Get a SIM Card as You Travel in China

SIM-card-Samsung-mini-4

If you are traveling in China and you want a local number and the ability to make a few calls while you are there or even use the internet for email or Google maps, let’s say, it is quite easy to buy a Chinese SIM card. While there may be an adequate amount of free WiFi here and there, having instant access when you are lost or looking for information or even translating symbols with your translation app is really convenient. One route to go is to get an international SIM card (such as One SIMcard, see below) while another possibility is your phone company at home (see below also).

Another company that provides SIM cards for China (as well as Thailand) before your trip is SIM Easy. They use China Unicom and offer cards good for 90 days for either data-only or data plus call time. They can be topped up at convenience stores and online during your time there as well. The rates are competitive and they offer free delivery by DHL to your home country before your trip (or express DHL delivery for about USD 12 if this is last minute).

However, you may choose to wait until you land to purchase a proper Chinese SIM card and there are two primary companies in China: China Unicom and China Mobile, the largest one in the world, by the way.

Be sure your phone works in China; GSM phones should have 900 and 1800 Mhz frequencies or bands. A “quad band” phone should work. Be sure that when you buy a SIM card, that the number is working. The person selling you the SIM card will likely call their office number as a test.

 

buying-chinese-SIM-beijing-airport

Buying a SIM card at Beijing International Airport: I bought mine right past immigration while I was standing at the belt waiting for my luggage. Near belt 40 in Terminal 1 there is a plain looking counter clearly marked in English. In fact, if you walk up to the information desk as you enter the luggage area and ask the nice person where to find it, she may blush and tell you to turn around – it’s right behind you.


China Unicom offers a 3G phone card for 150 yuan, which includes a balance of 50 yuan on the account. It took me just minutes and they do accept credit cards, of course. The attendant will also give you a half sheet of paper with the details of the deal on it. The card has a monthly fee of 26 yuan. And for this fee you will get 120 minutes of call time within China. Additionally, you will have 60MB of data. That may sound pretty good, but I plowed through mine just using Google maps and downloading some web pages. And if your phone is getting push notifications from some apps or email and then downloading automatically, this will also eat it up. You may consider shutting off your cellular data when you are not in need of it.

When the minutes are used up, additional minutes are 0.25 yuan, and when you exceed 60MB for the month, additional data is 0.3 yuan per MB. Text messaging is NOT included in the plan, but each SMS is 0.1 yuan.

You can make international calls with this by first dialing 10193 plus 00 and the country code and then the number. Prices can vary, but generally the international call rates are quite reasonable. Be sure to check them with the company first to know how far your balance is going to go. When your balance runs out, the cell company stores and most convenience stores offer top up cards. http://eng.chinaunicom.com/cs/

China Unicom’s customer service number is 10010 from your Chinese phone. Check your balance by sending a text that says “YE” to 10010.
 
Use an International SIM Card

Rather than swapping SIM cards in and out as you travel, this company allows you to keep the same SIM card when abroad. OneSIMcard is another good option and can be used not only in China, but around the world.
 
Using Your Home Phone Company

Typically these plans can be pre-purchased and may be costly or a gamble if you are not sure you’re even going to use it. Read the fine print and weigh the advantages. How much are you really going to use your phone? But occasionally there is a good deal for travelers, and for Americans, I must recommend my own phone company, T-Mobile. I actually have free unlimited data and texts with $0.20 per minute calling in over 140 countries — including China. Plus I can receive local calls in the US and no one knows I’m on the other side of the planet. That seems crazy to me, but I have thus far personally used this plan in over 20 countries outside the USA. Word of warning: before you go dumping your phone company, check how strong your coverage is at home. Ironically, I have unlimited data in Sri Lanka and on a mountain top in Thailand or in the middle of the forests in the Arctic Circle in Finland, but I am roaming one hour north of my hometown in Wisconsin. Still worth it for me due to the enormous amount of traveling I do, but an irritant when I want to check email while camping in the Northwoods.

Get Unlimited Data and Text in 140+ Countries and Destinations, all at no extra charge

 

Recharging a Chinese Unicom account

Go to either a China Unicom phone store or most convenience stores and buy the recharge card for China Unicom. Then call China Unicom at 10011 and follow the English prompts. Some places offer a instant recharge machine. Pay the cashier and use the machine. You’ll enter your phone number twice to avoid doing someone else a favor. When the transaction goes through, you will get a text message.

Here’s what you might say at a convenience stores when you want to tell them you want to add money: jia qian dianhua (or show them this: 加钱电话 )

See more Chinese Travel Tips

17 thoughts on “Get a SIM Card as You Travel in China

  • November 17, 2014 at 5:09 am
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    To Author Kevin Revolinski, sorry i have to correct some information you wrote. As far as i know, the card you describled has monthly fee 46yuan instead of 26yuan. It has 40MB data instead of 60MB data. The card is not able to use 10193 for international calls. There are many types of topup cards but only one topup card (Yikachong) works outside Beijing. The safest way is to top up at Unicom shops.

    To China Traveler, It is true that price may be 2 – 10 times of acutal cost when you buy from online resellers, especially from overseas resellers. The cheapest way is to buy at Unicom shops. You shall choose one package listed here http://www.3gsolutions.com.cn/page/mthplan. To buy at airport, it is not cheap at all due to expensive airport couter rental. It is sold at least 3 times of its acutal cost. More expensive than the same item sold online here http://www.3gsolutions.com.cn/3s120 by local company. They provide good after sales support / online topup and got many good reviews.

    Reply
    • November 17, 2014 at 5:33 am
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      Thanks, Ben, And just to be clear, the costs and conditions in the post were precisely what I received/paid at the Beijing airport in April, 2014 and in the information packet they gave to me when I purchased it. So I cannot confirm or deny that the price is so much higher at the airport or if it has recently changed, but as of April it was quite reasonable and easy. Unicom shops seem to be the way to go and the re-charge stations at the convenience stores didn’t happen for me and the clerks often had no idea what I was talking about or how they worked.

      Reply
  • November 17, 2014 at 1:05 pm
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    Hi Kevin, I think the vendor provided you some wrong information either by accident or on purpose at that time. I agree it is not easy to top up at the convenience store where they only sell recharge vouchers (many types) but they don’t know which one is right for you and no English speaking. Even you buy the correct one, you have to top up by yourself but it is also hard things to do since all in Chinese on the voucher paper. At Unicom shop it becomes easier. You just tell them “Chongzhi” or “充值” and your phone number, then they will recharge your number immediately.

    Reply
  • June 6, 2015 at 4:25 pm
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    Were you able to use your Western iphone for this? I’m hoping I don’t have to get a new phone, just a new sim card, when I got to China next month.

    Reply
    • June 6, 2015 at 5:37 pm
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      If it accepts SIM cards and it is a GSM phone not a branded CDMA phone (does iPhone even do that??) tied to a phone company, you should be fine.

      Reply
  • June 10, 2015 at 7:31 am
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    We’re in Beijing on vacation and tried at several stores to purchase a Chinese SIM card but we’re told by all vendors that we required Chinese identification and as such, could not sell one to us. Is this the case? If not, where in Beijing could one acquire a SIM card?

    Reply
    • June 10, 2015 at 11:06 am
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      Airport for sure, but your passport should be enough. What kind of stores did you visit?

      Reply
  • June 11, 2015 at 8:56 am
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    I was trying stores more in the outlying regions. Was able to pick up one in the Wangfujing area. Didn’t require any ID.

    Reply
  • July 6, 2015 at 2:43 am
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    next time try to find me n I’ll try to help you with something, in fact sometimes it can be done without showing your passport to get a SIM card to protect your privacy but just for unkow time, a few months or a few years , i cant predict this period but its still valid until now.

    add my wechat (HSKTutor) if you need help on this.

    Reply
  • July 13, 2015 at 8:23 am
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    China Mobile works better than Unicom, but as Ben pointed out, it may be cheaper to head to Unicom shops. also, thanks for those corrections Ben.

    Reply
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  • September 2, 2015 at 7:09 am
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    This was very helpful. Thank you

    Reply
  • January 9, 2016 at 12:22 pm
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    Do these SIMs work all over China, with the possibility of adding credit in different cities? Any suggestions for a suitable SIM package for a 3 weeks visit with most phone use being international text messaging. Thanks.

    Reply
  • March 25, 2016 at 3:14 am
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    3gSolutions have several packages. For $29.99USD you can get 1GB data, 100 minutes outgoing international calling, 300 domestic texting, unlimited incoming international calls and messages. I think this is better than what has been mentioned in the above comments. The reviews are good with everyone saying they are reliable and give good service when in China. You pay at home and pick up the sim card at your hotel.
    One problem though, is that the package is only valid in the month you activate it. Not good if you are traveling within two separate months. The data only package, with 3GB data, is good for 180 days from first use. $48.00 US
    None of it is good for Macau or Hong Kong.

    Reply

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