- Our Ultimate Guide to China Sim Cards in 2018
- The Big 3 Mobile Carriers in China
- Best Mobile Carrier VERDICT: China Unicom
- Adding Credit / Data packages using Wechat or Alipay
- Buy a SIM card before you leave?
- Rent a portable wifi router for China?
- Long Term Monthly Mobile Service Subscription
- Get a VPN BEFORE you leave for China
- Last Words
Our Ultimate Guide to China Sim Cards in 2018
If you are coming to China for travel, work, or living — and you are a self respecting citizen of our modern world — then you will need a China SIM card in order to stay connected to the web through your mobile phone and to make calls (or SMS text messages, but I don’t know anybody who still uses SMS now in the days of Facebook messenger, Whatsapp, LINE, We Chat, and Kakao Talk). You will also probably want to get a VPN for China so you can connect to Facebook, Google, and Youtube.
As in most Asian countries that I have travelled to, it is usually a breeze to get a pre-paid SIM card. They are cheap, easy to recharge credits, and you can get connected in virtually a couple minutes. Just make sure that your phone is already unlocked, and you will have no trouble using a new SIM.
China mobile networks operates much in the same way, however there are a few wrinkles that you should be aware of — so here is a guide to help you figure out which SIM card to get when you come to China.
The Big 3 Mobile Carriers in China
There are 3 major mobile internet carriers in China: China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom.
China Mobile, 中国移动
The largest mobile carrier with about 70% market share. China Mobile shopfronts are EVERYWHERE in China. So even if you for some unknown reason find yourself out in rural-nowhere China, you might not be able to find a real toilet, but at least you will still be able to get a SIM card there.
Coverage: Very good. Virtually everywhere in China.
- 2G GSM Service is compatible with any quad-band unlocked phone.
- 3G service is based on a weird Chinese-made TD-SCDMA standard, which unfortunately is not compatible with many phones from outside China. If you brought your own phone from outside China, you might not be able to use 3G on China Mobile’s Network.
- 4G LTE has been rolled out in most major areas and cities in China. Again, the LTE bands are a little different from the USA and other countries. Your foreign iPhone 6 probably will not be able to use China Mobile’s 4G, but most IPhone 6s should be fine.
China Unicom, 中国联通
The 2nd largest mobile carrier in China, and is the only carrier that has 3G that will work with phones from outside China.
Coverage: China Unicom coverage is not as extensive as China Mobile, but is still very good. It covers nearly 90% of the population, so chances are you will be covered wherever you are.
- 2G GSM Service compatible with any quad-band unlocked phone.
- 3G UMTS compatible with any unlocked phone that supports 2100mhz 3G, which covers most modern smartphones. HSPA+ 21.1 service recently launched in most major cities, which again, just requires any 2100mhz smartphone.
- 4G LTE has rolled out in most major areas in China. It works well with almost any unlocked GSM phone. (I have used international versions of an Iphone 6 and Samsung S3 on this network without trouble)
China Telecom, 中国电信
China Telecom uses a CDMA network which is incompatible with virtually all phones purchased outside China. If you are thinking of purchasing a phone that only works in China (why you would do that, I have no idea), then I guess you could look at China Telecom. Otherwise, pass on it.
Best Mobile Carrier VERDICT: China Unicom
Go with China Unicom. It has 4G / HSPA+ that works with international mobile phones and the coverage is almost as good as the leader, China Mobile. China Mobile has a weird 3G CDMA standard that works mostly with phones purchased in China. Furthermore, China Mobile has an awful in country roaming plan (i.e if you register a Beijing number but make calls in Shanghai), that charges you extra if you make calls in other provinces. China Unicom is the clear winner for us because the 4G and 3G bands are most compatible with foreign phones.
Update: Unless you are using an old phone (pre-2015), China Mobile and China Unicom are pretty much the same. But if you have to choose, we recommend China Unicom — just in case
China Unicom Pre-paid Sim-Card Plans
Here’s a basic pre-paid SIM card plan from China Unicom:
China Unicom: Basic 4G Voice/Data SIM,
- 99RMB, monthly prepaid.
- Billed the same regardless of where you are or where you are calling in China.
- 50 minutes of outgoing calls
- 240 outgoing SMS
- 300MB of 4G data
- Incoming calls and SMS are free
- Additional outgoing calls are 0.2 RMB/minute anywhere in China.
- Additional data is billed at .3 RMB/MB, or 30RMB per 100MBs. This is deducted from whatever balance you have loaded onto the SIM card.
To buy the SIM card, go to any China Unicom storefront, or a mobile phone vendor. Ask for “4G Plan A, 99RMB”. If you go to an official China Unicom store, usually someone will speak English, or just point to the brochure where it lists “4G Plan A, 99RMB”. You will probably need to bring your passport!
To load more credit simply go to any convenience store and purchase a top up card. Most Unicom storefronts also have a direct electronic system, just give them some cash and your phone number and they will deposit the credit to your account.
For the more technically savvy, you can use Taobao (or ask a Chinese friend) to add credit to your SIM card. It should show up instantly as soon as you pay.
Adding Credit / Data packages using Wechat or Alipay
The easiest option for topping up your SIM card is to use WeChat or Alipay. Under the “wallet” section, there is an option to top up your mobile phone (general add money or buy data only). For this you will need a bank card linked to your WeChat or some funds in your WeChat account (lucky money!).
You could also ask a Chinese friend to help you out with this, since any Wechat / Alipay account can be used to top up any phone number (just type it in and pay). Data refills usually go for about 21 RMB for 1 GB of data. AMAZING!
Buy a SIM card before you leave?
Some companies can sell you a pre-paid SIM card and deliver it to you before you get to China. This means you will be connected as soon as you get off the plane when you arrive– a huge plus if you use Uber at the airport. Comnet Mobile offers a pre-paid SIM card pre-loaded with credit that you can purchase from their website here. They offer Dual HK/China China Unicom SIM cards that, because they offer Hong Kong data roaming, don’t require a VPN to circumvent the internet censorship while in China. The only downside is that data rates are much higher this way (compared to buying a China only SIM), but at least you won’t need to purchase a VPN for your phone (computer users will still need a VPN!).
Another company that can ship you a China SIM card to your home before you leave, or to your hotel when you arrive, is LoyoMobile. This is a huge advantage as some mobile shops in China will have difficulty selling you a normal SIM card if you aren’t a Chinese citizen or resident permit holder.
Rent a portable wifi router for China?
If you are travelling with a partner and have many mobile devices it might be a good idea to rent a pocket wifi router. That way everyone in your group can stay connected. You can rent a pocket router from an automated kiosk at the Beijing and Shanghai (Pudong) Airports for about 20$ / GB + 100$ refundable deposit. 3GSolutions offers router delivery to your hotel as well.
Long Term Monthly Mobile Service Subscription
If you are thinking of staying in China for a long time (6+ months) then you can consider signing up for a contract that will generally be cheaper in the long run. I like to be flexible so I tend to stay away from contracts. It’s a personal preference. Usually monthly service subscriptions (or “set meals” — the literal translation from Chinese) mean every month your account balance will be deducted a set fee, depending on what package you subscribed to. Note: This is pre-paid at the beginning of your service month. Post-paid is generally not popular in China.
Get a VPN BEFORE you leave for China
A VPN will be necessary when you are travelling or living in China since most everything (gmail, google, youtube, facebook, instagram) is blocked in the Mainland (Hong Kong is unblocked). A China VPN service will offer apps for your computer and smartphone that will allow you to get around the censored internet while in China.
However, many VPNs don’t work well in China and can be agonizingly slow. Since I do all my work on the internet, I NEED to have a fast connection. Thus, I have tested an ungodly number of different VPN services and have come up with my top 3:
Connect 1 Device
Protocols: OpenWeb, OpenVPN, Stealth (extra fee), L2TP
Supports Mac Os / iOs / Windows / Android / Linux
150+ servers in 50 countries (Choose US West for Fastest Speeds)
Wiki, Support Ticket, Live Chat, and Remote Desktop Assistance
7-day Free Trial
works with Netflix
Speed: Very Good
Connect 3 Devices
Protocols: PPTP, OpenVPN, L2TP, IPsec
Supports Mac Os / iOs/ Windows / Android / Linux
1500 servers in 94 countries (Choose US Los Angeles 3 for fastest speeds)
Instant Response Live Chat Customer Support, Email
30-Day Money Back Trial
works with Netflix
Connect 3 Devices
Protocols: PPTP, OpenVPN, Chameleon, L2TP
Supports Mac OS / iOs / Windows / Android / Linux
700 + servers in 49 countries (Choose West Coast US for Fastest Speed)
Live Chat also available
30-day refund period
works with Netflix
Some of the VPNs we review and confidently recommend to our readers use affiliate links. This helps support us in publishing and running our site — at no extra cost to you.
ExpressVPN is a really solid choice for your phone, and the subscription also includes apps for your computer. They offer a 30-day money back guarantee so you can get a refund if you want. I HIGHLY recommend setting up your VPN before you come to China, because most of the VPN company websites themselves are blocked here.
If you want to use mobile internet in China, your best bet is to go with China Unicom. For 99 RMB (14$ USD) you can get basic plan with text, calls, and 300 MB of 4G data. Remember that when you are using mobile internet you will still be subject to the Chinese internet censorship. If you want to bypass this, you will need a VPN that works on your mobile phone.
If you have any tips or recommendations for other mobile plans, feel free to drop us a line in the comments section.