Cell Phone Service in China – Getting a Local Number

by Jason Luong
Read Jason’s previous post about Finding Housing in China.

Cell Phone Service in China – Getting a Local Number

By *christopher* from San Francisco, USA (cell phone Uploaded by russavia) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

You’re going to need a phone in China. Don’t bother bringing your Sprint or Verizon phone out here. They won’t work. Instead, bring an unlocked GSM phone here where you can just use a local SIM card.

If you already have AT&T or T-Mobile, all you need to do is give your carrier a call and they will provide you with an unlock code so you can unlock your GSM phone. If you don’t have an unlocked GSM phone, you buy one cheaply from Amazon.com. Make sure whichever phone you buy, it better have Chinese language support. You’ll need to at least be able to receive texts in Chinese characters or you won’t be able to show taxi drivers where to go. Taxi drivers won’t know what you’re talking about if you show them an address written in English.

The main carriers in China

The three biggest wireless carriers in China are China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom. The first two are GSM carriers while the latter is a CDMA carrier. Your unlocked phone will work fine with China Mobile or China Unicom. To choose China Telecom, you’ll need to purchase a phone directly from them. Kind of like you having to buy a phone from Verizon to use Verizon Wireless.

China Mobile has the best coverage nationwide. Even remote, mountainous villages will have China Mobile cell phone towers. Your coverage will start to wane with China Unicom or China Telecom when you start moving away from the cities and into the countryside. Don’t use them if you plan to be visiting villages.

Once you have your unlocked GSM phone, go to any China Mobile or China Unicom store to get your local SIM card with local phone number. This allows you to call, take calls, and send and receive text messages. It’s barely a fraction of what you’ll pay roaming with your carrier at home, so just cancel your service before you move to China. Data plans are also available with whichever carrier you go with. Once again, it’s only a fraction of the cost of what you’ll pay at home.

Accessing 3G data

Some of the more official stores will require you to register your passport in order to assign you a number. This is usually the case if you want a 3G SIM card that gives you access to 3G data. If this is a problem for you, just walk around the downtown area and you’ll see a bunch of small stores and stands selling local SIM cards. You won’t need to register at these places. Just pay and go. You can sign up for data and other services by calling customer service directly. If you’re having trouble, ask for help from your school or a Chinese friend. It’s really easy. Trust me.

If you need to call home, use Skype. Most prepaid SIM cards won’t allow you to make calls internationally. Surprisingly though, you can still send and receive text messages internationally.

The system is not perfect, but it works. Best of all, you’ll never receive a $10,000 bill for overage and international roaming charges for cell phone service in China. It just doesn’t happen.

Jason Luong is an EFL teacher and author of Teaching English in China – How to Negotiate the Best Package, Salary, and Avoid Getting Screwed.


All the guest posts from the TEFL teachers working around the world that have provided articles for our blog.