Having a local SIM card is absolutely essential in China if you want to avoid crazy roaming charges. Here is my complete guide to Chinese SIM cards:

The different network providers

There are three main network providers in China – China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom.

China Mobile

China Mobile is the largest network provider in China, however it does pose some issues for foreigners with non-compatable phones (since they use TD-SCDMA (3G) and TDD-LTE (4G) signals which are rarely used outside of China). If your phone is incompatible you will be stuck with VERY slow 2G internet only. That being said, if your phone does work with their network (quad core phones, e.g. all iPhones after iPhone 5) they could be a very good option – with decent local data plans and excellent network coverage even in rural areas.

China Unicom

Personally I would most recommend China Unicom due to their very competitive prices (much cheaper than China Mobile) and excellent whole country tariffs – great if you plan to do a fair amount of travelling around China. Additionally, they are compatible with almost all foreign phones and have decent network coverage across the country. For the remainder of this article, I will be talking about my experiences with the China Unicom network.

China Telecom

I’ve never really heard any positives about China Telecom – their network coverage is pretty poor and prices tend to be higher. Just avoid.

Purchasing a SIM Card

1. Get a SIM card in your province

Using your SIM card in a different province is treated as roaming in China – so your data allowance etc. cannot be used. While these roaming charges are still very low compared to roaming on a foreign SIM card, they can add up if you spend a lot of time travelling. Therefore, purchase your SIM card in the province where you will be spending the most time.

2. Go to an official shop

There are loads of small street stalls selling SIM cards – but avoid these, instead go to an official China Unicom shop (easily spotted by their giant logo and orange colour scheme). This will ensure your SIM card is obtained legally and properly registered. Otherwise, if you want to make any changes to your contract you can run into difficulties.

3. Bring your passport

SIM cards in China must be linked to your official ID – i.e. your passport. Therefore, make sure you bring this along with you. The application form also requires you to write in details such as your address in China, so make sure you have this to hand.

4. Chose the most suitable contract

If you are spending most of your time in one province (e.g. due to studying there) then I would recommend getting a standard local SIM card deal which as well as local data (本地) usually includes a small amount of “whole country” (全国)  data (usually less than 100 MB). Some networks (e.g. China Unicom in the North East of China) include a small amount of data for use in neighbouring provinces too. When I was living in Harbin, my 1 GB local data contract cost around 40 RMB (£4) per month with China Unicom, and also included a small amount of neighbouring North Eastern provinces and whole country data.

If you are planning to travel a lot around China to different provinces then definitely look into getting a “whole country” (全国) plan. These tend to be a little more expensive, but again China Unicom offers the best whole country deals, mine worked out as around 60 RMB (£6) for 1 GB of whole country data per month.

Make sure you check how long the contract lasts for – usually those advertised are 12 or 24 months. If you are staying in China for a shorter length of time ask for a more suitable contract or chose pay-as-you-go and purchase data packs each month, it may be a little bit more expensive per month but will save you a lot of hassle in the long run.

Paying

Rather than linking to your bank account, Chinese SIM cards usually operate on a top-up basis. This means that you need to keep topping up your SIM card – although you can simply top up several months’ credit in one go if you wish, then each month the contract fee is deducted from your SIM card balance.

There are several ways of topping up your phone – going into a shop in person, buying a top-up card, or paying online.

Going in person

You can visit any official shop and ask to top up your phone – they will just need to know your phone number to do this and you can pay in cash. However, this can be a bit of a pain to do all the time.

Buying top-up cards

These seem to have gone out of fashion somewhat, but some corner shops/ market stalls sell top-up cards, e.g. for 50 RMB. You then text the code on the card to the appropriate number to top up your phone. I’ve never actually topped up in this way since it seemed like a lot of effort…

Paying online

Within a couple of months I figured out you can just use WeChat Wallet to pay your phone bill and it was so easy! Within WeChat Wallet simply click on “mobile top-up” and follow the instructions. I would really recommend this to anyone with a Chinese bank account/ who has friends with a  Chinese bank account to send you WeChat money since is is  so much more convenient, and they also give you a small percentage discount.

Changing your contract

If after a few months you realise you need some more data or are moving to a different province, visit an official shop in your current province and ask them to make the relevant changes. The important thing to note here is that is MUST be done in your original province.

Alternatively, most changes can be made via the official app – a great option if you can read Chinese and are outside of your original province at the time.

Leaving China

When you leave China, it is ESSENTIAL to cancel your phone contract if you signed up for one (rather than pay-as-you-go). The reason for this is that otherwise you could get black-listed for failing to keep up the payments, possibly preventing you from getting another SIM card in China in the future.

In order to cancel your phone contract, you need to go to an official shop with your SIM card, phone number and passport. It cannot be done over the phone or by a friend on your behalf.

Cancelling your contract can currently ONLY be done in the original province where you purchased your SIM card. This is something to bear in mind if you are planning on doing a lot of travelling and intend to leave from a different city to that you started at. If you find yourself in the sticky situation I did, where you forget to do this, then one possible option is to use the official app to “downgrade” your contract to the cheapest one available (e.g. for China Unicom, currently a 10 RMB/ month no data contract), top up a load of money via WeChat then sort out cancelling it next time you return to China.

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