How can you use your mobile phone when you travel to China? Our phones are becoming an invaluable part of our travel experience and it’s difficult to know what’s possible in another country like China.
Read below to find out everything you need to know about traveling with your mobile phone in China.
The irony is that we rarely have need to make phone calls on our phones while traveling in another country. If you’re anything like me, all you need is network access for data.
Using network access, you can use a voice translator in China, get map directions, book hotels and airfare – you name it. Wi-Fi isn’t always available, so connecting to a Chinese network is important.
Can you bring your own mobile phone to China?
The short answer is yes…
…but there are some things you need to know first.
Below I would like to not only help you understand the various option available to use your mobile phone in China, but also a checklist to walk through before you do.
Note: Some links in this article are affiliate links, which means that at no extra cost to you, I may be compensated if you choose to use one of the services listed. I only recommend what I’ve personally used, and I appreciate your support!
How to Use a Mobile Phone in China (4 options)
There are a number of different ways that you can set up your mobile phone for use while traveling. Some are expensive and easy while others will require more time and energy.
Here’s a quick list of the four most common ways to use your phone in China.
Option 1: International Roaming in China (most expensive)
By far the easiest way to connect to China’s cellular network is via international roaming with your home carrier.
Most of the time, there’s nothing you need to do. Once you land in China, turn on your phone and it will automatically establish a connection and you will be charged international roaming rates by your network provider back home.
You might need to go into your phone’s settings and enable “Data Roaming” under carrier settings.
The benefit of this option is its relative ease. You land, you connect and you’re done.
The downside is that it’s usually the most expensive option. For those from the U.S., it’s not uncommon for there to be a “connection fee” of US$10-$20 (charged for each day you connect to the network) plus data and messaging rates. If you’re not careful, the charges can rack up quickly.
Option 2: Purchase a Chinese eSIM or SIM Card (recommended)
To avoid these exorbitant international roaming fees, it’s possible to get a Chinese eSIM or physical SIM card and pay less than $20 for a month of service.
I’ve gone into a bit more detail about getting a SIM card in China, but suffice to say there are three options you can consider:
- Purchase an eSIM: Many newer phone models allow for eSIM cards, which are the fastest and easiest way to get SIM coverage in a new country. Companies like Airalo offer China eSIMs at amazing rates depending on how much data or time you need, and setup only takes 5-10 minutes. The only catch is the an eSIM in China does not come with a phone number. If you need a phone number, you’ll still need a physical SIM (unless you get the eSIM in China).
A pre-purchased China eSIM does NOT come with a phone number.
- Purchase a SIM card for your phone: This option requires that you have an unlocked phone. If you’re not sure what I mean by “unlocked”, chances are your phone probably isn’t. In order to unlock your phone from a specific network carrier, you’ll need to pay off any balance for the cost of your phone and then reach out to your home carrier to get an unlock code. You can then purchase a Chinese SIM card online or get one once you arrive in China (a bit harder if you can’t speak Chinese).
- Buy a China phone: To avoid this hassle of unlocking your phone, you can always just purchase a cheap phone when you arrive in China. While name brand phones are as expensive in China as they are anywhere in the world, you can easily find low-cost smartphones that will do the trick. I’ve purchased a simple Android phone for less than US$50.
When purchasing a new phone you bought in China or purchasing a SIM card in China, keep in mind that you’ll have to spend at least an hour at a Chinese carrier office applying for the SIM card and you’ll need to provide your passport during the process.
The big players are China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom. Everybody has their preference, but honestly, it really doesn’t matter which you choose.
Option 3: Rent a Phone or WiFi for China
There is an easier option that’s worth considering: renting a phone for China or using an international WiFi unit.
The way phone rentals work is quite simple. You rent a phone online (or over the phone). The phone arrives at your home before you travel. It already has a Chinese SIM card with a phone number, messaging and data plan.
The moment you land in China, you have a phone that works!
If you’re like me, you prefer not to use your own devices in China and this is a perfect workaround. It’s kind of like a “burner phone” for your China travels 🙂
I recommend the CellularAbroad service to rent a phone in China for a reasonable rate.
Get $10 Off a China Phone Rental!
Another option is to access WiFi in China using “global wifi”. This is a simple device that connects to global networks and acts as a mobile WiFi network. All you have to do is turn on the device and then connect your phone/computer/tablet etc. to the network. You pay either by the day or the month.
An example of this global wifi would be something like Skyroam Solo device, a service that allows you to either rent or buy your global wifi device to take with you and connect from your laptop or mobile phone.
Option 4: Only Use Local Wi-Fi in China
Using local Wi-fi is a final option if you don’t have the budget to spend on international roaming, a Chinese SIM card or a global WiFi device.
I don’t recommend this method if you can avoid it, though, and I’ll explain why.
To take advantage of China’s Wi-Fi, you’ll want to make sure you put your phone on airplane mode before you land in China. The reason for this is to make sure you don’t get charged a connection fee for international roaming.
Turn on your phone’s wifi and search for an open Wi-Fi network. As with countries all over the world, most airports, coffee shops and shopping centers offer free Wi-Fi.
There is a catch, though.
In most cases you will be required to provide a code sent to you via text message. If you don’t have a Chinese phone number, you can’t receive these text message codes.
Without a text message code, you can’t get on the Wi-Fi. Some airports have kiosks that give out these codes, but they’re not reliable in my experience.
The Wi-Fi option is free, but I caution travelers to consider the frustration and cost in time. Renting a phone or getting a Chinese SIM card is much more convenient and allows you consistent access to your maps, internet and messaging.
Phone in China | Traveler’s Checklist
Now that we’ve covered your different options for connecting your phone to the internet while traveling in China, I want to walk you through a simple checklist before you travel.
Going through this checklist should give you peace of mind knowing that everything is going to work once you land with your phone in China.
- Check the Compatibility of Your Phone: If you’re using a phone that was manufactured after 2015, you’re fine (this covers most people). However, there are older mobile phones that won’t work on international bands. You might want to check to make sure your phone covers the international frequencies of 900 and 1800 Hz.
- Talk with your Home Carrier: Call your home carrier and ask them what kind of rates they offer for international roaming. You can keep things cheaper if you only do data, as opposed to phone and text. They’ll be able to tell you any connection fees and what it will cost per Mb/Gb.
- Is Your Phone “Unlocked”? While you’re on the phone with your carrier, ask them if your phone is unlocked. If you’re a bit tech-savvy, you can also check your phone’s IMEI number to see if it’s unlocked. If it is, you can consider buying a Chinese SIM card once you arrive in China. For those whose phone is still locked to a carrier, you’ll need to either use international roaming or rent a phone.
- Do You Have a VPN? I always advise people to install a VPN on their phone and computer before they travel to China. Why? There are a number of services that are blocked in China that a VPN will allow you to use. You can’t use Instagram in China, email and all Google services (including maps and translation). Personally, I use ExpressVPN in China and they’ve been extremely reliable. They also offer a 30-day money back guarantee, so download the software before you go and if it doesn’t help, get your money back.
- Do You Have the right Charger Plug? It’s natural to get nervous about charging your phone in another country. Thankfully, most phones, tablets and laptops include a charger that is compatible with the 220V service in China. Double check to make sure, and then check to see if your plug will fit in China’s electrical sockets.
Final Thoughts | Mobile 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.
Determine whether you can/want to use your personal phone or if you’ll need to buy or rent a China phone. This will give you a good starting point to figure out how you’ll use a phone in China.
Remember, a lot of travelers avoid the headache of trying to get a phone working by renting a phone. You don’t have to put your own phone at risk of being hacked and you’ll be assured that it works the moment you land.