Can I use my mobile phone when I travel to China?
This is a great question that requires a fairly detailed answer. The short answer is “Yes, you can use your cell phone in China”, but there are some things you need to know first. Below I would like to help you understand your phone options as you prepare to travel to China.
How to Use a Cell Phone in China
In order to use your personal cell phone in China, there are a few things you need to think through.
1. Make Sure You Have a Compatible Phone
While you’ll see plenty of iPhones in the hands of Chinese people, if you try to use your iPhone in China there’s a chance you’re going to run into problems – or get charged crazy fees by your home country provider. Why is that? Because the iPhone, like many other phones, is usually networked locked to a specific carrier (i.e. AT&T, Verizon, Telstra, etc.).
It is possible to “unlock” your phone legally once it is out of contract and though it is possible to unlock a phone that is still under contract, it’s risky.
Some phones, like the Blackberry, have less trouble connecting to local networks in China, but you’re still going to want to check the specs of your phone. China’s biggest telecommunication providers work on two main frequencies: 900 and 1,800 Hz. Does your phone fit that?
2. Do you want international roaming or a local SIM card?
Carriers are charging exorbitant rates for international roaming (it’s getting better, though), so it’s a good idea to check with your home country provider before you turn your phone on in China. Ask how much they charge and what their data rates/messaging rates are. You might be surprised.
Another very popular option is to purchase a local SIM card that you can plug into your phone. These usually run about 100-200 RMB and can be found at any local China Telecom, China Mobile, or China Unicom store. Again, it’s important to make sure that your phone is unlocked so that it can work on international networks.
Once you put in the SIM card you’ll have some minutes included, but you can top up at the small carrier shops or via WeChat/Alipay. This will end up being an incredibly cheap option for local China calls and a decent option for international calls.
3. Alternative Options for Phones in China
If you don’t want to go through the headache of making sure that your phone works for you in China, there are a couple different options for you.
- Rent a Phone – Believe it or not, it is possible to rent a phone to be delivered to your home prior to departing for China. The phone comes loaded with a SIM card that includes calling minutes, text and data. I recommend the CellularAbroad service to rent a phone in China for a reasonable rate. They’ve even worked with me to offer a discount! Enter promocode “TravelChina10” online during checkout at Cellular Abroad or mention the promocode if ordering by phone at 800.287.5072 and get $10 off your China SIM card purchase or your phone rental/purchase.
- Buy a China Phone – there are some super cheap phones that you can buy in China – I bought an Android smartphone for 300 RMB (US$50) and there are even cheaper “dumb” phones if you just want talk and text.
- Just Use Wifi – it is still a good idea to bring your iPhone and use the wifi at hotels and restaurants. Make sure you’ve downloaded an app like Skype or Viber that gives you the chance to call internationally or even make free calls back home.
4. Consider a Mobile VPN
Even if you have an unlocked phone and have purchased a Chinese SIM card to make calls and surf the internet, you still may find yourself unable to use certain sites like Facebook, Twitter and perhaps even your own company’s intranet. It’s the well-known “Great Firewall of China“.
To get around this you can purchase a VPN (virtual private network) that will allow you to get past these blocks and use your phone as if you were still back in your home country. If you’re not sure what a VPN is or how much it would cost, you should check out these video reviews of VPNs (which include discount codes!)
Conclusion | Phones in China
The bottom line is – you can use your phone in China, but you need to make sure you’ve done your homework before you do. Also remember that when you bring your phone charger, you might need to check which plug you need for China.
If your phone isn’t unlocked, or if you want to avoid using your own phone while traveling/living in China, it is possible to rent a phone for days or weeks at a time for reasonable rates. Remember to mention promocode “TravelChina10” to get 10% off all rental through CellularAbroad.