How do I get a SIM card in China? 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 what’s known as a Chinese “SIM card”. Here’s a summary of how that’s done.
After landing in China, getting a SIM card is among the first things you should do. If you’re unsure, a SIM card is that little card that goes inside your phone that connects you to local service (phone, text, internet). You may not know that you have a SIM card, but you probably do. Unless you have an international plan, the SIM card from your home country won’t work in China. That’s why you need a Chinese SIM card from a Chinese phone carrier like China Mobile.
There are a number of different problems that people run into when getting a SIM card in China. Perhaps there’s the language barrier. Maybe they don’t know which Chinese phone carrier to use. Worse of all, signing up for a plan seems to be very tricky.
For this reason, I’ve created this resource to cover all you need to know about how to get a SIM card in China to start using your mobile phone as soon as possible.
Why should I get a SIM card in China?
In case you are on the fence about getting a SIM card, let’s cover reasons why it’s a good idea (as well as instances where you shouldn’t get a SIM card in China).
- Need to phone a friend – It’s 100% likely the language barrier will slow you down at some point during your travels in China. Whether it’s ordering food at a Chinese restaurant, buying something on the street, or telling your taxi driver where to go. In situations where you cannot communicate, you can always phone your hotel or someone you meet on your journey that speaks English and Chinese to help you out of communication jams.
- Access to Baidu Maps – It is easy getting lost in a foreign country. With your phone (and data plan) in China, you can download Baidu maps to help you find tourist sites, restaurants, and other destinations. Baidu Maps can help you figure out which subway to take as well as protect you from being cheated by taxi drivers who might try to take you a circuitous route to your destination.
- Convenience – Depending on the length of your stay and if you have opened a bank account in China, you can also use your phone to take advantage of China’s mobile payment culture, bicycle sharing, and other technological innovations that are changing China.
Should you be the type of traveler looking to immerse yourself into the local culture without the distractions of your phone, in that case, getting a SIM card may be worth skipping. Likewise, if your trip is less than a couple weeks in length, the time that you’ll spend trying to get a SIM card in China might not be worth the effort.
How Do I Get a SIM Card in China?
To make this as simple as possible, I’m going to break down the process of how to get a SIM card in China into 4 steps. Each step is important, so don’t skip any of them!
Step 1: Unlock your phone before visiting China
To use a Chinese SIM card, you need to unlock your phone. What’s an “unlocked phone”, you ask? What you may not realize is that when you purchased your phone, it was attached to the specific carrier you used, especially if that carrier subsidized the phone (i.e. you got the phone free by signing a two-year contract).
The problem with a locked phone is that you can’t switch SIM cards to another provider. Until you pay off the phone and make a request to your carrier, that phone will remain “locked” into that service provider.
- Not sure if your phone is unlocked? Here’s a quick tip: unless you paid full price for your phone and specifically bought an “unlocked” phone, it is likely locked to keep you from switching carriers.
- Is your phone locked? To unlock your phone, 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 should have no objections to unlocking your phone. Expect this process to take a few days.
Step 2: Research Plans before Arriving in China
Multiple times I got a SIM card in China without thoroughly doing my homework. This resulted in having a bad service plan and paying more out of pocket. Researching plans and wireless carriers before your trip can ensure you will have steady phone service for the entirety of your trip.
The largest phone carrier in China is China Mobile (中国移动), followed by China Unicom (中国联通) and China Telecom (中国电信).
I personally recommend China Mobile for you to use during your trip to China. With China Mobile, you have the convenience of using the largest telecom service and there are stores everywhere selling China Mobile SIM cards. During my time in China, most of my foreign friends, colleagues, and classmates had China Mobile.
Through the end of December 2018, China Mobile is offering the following top two service plans:
China Mobile 188元 Plan
Includes up to 500 minutes (any received calls are free) and 12 GB of data. After going beyond 500 minutes you will be charged 0.19元 per extra minute incurred when paying your phone bill. After using all 12 GB of data, service is reduced to 1Mbps. Data is cut off after using 100 GB in a monthly billing period.
If you want this plan, show this text to the sales clerk: 我想要188元的套餐 (一个月500分钟全国主叫和12GB的流量) – Wǒ xiǎng yào 188 yuán de tàocān
China Mobile 288元 Plan
Includes up to 1,500 minutes (any received calls are also free) and 20 GB of data. Like with the smaller plan, after going beyond your plan’s total minutes you will be charged 0.19元 per extra minute incurred when paying your phone bill. After using all 20 GB of data, service is also reduced to 1Mbps. Data is cut off after using 100 GB in a monthly billing period.
If you want this plan, show this text to the sales clerk: 我想要288元的套餐 (一个月1,500分钟全国主叫和20GB的流量) – Wǒ xiǎng yào 288 yuán de tàocān
If you are just traveling to China for a number of weeks, the 188 RMB plan is likely to be sufficient. Should you run out of data, you can get what is referred to as a “add fuel pack” (加油包) where you pay 15RMB per additional GB of data.
Most plans also do not include SMS text messaging and charge for each text. Getting around this easy by downloading and sending texts through WeChat.
Should you be moving to China to stay long term, it may be worthwhile to check out other carriers like China Unicom or China Telecom. China Unicom is known for reliable 4G coverage and offers discounts for extended service plans. China Telecom, on the other hand, allows you to bundle phone service with Internet or TV should you want it in your apartment.
Step 3: Find the Right Store
You can literally get SIM cards everywhere in China. I even bought one once from someone selling them on the street – although this is becoming less and less common.
Who you want to purchase a SIM card from is up to you. But I recommend going to an official wireless carrier store to get set up.
Depending on the city you are visiting, you are more likely to find someone who speaks English if you run into major communication barriers.
Step 4: Get Your SIM Card
Before going to the store, ask your hotel to write in Chinese the plan you want or print out the list of plans so you can point to the one you would like to purchase.
Important: You need to take your passport with you as all wireless carriers are required to associate a photo ID with your account.
As you go through the sign-up procedure, you also get to pick your phone number (in some cases they’ll just assign one to you). Chinese people are really particular about lucky numbers, so it’s common for people to scroll through what’s available and pick the luckiest looking phone number.
When the time comes to pay for the plan, make sure the fees due match your expectations. If it deviates to a large degree, there was likely a miscommunication or hidden fees associated with your plan.
After paying the fee and placing the SIM card in your phone, you are GOOD TO GO!
Final Thoughts | Getting a SIM Card in China
As you can see, getting a SIM card in China isn’t extremely difficult, but you should expect the process to take a couple hours of your time.
As a side note, you will know if you have used up all your plan if you are unable to make calls or surf the Internet. When you use up all your plan, you can purchase a “recharge” card at almost any store. There are also kiosks you can use, but those require you to be able to read Chinese characters.
You can also easily have any local in China recharge your phone using the Alipay mobile app.
What kind of experience have you had with mobile carriers in China? Is there anything you would recommend differently for travelers getting a SIM card in China? Leave a comment below!