8 Things You Need to Know About Chinese SIM Cards

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China is the country with the most mobile users in the world. If you live in China, I am sure you bought a Chinese SIM card in order to stay mobile. Cellphone plans are pretty cheap and the purchasing process is easy. However, there are certain things you should be aware of before purchasing a Chinese SIM card! I seem to have a love/hate relationship with my card but we try to make it work…

There Are Three Basically Identical Providers

Chinese SIM cards are very cheap!

There are three companies in China that offer telecommunication services: China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom. Each of the three providers use a different protocol for their 3G technology but this doesn’t make a difference for the user. Even the prices are basically identical. China Mobile is the most widespread and enjoys a good reputation to have a stable network coverage but this isn’t always the case. I decided to get a SIM card from China Unicom because my Chinese friends recommended it to me.

There Are Roaming Charges For Domestic Travel In Other Provinces

China’s size can easily be compared to Europe. That’s why it’s no surprise that local phone providers organized the network to provinces and charge roaming fees if you leave the province where you bought your card. However, these charges are not considerably high. Only if you make long calls, you might be surprised when you see the bill. The exact price depends on the type of card you are using, which you can read in the instructions.

Not All Prepaid Cards Are The Same

There are many choices!

Not every prepaid card from China Mobile has the same charges. There are cards which are ideal for people who send a lot of text messages. Others include a flat-rate for mobile surfing. There are even specials for international calling. Not every card let’s you make international calls let alone make calls abroad. The good news: No need to worry about different options at first! Just choose the cheapest plan and then add different options later. I chose a special option for less calling, less texting but a big 3G data volume. In the beginning, my plan included too many minutes that I didn’t use so I adapted my plan accordingly.

You Can’t Receive Calls Without Credit

If you didn’t get a call or a text message in a while, you should probably check if you still have credit or not. After your credit is used up, you are not able to receive any calls or messages any more. You usually get various text messages from your provider that tell you when your credit is low.

You Often Get Advertising Calls And Messages

Sooner or later you will receive a Chinese text message. For example, if you travel in a foreign province and the local China Mobile provider welcomes you. A little more annoying, however, are advertising calls or text messages that pop up on your display every now and then. It’s very annoying if you receive a call from an unknown number at 1 am and only rings once. The idee behind this is that you should call them back and pay. Therefore, NEVER call back unknown numbers!

Your Cellphone Is The Perfect Navigation For Cab Drivers

It’s very convenient if you can type Chinese characters on your phone. In that case, you can easily find addresses and navigate them with your Baidu Maps or show them to taxi drivers. Taxi drivers usually can’t understand addresses in Pinyin (Chinese in Latin letters) and they also don’t speak English. I even encountered taxi drivers who weren’t

able to read Chinese characters. In that case, a Chinese phone app that can speak the characters might be helpful if you can’t speak Chinese!

Either way, I highly recommend downloading Baidu Maps, the Chinese Google equivalent, since it even shows you bus stops and routes. Another useful taxi app is Didi Dache which lets you easily connect with taxi drivers who will come and pick you up – at least in theory. In my experience, Didi Dache is great but not for rush hour times! It’s highly popular these days and books over 5 million rides a day!

Didi Dache – the new taxi app!

Lots Of Free Wifi Networks Require A Chinese Phone Number

Don’t think you can avoid buying a Chinese SIM card because you have a laptop or tablet. If you visit Starbucks, McDonalds or airports and you want to use the free Wifi service, you first need to get a verification code via text message. Many airports offer cheap SIM cards right at the terminal!

Text Messages Are Censored

It’s no secret that big brother is watching you in China. Therefore, if you send text messages through Chinese providers, they are automatically filtered for certain key words. These don’t have to be political. Even vulgar messages might not reach the receiver. If you text in English, however, the censoring is usually not affected.

Bonus: Just Download WeChat!

If you stay in China for a longer time and you make lots of Chinese or expat friends, I recommend using WeChat (Chinese: 微信; pinyin: Wēixìn; literally: “micro message”). It’s a free messaging app very similar to What’s App but it can do so much more! It allows you to send voice messages, find friends nearby, get vouchers for restaurants/stores and even pay!

What is your China phone experience?

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Linda has been living in Asia since 2012 and loves sharing her travel and life experiences on her website. She currently works remotely in Online Marketing and also teaches various English classes in South Korea.

No Comments

  1. CrazyChineseFamily on December 1, 2014 at 1:36 pm

    I never bought a chinese sim as I personaly had no use for it so far but this might change over time…(not even my wife got a chinese card thus far!)
    I am wondering just now, how is the 3G network? I mean in Europe it gets as slow as possible as soon 10 people are suingit in the same room, so in China it must be very interesting especially when I thinkabout the impossible slow cable internet connections there 😮

    • lindalindsch on December 1, 2014 at 2:20 pm

      it’s actually really stable! and even in metros you can still mostly access 3G! 🙂

      • CrazyChineseFamily on December 1, 2014 at 8:11 pm

        I dream about that here 🙁

        • lindalindsch on December 2, 2014 at 9:14 am

          really? in Germany?

          • CrazyChineseFamily on December 2, 2014 at 1:21 pm

            So far germany has been a nightmare with 3G connection and the cable internet, oh my god, so slow and so expensive 😮

          • lindalindsch on December 2, 2014 at 4:09 pm

            where do you live?

          • CrazyChineseFamily on December 2, 2014 at 8:13 pm

            In neumùnster a small city near Hamburg. However the very same issues I encounter in many other German cities before (especially the high prices for internet connections!)

          • lindalindsch on December 3, 2014 at 1:48 pm

            hm that’s weird!

  2. Ray H on December 1, 2014 at 4:15 pm

    I love how in China (and other developing countries, especially great for travel) it’s so much easier to customize your unlocked phone and just buy a SIM card at every corner store. Contracts are so annoying in Western countries. Although that is slowly starting to change.

    When I went back to America in 2010 — with no phone — I had to waste a lot of money on buying a phone to use just for a few weeks. When I went back last year, it was totally different and various companies let you buy reasonably priced temporary SIM cards for unlocked smartphones.

    It’s still annoying because you have to seek out telecommunications shops specifically, not just any 7-11 or newsstand, but better than it used to be. In this way, the developing world is way better than modern countries with cellular monopolies!

    • lindalindsch on December 2, 2014 at 9:13 am

      totally agree! thanks Ray!

  3. Ri on December 1, 2014 at 7:04 pm

    Oh! This is really handy info for traveling. As much as I hate to admit it, I don’t want to be *completely* disconnected when traveling. Good to know what to look out forーthanks! ^^

    • lindalindsch on December 2, 2014 at 9:14 am

      absolutely! i love sharing my favorite travel moments on facebook and instagram and NEED to connect with family, friends and especially Jeongsu! 🙂 totally understand

  4. mang0es on December 2, 2014 at 3:53 am

    About that “Free Wi-Fi” … yep it’s free but you need a text enabled phone.. Luckily one member in our party had a dumbphone with a Chinese number so we were all able to use Wi-Fi at airports! 😀

    By the way.. the last header about downoading WeChat – you mispelled “donwload”. I’ve also discovered that only WeChat and WhatsApp works in China. App Store and Google Play both don’t work so I highly recommend downloading and updating all your apps before going to Mainland China!

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