature packs Edit
Data plans that sold by usage typically do not sell data on a rolling monthly basis, but instead sell a set amount of data good for a set amount of time, allowing for more flexible usage. Single-month SIMs are available, but not easy to find, and most third-party vendors will want to push multi-month packs on you instead. Unfortunately, there is no movement to make single-month cards more widely available. Like Unicom, on China Telecom data is distinguished into local data valid within the province associated with the SIM card and national data which is valid nationwide.
|Price||National Data||plus Local Data||Validity|
|50 RMB||1 GB||1 GB||30 days|
|100 RMB||3 GB||3 GB||30 days|
|180 RMB||6 GB||6 GB||30 days|
|100 RMB||2 GB||2 GB||90 days|
|200 RMB||4 GB||4 GB||90 days|
|300 RMB||6 GB||6 GB||180 days|
|600 RMB||12 GB||12 GB||180 days|
Product link: http://www.189.cn/products/0609326550.html. These SIM cards are data-only and also on 4G where available. For other products, check their website.
Asking for 'data only SIM-cards' may confuse the Telecom sales people. Instead ask for 'for iPad' or 'for mobile broadband' or print out the offers above. You need to provide your passport and a phone number (ideally for your hotel) and the process can be more time consuming than expected.
More info Edit
- APN: ctnet
- Customer Hotline (in English available, if you are lucky): 10000
- Website in Mandarin: http://www.189.cn
Purchasing/Renting a SIM-card, Phone and/or Portable WiFi OnlineEdit
3G solutions Edit
This is a company which markets the products of China Unicom abroad. They send the SIM card to any place in China and abroad, do SIM card and modem rentals and top-ups too.
It might be of an extra value for somebody to have the SIM card before arrival or a 100% English-speaking support, but you must be aware that their products will come at a quite steep surcharge.
For more info check their website and compare to the prices mentioned above for China Unicom