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 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.
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 )
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