How can you get China SIM cards? And which China SIM card is best? While some travelers have the option to activate the international roaming on their home country phone plans, that’s either really expensive or not a good option for those who will be in China long-term. The best solution is to get your own Chinese SIM card. Here’s how.
Having traveled around Asia for over 15 years, I highly recommend traveling through China with a smartphone.
You can get map directions, pay for almost anything, use Chinese voice translators, use the popular WeChat app, book Chinese trains, and so much more. In short, your smart phone can take all the most common pains out of traveling so you can focus more on having a good time.
But to do all these things, you need network access for your phone, which often requires buying a local China SIM card.
For those who may not know, a SIM card (short for “subscriber identity module”) is that little card that goes inside your phone that connects you to local service (phone, text, internet). You may not know it’s there…but it is.
Newer phones now have the option to use what’s known as an eSIM, which is a digital version of this small card.
Overall I recommend three ways to connect to China’s mobile network using your phone:
- Purchase a PrePaid SIM Card: If you know for sure that your phone is unlocked, you can purchase a Chinese SIM card (or eSIM card) prior to your arrival in China.
- Purchase a SIM Card in China: If you’re already in China or if it’s too late to purchase a prepaid China SIM card, you can always visit the office of a local service provider in China to get a SIM card. This option takes time, however, so I wouldn’t make this your primary option.
- Rent a Phone / International Roaming: If your phone isn’t unlocked but you still need to use a phone in China, you can either rent a phone or use international roaming with your home carrier.
Before I go on about SIM cards, it’s worth noting that if all you need is internet access, you can always look into your options for getting reliable WiFi in China. There are drawbacks to this method, but in some ways it is easier than trying to get a China SIM card.
In order to better understand how to use your mobile phone internationally or how China treats cellular customers, let’s start off with some basics of Chinese SIM cards.
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!
The Basics – Using a China SIM Card
Although using a SIM card with any phone is generally as easy as inserting it in your phone (or the 5-minute setup process for an eSIM), there are a couple basic -but incredibly important! – things you should know before buying one for China.
Let’s run through the most important ones.
Your Phone Must Be Unlocked for a new SIM (IMPORTANT!)
First thing to know is that your phone needs to be unlocked to use a China SIM card.
If you purchased your phone at a discount (e.g. AT&T or Verizon subsidized the phone or gave it to you “free”), or you currently lease your phone, it’s likely your phone is locked by your carrier.
Unfortunately, if this is the case you can’t use a China SIM card.
Note on Locked Phones
Until you make a request to your carrier and in some cases pay off the balance of your phone entirely, that mobile phone will remain “locked” into that service provider.
Still not sure if your phone is unlocked?
If so, use one of the resources I list below to check if the phone is unlocked.
If it is, you can contact your phone carrier and explain you need the unlock code for your trip to China. As long as you don’t have any outstanding balances on your account, your wireless carrier generally will have zero objections to unlocking your phone.
Expect this process to take a few days, so plan ahead should your trip to China be coming up.
SIM Cards in China Expire with No Use
During my second trip to China, I was surprised to find out after landing that my previous phone plan no longer worked, despite having plenty of credit leftover from the previous trip.
This happened because Chinese phone providers cancel unused SIM cards after a certain amount of time (different for each carrier).
You’ll want to be careful not to buy your Chinese SIM card too far in advance.
Once you buy a prepaid China SIM card, it may only last 30 days upon activation. So time your purchase accordingly and request for your SIM card to activate on the day you land in China.
Remember to also only buy enough credit to last you for your trip. Even if you do revisit China, your leftover credit will likely be forfeited after 30 or 60 days.
Don’t worry, you can always top up your phone in China if you run out of credit.
You Must Register to Activate Your China SIM Card
The Chinese government requires real-name registration to activate a SIM card.
If you purchase a pre-paid Chinese SIM card before you leave (which I recommend), this means you usually have to provide a copy of your passport.
When buying a prepaid China SIM card, don’t be surprised when the company requires you to send in a photocopy of your passport. It’s an unavoidable part of the process to activate the SIM card.
If you purchase the SIM card within China, this could mean providing bio-metric data such as a face scan and fingerprints in addition to your passport.
Best China SIM Card (Recommendation)
Whether you’re purchasing a prepaid China SIM card before you arrive or you’ve decided to purchase a SIM card from within China at a local telecom office, it helps to know what’s available and which are the offers for the best China SIM card plan.
I’m always an advocate for things that make traveling in China easy. So my top pick for the best SIM card for China is one that can be easily purchased online prior to your arrival and that works with pretty many any phone that you might have.
Airalo China eSIM Solution *Recommended*
- eSIM Cards available for immediate use
- Data only (no phone number)
- Various data packages available
- Works all across China
- Available packages for 7, 15 and 30 days
For most people, having a phone number isn’t necessary when traveling. The only thing that matters is DATA. That’s why the Airalo China eSIM is such a good option.
There are multiple eSIMs to choose from, which include various options for validity (7 days, 15 days, or 30 days) as well as data limits (1GB up to 20GB).
Every Airalo eSIM offers coverage across every part of China and works immediately once you land in country. Best of all, setting up an eSIM takes only about 10 minutes from the moment you click “purchase” to the moment when the eSIM is available to use.
Still, you’re going to want to get this set up prior to your visit to China, as well as downloading a good VPN for China.
China Phone Plans (Purchased in China)
There are three major cellular providers in China:
- China Telecom
- China Unicom
- China Mobile
Unfortunately, China Telecom SIM cards don’t work with phones purchased outside of China, so even though you’ll see plenty of China Telecom stores in China, you’ll want to stick with either China Unicom or China Mobile.
While China Mobile is the market leader in China and generally has the best nationwide coverage, China Unicom is compatible with more foreign phones, allowing them to access both 3G and 4G service. That being said, I’ve used both services and had good experiences either way, so it’s hard to go wrong!
If you’re going to purchase a SIM card in China, here are my recommendations for the best China SIM card plan for each carrier.
When visiting a China Unicom store, I’d go with the “Nationwide Data King” plan (全国流量王/ Quánguó liúliàng wáng) for 2019. Here are the details for the plan:
- 69 RMB prepaid monthly
- 10 GB of nationwide data
- 500 minutes of outgoing nationwide calls
- Incoming calls and SMS text messages are free
- Additional outgoing calls are 0.15 RMB/minute
- Additional data charges are 10 RMB/100MB and 30 RMB /1GB
Most foreign phones won’t work with China Mobile’s 3G network, so you’ll be pushed to their 4G coverage where available (2G where not available). Here are the details for their best phone plan plan for 2019:
- 88 RMB prepaid monthly
- 10 GB of nationwide data coverage.
- 50 minutes of outgoing nationwide calls.
- Incoming calls and SMS text messages are free.
- Additional outgoing calls are 0.19 RMB/minute.
- Additional data slows down to 1 mbps until you top off your card.
In general, if you’re using a foreign phone, I recommend China Unicom over China Mobile.
China Unicom is most compatible with foreign phones and you can use both 4G and 3G service. I’ve also never experienced any real problems in service in major Chinese cities and their plans are really cheap for what you get!
China Mobile ranks #1 in coverage throughout China, but since their 3G service generally isn’t compatible with phones purchased outside of China, anywhere where there isn’t 4G coverage you’ll automatically get bumped down to the painfully slow 2G service.
DISCOUNTS: As with any business, you’ll often run into special promotions or discounts being offered in-store at both China Mobile and China Unicom. Sometimes these can be really good deals if you plan to be in China for a long while, but if your need of a China SIM card is short-term, it’s best to stick with the above recommended plans.
How to Top Up China SIM Cards
It’s quite possible that you encounter a point where they use up all your phone or data credit and cannot make outgoing calls, text messages, and lose the ability to access the Internet.
There are several ways for “topping up” your China SIM card when you run out of credit.
- Top Up At a Local Store. You can visit any one of your mobile carrier’s stores and give them your phone number and cash. They will take that as a hint that you need more credit added to your China SIM card. This method always works but, depending on the line, can take quite a while to accomplish.
- Top up through Alipay or WeChat Pay. While this is arguably the easiest and fastest way, you need a local Chinese bank account or money in your Alipay/WeChat Pay wallets to top up. If you don’t have a Chinese bank account, you can always hand a Chinese friend some cash and they can top up your Chinese SIM card for you.
I personally prefer topping up using Alipay or WeChat pay.
Using a Phone in China | 6 Crucial Tips
Finally, to maximize the use of your China SIM card or if you want to consider alternatives to buying a China phone plan entirely, I’ve got 6 crucial tips for you:
- Remember that China actively censors Internet content including websites and apps like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp and many, many more blocked websites. So to share stories and photos with your friend during your journey, I’d buy a VPN before you leave to get around the Internet censors (such as ExpressVPN), otherwise it’s much harder to do so once you arrive since the VPN websites are blocked. Thankfully, there are still ways to install a VPN from within China.
- As mentioned above, the easiest way to buy a prepaid China SIM card before you depart for China. This can easily free up an entire morning or afternoon to see other things in China instead of waiting and trying to figure out phone plans. We recommend Airalo’s China eSIM options.
- It can be easy to run out of phone credit quickly in China especially if you are consuming heavy data usage services like streaming and video chat. If you have a plan with less data than you would normally use at home, use your phone sparingly so you can avoid having to top off your phone plan multiple times.
- If all you need is Internet access and don’t see yourself needing to make any phone calls, consider instead renting or buying a global WiFi hotspot device for your trip.
- It’s no secret that the Chinese government monitors communication you send through WeChat and I for one do not like the idea of my passport tied to a China SIM card for privacy purposes. Even businesses restrict their own devices being used in China out of concerns for intellectual property theft, so I’d consider renting a phone for China during your trip. This is also a good option if your phone carrier won’t agree to unlock your phone.
- Lastly, you can always consider not dealing with the hassle of getting a China SIM card by using your own cellular provider in China. Keeping mind, though, that the international roaming charges can potentially run you a fortune. This option definitely wins for convenience, but can easily break the bank for budget travelers.
Final Thoughts | China SIM Card
As a seasoned traveler in China, I definitely think it’s worth having a local phone plan for your trip to China. Overall, I find buying one online easiest (especially a prepaid China SIM card) and there are many ways to top off your plan should you run out of credit.
If getting a SIM card is something you truly don’t want to do, then I would settle for global WiFi as a reliable and affordable alternative for accessing the Internet.
Don’t forget to also get yourself a VPN before you leave so you can access blocked websites and apps like Facebook and Instagram. There are many good VPN providers out there, but I personally prefer ExpressVPN.