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.
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 you’re likely to run into problems. 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, so it’s a good idea to check with your 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 by with either phone cards or credit which you can get at convenience stores and street side stalls. 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 – there are actually places where you can rent a phone in the large cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. Ask your hotel where you can find a store to rent you a phone and they’ll be able to point you in the right direction.
- 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!)
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.