Buying a Prepaid SIM Card in China Guide

Planning on going to China soon? Good choice! China is such a big country, which makes it a diverse destination. China may not be the cheapest destination in East Asia, but it is still relatively cheap. Enjoy the nightlife in Shanghai or Beijing or explore nature in rural provinces. All of that sounds great, but what about the phone options you have in China?

If you are from East or Southeast Asia, your provider may offer free roaming services in China. If not, then you may not want to roam because roaming can be expensive. This is why many seasoned travelers explore the local SIM card options before visiting China to prevent bill shock and use their phones at local rates. Let’s explore the SIM card options for China.

Telecom Providers in China

First, I have to mention that this article focuses solely on mainland China, so not Hong Kong or Macau because these destinations have different telecom providers than mainland China. Thus, they deserve their own article. The same counts for Taiwan (which some may consider being part of China while others do not).

China has 3 providers, which are China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom. The three operators are owned by the Chinese government. China does have several Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs). However, to get a SIM card from these companies, you need to have a Chinese address and register with your Chinese ID, which is why they will not be covered in this article.

What SIM card should you buy when visiting China? If you want to buy a SIM card in China, I would recommend getting a SIM card from China Unicom because of the flexibility they provide. China Unicom’s coverage is extensive, meaning that you should not experience many blank spots with their service when exploring China.

China is the country with the largest population, which is around 1.4 billion. To put this into perspective, China’s population is 4.2x larger than the United States or has a population of the US, Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil, Nigeria, and Bangladesh combined! India is following China’s footsteps with a population of 1.35 billion people. With having such a population, telecom providers can make big money.

China Mobile has the largest market share in China of 60% with more than 900 million subscribers. That makes China Mobile the biggest operator in the world. Both China Unicom and China Telecom have a market share of 20% each.

As you probably know, China is not the freest country out there in terms of freedom of speech or doing business. Unlike some destinations, tourists can buy SIM cards in China, which is neat. However, you may get access to tourist SIM cards only, which will be more expensive than SIM cards locals can get, but it is still better and cheaper than roaming with your provider.

Moreover, real-name registration is required when buying a Chinese SIM card. Apparently, in the past, you could buy SIM cards from street vendors, but that is not possible anymore. Do not use the SIM card of someone else because SIM card activity is tracked by the authorities. If you, for example, try to search for something that is considered to be sensitive, you and the person borrowing the SIM card could be in serious trouble.

When going to an official store to buy your SIM card, bring your passport with you and a copy of your Chinese address (which could be your ho(s)tel, Airbnb, address of friends or relatives you are staying with) – preferably in Chinese.

Furthermore, it is recommended to cancel your plan before you leave China. According to some reports, if you do not cancel your plan and try to get a new SIM card when visiting China again, you will not be able to because you will have been blacklisted. Be sure to ask the salesperson about the cancelation policy so that you do not have to deal with nasty surprises in the future.

Some travelers decide to buy a SIM card in Hong Kong and use it to roam in China because some providers offer attractive roaming rates or free roaming in China with a Hong Kong SIM card. This is an option to consider if you are flying into Hong Kong before going to China or if your visa has multiple entries.

The main reason why some decide to roam with a SIM card from Hong Kong is that those cards do not have to deal with the Great Firewall of China, which blocks over 10 000 websites, including most Google products (Google itself, Gmail, and YouTube), Facebook, Wikipedia, and Reddit. You can also use a solid VPN (Virtual Private Network) to circumvent this censorship.

I have used NordVPN in China, and it worked decently (authorities apparently throttle the speeds of known VPNs, which is why the random outages. You can get up to 70% off when you get a NordVPN subscription. Get your NordVPN subscription today!

Now that we have all of that out of the way, it is time to see what options the three Chinese telecom providers offer.

Tip: Looking for cheap flights? Book with AirWander and add stopovers! Not in a hurry yet? Set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog and get notified when ticket prices for your preferred route(s) drop!

China Unicom

China Unicom Logos

China Unicom is the second-largest mobile carrier in the country and the only one that has 3G compatibility with foreign cellular devices. Although its coverage is not as extensive as China Mobile, it can still offer you very strong service – hey, more than you would have otherwise, right?

China Unicom covers nearly 90% of the country’s population, so, even though it is not thought to be as far-reaching as China Mobile, chances are, you will still be covered no matter where you travel in the country. China Unicom operates a GSM/WCDMA/4G/LTE network with nationwide coverage, offering voice, text, and internet browsing – along with the bonus of high-speed WiFi hotspots.

This carrier is highly flexible as well, not requiring contracts or hidden fees in case you only need a SIM card for just a week or long enough to live there for a while. China Unicom offers a pay-as-you-go prepaid plan for those who need only short-term coverage.

China Mobile

China Mobile Logo

A SIM card with China Mobile offers coverage for mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau. China Mobile offers a wide variety of SIM cards based on your travel needs, including Hong Kong Connecting Tone, Call Forwarding Service, Conference Call Service, Mobile Data Service, and more.

China Mobile SIM cards can also be purchased through many different avenues: CMH shops, convenience stores, and telecom product shops or dealers. With all these different options, you can choose to plan and purchase your mobile needs ahead of time, or just go with the flow and purchase a SIM card on a whim as you walk through the streets of Beijing.

There are prepaid SIM card services for travelers based on length of stay, country of origin, and where in China you plan to travel to. Users can purchase service from as low as 2G up to 4G. The outbound SIM card service for Americans and Canadians can be used in the U.S., Canada, and Hong Kong with up to 50 minutes of local airtime, tethering, connection to any social networking and Hong Kong website, and more.

China Telecom

China Telecom Logo

China Telecom offers a few different options for the traveler and local plans – you can decide which you need depending on the length and purpose of your trip.

For instance, if you are visiting for a short leisure trip, you have the option of a 14-day plan or a 60-day plan. For the 14-day option, you get 4G LTE speeds for the first 2 GB and unlimited data afterward, unlimited nationwide talk, unlimited international calls to 10 countries, and unlimited international text for $28. The 60-day plan comes with unlimited data, of which the first 5 GB are on 4G LTE speeds for $49.

The international countries you can call to are:

  • Canada
  • China (P.R of China, which includes Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau)
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Japan
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico
  • Singapore
  • South Korea
  • Thailand
  • China

Local plans, on the other hand, offer similar amenities – except unlimited international calling in up to 20 countries, more GB offered at 4G LTE and dual numbers at various prices. The local plans, however, are offered exclusively in 30-day periods, so they may not be the best option for travelers looking for coverage on a brief excursion.

The four local plans start from $19/30 days up to $49/30 days ($19, $29, $39 & $49). The difference between each plan is the 4G LTE speed allowance you get, which are 500 MB, 4 GB, 7 GB, and 10 GB.

Other Ways to Stay Connected When Traveling in China

Besides getting a Chinese SIM card, there are different ways of staying connected when exploring China, such as using an international SIM card, roaming with your provider, using pocket WIFI, or WIFI networks.

International SIM Cards

You can consider purchasing an international SIM card. International SIM cards are SIM cards that can be used internationally without the roaming charges.

There are many international SIM cards out there, such as OneSimCard, SimOptions, Surfroam, Simcorner, and BNESIM. These SIM cards with the same as roaming with your provider, but the charges are often way less than actually roaming because they have been set up for international travel.

International SIM cards give you the same convenience as roaming with your provider. As in, not having to get numerous SIM cards, you will not use again, and being reachable on one number instead of multiple. In most cases, you can use your international SIM when back home, but their rates will be high compared to using your carrier.

Do note that using an international SIM card is often more expensive than using a local SIM card but cheaper than roaming with your provider. International SIM cards are appealing for those who travel frequently and cannot be bothered with the hassle of purchasing a SIM card each time they arrive at a new destination. Additionally, constantly having to switch SIM cards and using different phone numbers may discourage seasoned travelers from buying local SIM cards.

If you are visiting only one destination for a short period, get a local SIM card (or roam with your provider if they have attractive roaming rates or plans). If you travel often and want to be able to be contacted on one phone number when visiting multiple destinations, international SIM cards could be attractive. Check out my international SIM card comparison article, where I analyzed the top 10 leading international SIM cards out there.

Roaming with Your Provider

Roaming is a term used in wireless telecommunication that indicates a mobile device is outside the range of its home network and has connected to a different, available cell network. If you use your phone in China without changing SIM cards, you would be roaming in China.

You have probably read numerous horror stories of travelers who went abroad for a while and came back home to a phone bill in the thousands because they were roaming. An example of such a story is this individual who received a bill of £8,348.41 for data roaming for 40 minutes. I also found the reason why roaming is so expensive.

No idea how roaming works? I made this comprehensive guide about what roaming is and how it works. It is worth the read – promised!

Roaming can be convenient because you do not have to wait in line to get a local SIM card, go through the whole SIM card registration process, and can easily be reached when friends and family who are in your home country want to call or text you.

However, this convenience comes at a cost – a high cost if you do not watch out. But this does not always have to be the case.

Some carriers allow you to roam for free in select countries, such as Three. Three operates in multiple countries, such as Denmark, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, and a few others. They have a program called Roam Like Home or a slight variation of that depending on where you are from.

Three Denmark includes free roaming in more than 60 destinations around the world, including China. This means that Three customers can use their plan's data, voice, and text allowance in China at no additional cost, although certain restrictions apply (such as the hard cap of a maximum of 20 GB of roaming data regardless of whether you have a higher data cap in your plan or not).

Other carriers allow you to use your plan's allowance if you pay a fixed daily fee. For example, Koodo, a Canadian provider, allows you to use your plan's allowance with their program called Koodo Easy Roam International for $12 a day, which can be used in China as well. This means that if you get 10 GB a month, you can use those 10 GB in China as well.

However, you should take caution with such plans. They are convenient and inexpensive when done for a few days, but not when going abroad for a week or more. I often argue that one can use these plans if you are staying abroad for a maximum of three days. If longer, than you are better off with a local SIM card, which will give you more bang for your buck. Check out my articles to see if your provider offers roaming bundles.

Finally, you can roam on Pay As You Go roaming rates. With standard roaming rates, you get charged per action on the go. In other words, you get charged per minute, SMS, or KB/MB. Often, Pay As You Go roaming rates are insanely high (which leads to those stories where people got charged into the thousands), and should be avoided in most cases. However, some providers do have reasonable standard roaming rates, especially to neighboring countries.

In general, I would discourage you from roaming on Pay As You Go roaming rates when visiting China, but it is still an option to explore. If you want to see what your carrier would charge you, check out my roaming with your provider articles with my analysis and verdicts.

Pocket WIFI

If you do not want to get a local SIM card or an international SIM card and do not feel like roaming either, then you can get pocket WIFI. A portable hotspot is a device that acts as your personal router that you can take with you. This hotspot connects to the cellular networks of your destination – just like your phone would do but without the roaming costs.

There are many portable hotspots out there. Two reputable pocket WIFI companies I know are Skyroam (use coupon code PHONETRAVELWIZ) and Vision Global Wireless. WIFI access with Skyroam starts at $8 a day. Using a Vision Global device starts at $2 a day. Both services cover more than 130 destinations around the world.

A pocket WIFI device is ideal for those who are traveling with families or multiple individuals. This way, everyone can connect to the device and enjoy the WIFI network on the go. Some companies will charge you per GB while others will give you unlimited data. Be aware of the data restrictions of your device so that you will not receive a high bill after your travels.

Using Free WIFI Connections

If you do not want to pay anything extra for staying connected while in China, then you can choose to connect to WIFI networks instead of cellular networks.

Although using WIFI hotspots may save you money, it may not be convenient as using a SIM card. First, you would have to find WIFI hotspots. When I was in China, most free WIFI hotspots required me to give up my details, including a Chinese phone number. Back then, I used my Three Denmark SIM card to roam for free in China, so I did not bother with signing up. As I did not need these hotspots myself, I cannot tell whether there are many hotspots around the country, but I am sure there are many in the big cities.  

Additionally, public WIFI hotspots are unsecure. I would recommend using a Virtual Private Network (VPN) if you connect to an unfamiliar network. The VPN will encrypt your data and will keep your data private. I use NordVPN, and you can get up to 70% off when you get a NordVPN subscription. Get your NordVPN subscription today!

The Best Way to Stay Connected When Traveling in China

Getting a SIM card from China Unicom would do you well when considering a Chinese SIM card. Be sure to explore the roaming options your provider offers you, as they may offer free or cheap roaming bundles.

You could also consider getting an international SIM card or using a portable hotspot. International SIM cards are attractive for those visiting multiple destinations at once or within a year. Portable hotspots will be useful when traveling with multiple people so that not each individual has to get a SIM card but can use the hotspot.

Visiting other countries in East Asia? Check out my East Asian SIM card buying guide, covering other East Asia countries, such as Hong Kong, Japan, Macau, Mongolia, South Korea, and Taiwan. Going to other places around the world? Then you should also check out my sim card buying guides for other destinations around the world.

What is next?

Looking for the best companies and gadgets to enhance your travel experience? Check out my resource page for the best companies to use when you travel! Save money on plane tickets, bus rides, cruises, and accommodation. Besides that, I also list services and items I use to make my life easier – and I believe they will help you too!

Book Your Flight for China

It is time to book your flight. Find cheap flights with AirWander so that you can add free or cheap stopovers in destinations you have not considered yet before going to China. If you are not ready to take off yet, set up flight alerts with Airfarewatchdog, and they will notify you once ticket prices to China drop.

Book Your Accommodation for China

I am a huge fan of Airbnb because it allows me to live with a local or get a local place for myself. Staying in someone’s house or apartment feels much different than being in a ho(s)tel, especially in China. At least, that is how I see it. Moreover, Airbnb can often be much cheaper than staying in a Chinese hotel.

Get Your Travel Insurance for China

You will regret not having travel insurance once you actually need it and “forgot” to get it. Nowadays, travel insurance is cheap and comprehensive unlike back in the days. World Nomads is by far the best travel insurance for adventurous travelers like yourself. You can even get insured WHILE already traveling in China, which is not something many insurance companies allow you to do.

Get a Travel Debit Card

Travel Cheques are outdated. Paying with your credit card or debit card can be expensive because of all the exchange commissions banks charge you. TransferWise allows you to convert your main currency to the local currency for a small fee (up to 8 times less than with your bank!) Getting a Transferwise Borderless account is FREE, so you will get an instant return on your investment.

Enjoy your trip!

Ernest Adu

Ernest Adu, going by just Adu, is the founder and editor at Phone Travel Wiz. He has been a traveler for 6 years. Although from Europe, the Netherlands, Adu's favorite region in Asia, in particular, East and Southeast Asia. He currently lives in Tainan, Taiwan, and plans on exploring Oceania and more of East and Southeast Asia.

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