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.
Original publication: 13th of December 2019. Last updated: 14th of March 2023.
Table of Contents
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.
Best SIM Card in China
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 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.
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 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:
- South Korea
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.
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.
Local Prepaid SIM Card in Other Asian Countries
Visiting other countries in Asia? Check out my region-specific SIM card buying guides:
- Central Asia
- East Asia
- (Middle East)
- South Asia
- Southeast Asia (revamped in September 2022)
- West Asia
Or check out my SIM card buying guides for individual Asian countries:
Going to other places around the world? Then you should also check out my sim card buying guides for other destinations around the world.
Next Steps to Enhance Your Travel Experiences
Looking for the next steps to enhance your phone travel experiences? Here is what to do:
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