Staying connected with data and cellular / SMS services on your smartphone is relatively cheap and easy in China. Having 4G data is very useful for tourists who want to use translation apps, maps, messaging apps, and social media or email.
This guide will explain how to get a pre-paid SIM card as a tourist in China.
1. Get your SIM card at the airport or border crossing (or in Hong Kong)
Unless you happen to have a Chinese ID or resident permit (work permit), you will probably be unable to get a SIM card at regular mobile phone or service provider. Government regulations require Chinese ID to register for a new phone number.
In order to get a Chinese SIM card as a tourist, you will need to find a shop that deals with tourists. Typically you will be able to find one at any Chinese airport or border crossing. The clerks at these stores will be more accustomed to serving foreigners compared to a random store in China where English might not be spoken.
If you have a Chinese friend, you can ask them register a new SIM card in their name. Remember that the phone number will always be linked to their Chinese ID, so don’t go linking financial accounts (i.e Chinese Banks or online payments) to that phone number.
Get a SIM in Hong Kong
Many tourists coming to China will fly first to Hong Kong (since it is a major airport hub). When in Hong Kong, you can go to a China Unicom or China Mobile store and get a Hong Kong – Mainland China SIM that works in both jurisdictions. A dual HK-China SIM will typically be more expensive but has the added bonus of not requiring a VPN to access blocked apps and websites while in China, as the SIM uses roaming while in China.
2. Choosing a service provider
China has three major telecom providers: China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom.
When it comes to 4G data and cellular for foreign bought phones, you will want to stick to China Mobile or China Unicom. China Telecom uses a strange wireless standard that will not work for most non-Chinese phones.
If you have a modern phone (Iphone 6 or later) that has GSM bands, you are probably fine to use either network (China Unicom or China Mobile). However if you are unsure about the wireless frequency bands of your phone you should probably stick to China Unicom because the 4G bands are more likely to be compatible with your foreign phone.
Data and cellular services are quite cheap in China. You can expect to pay between 60 – 100 RMB to register a new SIM with about 1GB of data + a small amount of voice call credit for one month. Extra data or credit can easily be added to your SIM later.
4. Checking your balance
If you want to check how much credit / data is left on your SIM, try the following:
For China Unicom:
Text “ye” to 10010
For China Mobile:
Text “ye” to 10086
You will receive a text message back (in Chinese) that will show your remaining balance. Don’t worry if you can’t read Chinese, the numbers will be plainly displayed and easy to infer which is data and which is credit remaining.
5. Adding more credit or data
If you run out of data or credit, you can always add more. There are two ways to do this:
- Go to a China Unicom / China Mobile / cellphone store and pay cash to add credit or data.
- Ask a Chinese person to add data or credit using WeChat or Alipay
China Unicom and China Mobile stores are everywhere. Finding one shouldn’t be difficult in any main area. You can pay cash to add credit or data to your SIM card. The cost should be about 30 RMB for 1 GB.
WeChat or Alipay Apps
All locals will have WeChat — a type of Chinese messaging and social media app. But the app also acts as a mobile payment platform that is used everywhere in China. The WeChat “wallet” can also be used to instantly top up your (or anyone’s) smartphone data or credit instantly from anywhere.
Unfortunately, to use WeChat pay, you need to have a Chinese bank account. If you have a Chinese friend or friendly passerby, you can ask them to add data or credit to your phone in exchange for cash. All they need is to enter your phone number and the amount of credit or data you wish to top up. The process is almost instant.
Mobile data is comparatively cheap and painless to setup in China. Travellers to China should be forewarned that having a SIM card will not be enough to keep you connected to certain apps like Facebook, Google Apps, and Instagram because the internet is censored. Be sure to install a VPN app on your phone (or tablet / laptop) before coming to China. You can check out reviews of the best vpn for China on the web.