The People’s Republic of China is a very special country to buy a local SIM card. Although almost every mobile device is produced here nowadays, buying a SIM card can be quite complicated, especially as very few people understand or speak English and you'll face some restrictions.
This article applies only to mainland China and doesn’t refer to the "special administration regions" of Hong Kong and Macau, where other legislation applies and other providers operate (see Hong Kong and Macau chapters).
China has three national networks:
- China Mobile (中国移动)
- China Unicom (中国联通)
- China Telecom (中国电信)
All three are state- (or “people's-“) owned and controlled. China Mobile is the largest mobile provider of the world with near 925 million customers and almost 60% share of the market, followed by China Unicom with 20% and China Telecom with 20% market share.
Frequencies, compatibility and coverage Edit
|900, 1800 MHz||TD-SCDMA||FD-LTE: (900), 1800 MHz - see below
TD-LTE: 1900, 2300, 2500, 2600 MHz
Bands: 3, (8), 38, 39, 40, 41
|900, 1800 MHz||900, 2100 MHz
Band: 1, 8
FD-LTE: (900), 1800, 2100 MHz
TD-LTE: (2600 MHz)
Bands: 1, 3, (8, 41)
|FD-LTE: 850, 1800, 2100 MHz
TD-LTE: (2600 MHz)
Bands: 1, 3, 5, (41)
All numbers and bands in italics are not compatible with most GSM-based devices sold outside China. All frequencies in ( ) are rare and limited to a few locations.
China Telecom uses a CDMA network which is incompatible with all GSM-phones purchased outside China. Only a few CDMA devices from the US or Asia can adapt to their frequencies (for more details see China Telecom section below).
2G: China Mobile’s and China Unicom’s 2G (up to EDGE speed) are compatible with common GSM/2G phones (although US-models need quad-band).
3G: China Mobile’s 3G service is based on a weird Chinese-made TD-SCDMA standard, which unfortunately is not compatible with any phones from outside China. Again, if you brought your own phone from outside China, you will not be able to use 3G on China Mobile’s Network.
Only China Unicom’s 3G network is compatible with any unlocked phone that supports 2100 MHz 3G, which covers most modern smartphones in up to HSPA+ speed (max. 21.1 Mbit/s).
4G/LTE: LTE started in 2013 on China Mobile as TDD-LTE on 1900, 2300 and 2500 MHz, which is now starting to be used in other countries too. Certain phones like the iPhones 6/7 are usable on China Mobile's TDD-LTE 4G network. China Unicom and China Telecom were given licenses for 1800 MHz 4G FDD-LTE which are much more compatible with most 4G phone models worldwide and are now already used in most cities.
The reasons for this frequency mess-up are described in detail by Michael Jennings: here (His story is still accurate, but needs an update: In early 2014 China Mobile teamed up with Apple and since then the biggest operator of the world sells the iPhone at last).
China Mobile's LTE is based on TD-LTE (bands 38-40) which is used in very few regions of the world and therefore not compatible to many devices. In 2017 first antennas with usual LTE band 3 on 1800 MHz were employed at tourist areas like the Bejing airport and town centre, but remain limited to these few spots. In 2019, China Moblie was finally given licensed to use FDD-LTE, Band 3 (1800MHz) and Band 8 (900MHz) by refarming GSM frequency are widely covered, not limited in few places.
In 2014 China's regulator released MVNO licences to different companies. Mi Mobile (小米移动 电话卡) by manufacturer Xiaomi started in September 2015 both on China Unicom and China Telecom. SIM cards are only available online to be sent to a Chinese address and registration can be made only with Chinese IDs. That's why they aren't listed (more info in Chinese here).
China Mobile has the best coverage in the country, covering the whole nation in 2G. But you will get it only in up to EDGE speed (around a max. of 320 Kbps). This is sufficient for phone calls and texts and basic data like: maps, WAP sites, instant messaging. Not holding a phone built for the Chinese market China Mobile's 2G is pretty useless for mobile internet or VoIP calls. For this, your only choice is China Unicom on 3G/4G, which still has reasonable coverage.
Starting up Edit
While it has become more difficult to get a local SIM card recently, the process is still relatively painless (but be prepared to wait if you go the official way). There are no regulations that you have to live in the country or province. Some vendors try to sell mostly China Mobile SIM cards on the street. If you do this, make sure the SIM works before leaving the vendor stand. While you can skip the tedious task of registration by doing this, you will not be able to receive any support after activation.
It's better to go to small mobile shops or the official shops of the operators showing your passport and say “SIM Kaa” pointing at your device. Don’t expect anybody to speak English (you may be luckier if you are in a foreigner area of a big city). You may make a print copy in Chinese of the products which are featured on this site before going to the store.
The problem is recently, that most shops - even the small news stands - only accept the machine-readable Chinese ID card. Foreign passports seem to be accepted only by the flagship stores of the providers (or at airports). While you may ask a Chinese to 'borrow' his ID card, you should know that behind the strict identification requirement is to track someone down in case of 'politically incorrect' use of the cell phone. What shops may do instead is sell you an unactivated SIM; this way, you can still enjoy the lower prices that third-party vendors are often able to get.
Start-up prices for the SIM cards can be very variable depending on the number. While a 8 in your number means good luck and an extra surcharge, a 4 in contrast is seen as bad luck and the SIM will be discounted. So prices are around 60 RMB for unlucky numbers up to 300 RMB for very lucky ones.
China's operators don't charge for new basic SIM cards (while a surcharge may be billed for a nano SIM). The minimum initial credit is 100 RMB and you have to choose a package for service, which starts at 8 RMB per month with no inclusive minutes or SMS. You can pay more (between 18 to 588 RMB per month) for a variety of combinations of minutes, SMS and data.
Call costs used to vary depending on whether you are in or out of the province where you bought and registered the SIM card. But this has changed; domestic roaming and long distance surcharges for voice and SMS no longer exist since 1st October 2017, and domestic roaming for data was similarly scrapped in August 2018.
Data rates are generally low: all providers have lowered their default rate to 60 RMB per GB. This means that for data you can use their default rate. From 2015 all providers have also started to roll over unused data allowances in bundles over to the next month, except for certain promotional bundles (these will not ordinarily be encountered by tourists).
The registration can lead to some paperwork, but should be done in a couple of minutes even if you don’t speak Mandarin. Their flagship stores are very recommended, especially if someone speaks English there, as he/she can help you with problems using the service. On the other hand, it’s not recommended to buy a SIM card at airports, as the prices tend to be higher there, although it will be easier to find an English speaker.
Another option is to buy a Hong Kong-based SIM or a SIM from abroad and use it roaming in mainland China. Both China Mobile and China Unicom sell SIMs in Hong Kong with very reasonably priced data packages that allow access to websites ordinarily not allowed (see censorship) as well as cheap voice calls and texts. Many of the Chinese issues below can be avoided by doing so (online top-up with home country credit/debit card means no one-province-only top-up voucher issues, all usage is priced at one national rate, no advertising texts) at the cost of somewhat higher prices on voice, text, and data (still well below roaming from most other countries). That's why some offers of HK-roaming SIMs and SIMs from abroad are added at the bottom of this article. Most of those offers no longer provide a mainland number (China Unicom Hong Kong has officially started selling dual-number SIMs again according to their Facebook page, but requires registration at point of sale for those SIMs). There are some longer validity options, such as Three or MultiByte's SIM cards from Hong Kong's section, which provide up to 1 year validity.
Usually all three sizes of SIM cards are available. If not, someone will cut it to size for you.
Real name registration Edit
A real name registration policy for mobile users in China was issued in 2010, requiring people to show their national identification card and complete a registration form when purchasing a new SIM card to activate mobile services. Since 2013, all new mobile phone users have to register their real names in order to use any services. You might easily get a SIM card from a retail store on street, but you still have to go to the service point of the carrier for official registration and activation before using it.
Though some shops will still activate your SIM card in someone else's name for a surcharge, do not expect this; due to sting operations run by local police to catch vendors doing this, you may only be able to do this if you look obviously not Chinese. Also note that carrying a SIM registered to someone else carries the risk of being shut down with no recourse to any lost balance, if they have found out, since this behaviour is now quite illegal. On a lesser note, you won't be able to change your plan, add/remove services, or replace the SIM at the carrier store if the SIM is not registered to yourself; self-service online is still possible for the first two, but you will have to download the carrier app and know enough Chinese to use it.
Regional organization Edit
All three providers are organized regionally. You get a SIM card with mobile phone number associated with region of purchase (area, province) like in the USA or Russia. All calls are charged equally within the province, around 0.2 RMB per minute. And you are charged the same being called and calling out. Calls outside the province will have a surcharge again inbound and outbound, international (IDD) calls can be very expensive and often not enabled at all.
This national roaming exists not only for incoming calls but for data too. On many tariffs, local and national data are distinguished. So try to buy your SIM at the place you intend to use it most or buy another SIM in the next province.
UPDATE 2018: All three network providers have abolished all domestic or inter-provincial roaming fees for calls and texts from October 1st, 2017, and in August 2018, roaming charges for most data packages have been similarly abolished. Providers can still sell certain area-specific data packages, however (for example, China Mobile in Shanghai sells a 2 GB for 10 RMB package that is usable only within Shanghai Metro stations and trains), so be sure you are signing up for the correct plan.
The regional organization of the mobile providers does mean that you have nationwide coverage, but topping up you SIM card outside the province where you have bought it can be a formidable task. Recharge vouchers / top-up cards (充值卡) sold all over the country only work in the province where there are sold! This makes it very annoying for travellers to recharge their SIM cards.
So try to load enough credit in your “home” province, or you have to ask a local if he can help you. Of course you can recharge online on the operator website or use the Taobao platform but all this way accept Chinese credit cards only. Some travellers succeeded in topping up not by scratch cards sold all over but to look for the few agencies which provide direct / electronic top-up giving their phone number and paying in cash. Furthermore, there are reload agencies on the web, doing the top-up for a surcharge.
Running out of credit is not a good idea, as your phone may be blocked for incoming calls too. This depends on the provider. China Mobile will allow you to run an overdraft. The amount varies depending on your payment history and how long you have been a customer with them. China Unicom may allow incoming calls even with a zero balance depending on your plan. If your plan allows it, you will receive a text when your balance reaches zero, notifying you of that fact. Your text messages may also be deleted if you have not stored them before in your phone.
Further particularities Edit
You will get a lot of advertisements, which you can’t block. Ad text messages are the least annoying and can be deleted right away. But you will get calls in the middle of the night as well with only one ring. The idea is to make you call back an expensive premium number, so don't call it back. If you have a Hong Kong SIM, you may instead find banks and lenders cold-calling you advertising personal loans. These are easy to avoid by rejecting calls from numbers starting in 852. You will also get the data balance popping on your phone every time it disconnects from the network and this can be quite often.
Even if you choose to try to stick to WiFi instead of purchasing mobile data, you should know that a lot of public access points in places like Starbucks, McDonald’s or at airports need a verification code to be sent to a Chinese mobile number, which you need to provide.
Instant messaging has become an usual form of communication in China too. There WeChat is generally preferred to WhatsApp, but certain other apps like LINE and KakaoTalk are outright blocked.
Suspending your plan Edit
All 3 major carriers have an unclear cancellation policy. Officially they require you to cancel your plan when you leave to avoid being blacklisted. Account termination must be done in person, and cannot be done over the phone.
If you leave the country without properly terminate your plan and account, you will not be able to re-register a new SIM/phone number on subsequent visits to China. Plan termination of a prepaid SIM/account require you visiting one of the branded stores of the operator with the original ID used to registered the SIM. Otherwise the system will draw your balance through monthly plan deductions, until the balance reaches zero and will release your number 90 days later. If you return to China at a later date and wish to register and activate another prepaid SIM/phone number, you will be required to pay the 90 days worth of monthly fee of the offending prepaid account, for the period when your account is sitting at zero balance prior to your number being released.
If you let your SIM/account lapse in this fashion 2 or more times, you will be blacklisted and not able to registered future SIMs through the normal proper channels. Cancellation of prepaid plan is only allowed if your account balance is 25 RMB or less, and it doesn't matter if you wish to forfeit the balance.
Other users reported no problems just to leave without cancelling. So check locally with your provider about termination. Specific to China Unicom, this issue can arise if you are activated as a postpaid (后付费) customer (with them, it is possible to enter a postpaid service agreement without a deposit or a credit card on file even if you are not resident, and have your account set up such that you only receive paperless bills delivered to your carrier mailbox, which tourists will never even think to look for) so make sure your account status in their system is prepaid (预付费) after activation. If you have been affected by the blacklisting and don't wish to pay, your only option to use the Unicom network going forward is to buy a SIM from Hong Kong or abroad, where registration rules don't apply. It is unknown yet whether the new dual-number Unicom SIMs that require registration will allow registration of someone who has been previously blacklisted on the mainland.
IDD calls Edit
Cheap foreign (IDD) calls can be made from landlines using special long-distance value cards called "IP cards" or using VoIP from your mobile if you have a stable 3G/4G connection or a WiFi access. Be aware that an IP card costs about 20 to 25 CNY and has a credit of 100 CNY!
The censorship in China is so widespread and notorious that it needs to be addressed in more detail as it will certainly hamper your internet access and operations. This is often referred to as “Great Firewall of China”.
Access to a lot of websites is simply blocked. Not only political, but usual sites like Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. In particular Google including Gmail, Search, Maps, etc. are blocked since it discontinued its cooperation with the Chinese authorities. Here is an updated guide of the most important websites that are inaccessible right now in China: Websites blocked in China
All social messaging (like WeChat or Whatsapp) and even text messages are screened and monitored for certain terms and can be censored. This surveillance normally applies to texts in Mandarin (Chinese) language only and English will not be filtered.
The usual way to circumvent this blocking is to use a VPN or proxy app or software. Before travelling to China, you should download and try out some of them and possibly sign up to and familiarize yourself with one. Make sure, that they are not blocked as the Chinese government or operators (esp. China Unicom) try to sniff and kill the connection if they detect a VPN. You should also change your DNS server to a server outside China.
- Here is a manual how to implement a VPN on an iPhone: how to break through the great firewall of China
- Here are updated lists of best working VPN proxies for China: list #1list #2
- Here is a manual how to change DNS servers and how to avoid China's DNS servers
From February 2018, the Chinese government planned a total ban of VPN services in the country. All local providers are ordered to effectively block all VPNs and thereby close access to many foreign sites. As can be seen, VPN providers can still find ways to bypass it, but outages are somewhat more frequent than before. Apple has already removed major VPN apps from its app store. To be sure to have access to vital sites, roam with an international SIM card (even one from Hong Kong or Macau) in China, as these restrictions don't apply to roaming SIM cards from abroad.
Access to VoIP (Skype and some others) is not restricted (unless the app itself is specifically banned, for example, Google Voice, Facebook Messenger, Line, and sometimes WhatsApp) and tethering is allowed on all Chinese SIM cards.
China Mobile (中国移动) Edit
Normally, China Mobile should not be part of the list as it uses a very own and totally incompatible 3G version called TD-SCDMA. It has the most developed 4G/LTE network too, but again it uses a very Chinese TDD-LTE which is only just starting to be used in a few other countries. For 4G 1900 MHz (band 39), 2300 MHz (band 40) and 2500 MHz (band 41, compatible with band 38) on TDD-LTE are employed.
On the other side, it’s by far the biggest operator of the world with more than 800 million customers (that’s more as twice as much as all mobile subscribers in the US on all networks together), and there are operators outside China starting to adopt TDD-LTE as well (meaning in the future more devices sold outside the country will support it). In 2015 it had 250 million 4G customers alone, that's more than the next five 4G providers in the world combined. So we should make an exception.
Without doubt, it has the best network in all provinces and is your first choice for voice and text as theses rates don’t differ so much among the providers. For data you will probably get only EDGE speed up to 384 kbit/s, but often slower. So desktop websites, VPN use (see above) or VoIP are not feasible on China Mobile on most GSM-devices. The iPhones 6/6+/7 (except those purchased from the major carriers in America) and certain Sony phones sold in Japan (like Xperia ZL2 and Z3) support the 4G used by China Mobile, resulting in a much better data experience. Newer phones now often include at least some support for China Mobile TDD-LTE frequencies. Google Pixel global version includes full support for China Mobile, including TD-SCDMA and TDD-LTE.
Easy Own and MZone Edit
In most cities, China Mobile used to sell their prepaid cards not under its own brand name, but under other names like Easy Own (神州行= Shénzhōuxínɡ) or MZone ( 动感地带 = Dònggǎn Dìdài). From 2015 China Mobile 4G branded SIM cards are sold in the centers where LTE was launched. Prices and composition of the plans vary slightly by province.
To add value, remember value cards only work within the province: They’ll either be a scratch-off card, or a tear-off voucher, a typical value is 100 RMB for China Mobile, dial [tel:138-0013-8000 138-0013-8000], press “2″ for English, then press “1#,” and enter the number printed on your voucher or card.
For cheaper international calls, you need to activate IDD prefixes. This usually requires a deposit and a visit to a China Mobile shop. Prefix 12593 costs 1 RMB per month but does not require a deposit. For IDD call prices using this prefix, see here.
You can check your balance at any time by sending an SMS with the text "ye" to the number 10086. If you have a data plan, you can send an SMS with the text "1091" to 10086, and you'll receive a reply stating how much data you've used and how much is remaining.
Data feature packs Edit
In most provinces like Shanghai or Beijing, new subscribers are now required to pick a base plan first, which is either a MZone, EasyOwn or a new 4G global plan. MZone plans include data allowances for mobile internet and in some provinces for WiFi hotspots with the SSID of "CMCC-WEB" around China, as well as generally nationwide free incoming calls and differ between regions.
Their 4G global plans (4G飞享套餐) all include both local voice minutes and mobile data, with free incoming calls (e.g. valid in Beijing and Shanghai and similar to most other places):
|38 RMB||1 GB||80 mins|
|58 RMB||3 GB||150 mins|
|88 RMB||20 GB||50 mins|
|88 RMB||6 GB||220 mins|
|128 RMB||30 GB||150 mins|
|138 RMB||12 GB||450 mins|
|188 RMB||30 GB||700 mins|
|238 RMB||50 GB||700 mins|
|238 RMB||30 GB||1200 mins|
|288 RMB||50 GB||1200 mins|
|338 RMB||100 GB||2000 mins|
|588 RMB||150 GB||4000 mins|
These packages need to be activated in-store or online, if you know Mandarin. Other plans and packages may be available according to province. On all plans unused data rolls over to the next month.
Overuse fees are only 0.29 RMB per MB and having reached 60 RMB (at slightly above 200 MB) the rest of up to 1 GB is free. Note that this makes excess data very cheap at 60 RMB per GB, only capped at 500 RMB or 15 GB. In fact, it's cheaper for using data-only to buy a small package and use excess data instead.
More info Edit
- APN: cmnet
- China Mobile Customer Service Hotline: 10086 (free, English available)
- Website in Mandarin for China Mobile: http://www.bj.10086.cn/index/
China Mobile Hong Kong (for roaming in China) Edit
Unlike China Unicom, China Mobile has its own network in Hong Kong. However, this doesn't prevent them from selling their own roaming SIMs for mainland China out of Hong Kong. They come with some benefits, like bypassing the Great Firewall, skipping registration, and being able to top-up with a foreign credit card. Additionally, China Mobile HK offers a bonus scheme for users, who reload online. However, their roaming SIMs are harder to find online, usually being limited to sales on eBay from third parties. If you are transiting Hong Kong on the way to China and have the time to step outside, there is a China Mobile kiosk on the arrivals level at HKG airport.
From the end of 2016, to conform with mainland registration laws, existing dual-number SIM cards will need to be registered while in HK; registration details will be shared with mainland China authorities. For details check China Unicom HK offers below. If you don't wish to register your SIM, you will continue to be able to use your Hong Kong number, but will no longer be able to use the mainland number (and thus, any services that use SMS to verify). No new SIMs with mainland number are sold anymore.
All CMHK SIM cards state on the packaging, that they should be activated in Hong Kong. This is a suggestion, not mandatory; there is a bonus of unlimited data in HK for exactly 24 hours upon activation (you will get SMS confirmation of expiry time), but if you don't plan on going to HK first, it can be activated from within mainland China with no issue by dialing *#130# on the phone, after signal is received.
Do note, that if your phone does not support China Mobile's TDD-LTE or TD-SCDMA technology (see China Mobile and Basics above), your 4G access will be limited to core areas of the largest cities where they have standard LTE band 3 and you won't have 3G to fall back on, only EDGE. Only the 4G/3G SIM is available now, so even if your device doesn't support these network technologies, you no longer have the option of paying less for 2G access only.
Voice and data SIM cards Edit
4G/3G China-HK Prepaid SIM Card costs HK$ 120 and comes with HK$ 114 of credit valid for 180 days. Basic data rate is HK$ 1.5 per MB capped at HK$ 48 daily. A HK$ 6 adminstration fee per month applies.
If you can't obtain this SIM, China roaming data packages can also be activated on these two SIM cards: 4G/3G Individual Traveler Prepaid SIM Card sold at HK$ 68 with HK$ 18 credit and 4G/3G Super Talk Prepaid SIM Card sold at HK$ 48 with HK$ 46 credit. However, the daily rate is higher for these two SIMs (HK$ 68), and voice and text are charged at higher rates. A HK$ 2 administration fee will be deducted monthly.
To the three SIM cards above these roaming packages for 30 days can be added:
- 200 MB: HK$ 38 - activation: *103*200*04#
- 2 GB: HK$ 98 - activation: *103*200*05#
- 4 GB: HK$ 168 - activation: *103*200*06#
Additionally, all 4G/3G SIMs now have an FUP on the daily unlimited rate. If you use more than 1 GB per day, China Mobile reserves the right to throttle your connection to not less than 128 kbps.
If you go over your data pack, you will be notified by SMS and your internet access will be shut off. You must unsubscribe from the pack, and you can choose to resubscribe to a pack or pay the daily rate going forward (an advantage over China Unicom's HK offering).
In addition to the above, three SIMs with fixed validity and a fixed amount of minutes, SMS, and data valid across mainland China, Hong Kong, and Macau are now available.
- HK$ 98: 3 days, 50 minutes, 50 SMS, 1GB, link
- HK$ 168: 10 days, 100 minutes, 100 SMS, 2GB, link
- HK$198: 30 days, 100 minutes, 100 SMS, 4GB, link
Data-only SIM card Edit
For data only they offer a 4G/3G China 10-day Data Prepaid SIM Card to be used in both HK and mainland China. This SIM is HK$ 108 for 3 GB of HK and mainland data. It can be used at a daily rate of HK$ 48 in HK or China (with 1 GB FUP). Take care; the initial validity period is only for 10 days, so it must be topped up before expiration for additional use. This SIM is resold and delivered globally by http://www.prepaid.com.hk. There is one add-on package offered valid for another 10 days:
- 1 GB: HK$ 100 - activation: *103*200*07#
You can buy new package before the old one is used up. Data from old package rolls forward in this case. If you run out of package data, you're switched to daily rate.
China Mobile has also now released a long-validity SIM, with 8GB data valid for 365 days for HK$ 388. This SIM can not be topped up; if you run out of data before the 365 days are up you must buy another SIM.
Topping up Edit
These SIM cards participate in CMHK's top-up bonus scheme. The following bonuses apply for online top-ups, which can be done with a Visa or MasterCard issued from any country:
- HK$ 30-49 for a 5% bonus
- HK$ 50-199 for a 15% bonus
- HK$ 200-299 for a 20% + HK$ 10 bonus
- >HK$ 300 for a 30% + HK$ 10 bonus
Every top-up of HKD 50 or more extends validity for 180 days since day of top-up. Any smaller recharge only for 30 days unless previous validity was longer in which case previous validity is kept.
Online account management Edit
They have an online account management. There are two ways to log into account management: by SMS verification or by password. Former one works only if you're in mainland China or Hong Kong. So if you want to keep your SIM alive outside China it's recommended to create a password by clicking "prepaid SIM registration" on account management. You can consult your balance there and refill but you can't buy packages. It's also available as an app for Android and for iOS
More info Edit
- Query balance, both money and megabytes: dial *#130# .
- APN: cmhk (for HK roaming SIM)
- China Mobile Customer Service Hotline: [tel:400-120-4000 400-120-4000], no menus, direct line to a live person but domestic call rate will be charged
- Website in English for China Mobile Hong Kong: http://www.hk.chinamobile.com/en/
China Unicom (中国联通) Edit
China Unicom is the 2nd provider in the country and should be your preferred choice for data as it’s the only one that uses 3G UMTS up to HSPA+ speed on 2100 MHz like used in most other places in Asia, Europe or Australia (see Basics chapter).
Their coverage is not as good as China Mobile’s but still reasonable and sufficient. They started FDD-LTE on 1800 MHz in some city centers in 2014, that is commonly used for LTE in other countries too. In 2015 the focused on their 4G expansion, rather than building up more 3G coverage. Still, they offer the widest compatibility with devices from other parts of Asia, Europe and Australia.
It's recommended to buy their SIM cards in their shops or small mobile outlets with registration (see Basics). As Google Maps are currently blocked in China, search on Yahoo or Bing to find the nearest store.
For cheap international calls you need to activate IDD prefixes. For IDD call prices using 17911, see here.
China Unicom shops are now mostly co-branded with Unicom's subsidiary "WO." If you enter a Unicom shop and ask for a SIM, they will most likely provide you with a WO card, and prices will not match the prices quoted above in this article. As of September 2016, a WO SIM at an official Unicom/WO store costs 75 RMB, and a 1 GB data package (of unspecified duration) with 80 minutes of local calling costs 100 RMB. Recharging credit is easy using the automated kiosks in Unicom stores, but it is difficult to understand how to activate another data package as opposed to pay-per-use rates (which do not appear to be capped at 60 RMB/GB like the regular Unicom ones are). Balances can be checked by texting "tcyl" to 10010 (and then translating from Chinese).
4G value pack (4G 套餐) Edit
This is their universal monthly voice and data SIM plan valid nationwide in China. If your phone supports LTE 1800 MHz (band 3), try to get a 4G value pack as China Unicom's 4G network already covers most areas in mainland China. These monthly plans are offered:
|0 mins||0 GB||5 RMB|
|500 mins||10 GB||69 RMB|
|300 mins||20 GB||99 RMB|
|500 mins||20 GB||129 RMB|
|Unlimited||40 GB||199 RMB|
For the first plan, data are changed by 1 RMB per GB per day up to 3 RMB per day. i.e. 0-1GB : 1 RMB; 1-2GB: 2 RMB; >2 GB: 3 RMB.
While it has an included monthly allowance for national data and outgoing calls and free incoming calls, it has very low overuse/default rates: 0.15 RMB per min for a call and only 30 RMB for 1 GB of data. A domestic SMS or MMS is at 0.1 RMB and an international SMS at 0.8 RMB.
Their extra data rate is worth checking more closely: For 0-100 MB extra, they charge 30 RMB, beyond, there is no further charge from 100 MB to 1 GB. This scheme is repeated for every GB used additionally resulting in an overuse fee of no more than 30 RMB per GB. Extra data is capped at 15 GB and then shut off. So the larger combo packages only make sense, if you use a lot of domestic calls too. For more data better use the cheap default rate and don’t buy a larger pack. Especially, as for all higher monthly packages, they like to see a deposit, which is inconvenient, as it pays back only slowly in the following months.
This plan is officially a “contract” and you should obey the termination rules given in the Basics chapter. You are supposed to give a local address. So bring a hotel card with an address along. Remember the value pack has a recurring billing cycle. You add credit to your China Unicom account and fees will be deducted, in advance, on the 1st day of each month. Keep in mind, though, that China Unicom’s billing cycle begins on the 1st day of each month regardless of the day on which you opened your account. This means that if you opened your account on May 29, you will be billed immediately a full month’s worth of charges for services between May 29 and 31, and a new billing cycle still begins on June 1. Depending on the plan, you may have the option, in such a case, to pay only half the monthly fee to get only half of your plan allowances for the first month. Ask when you activate.
For temporary visitors of China, 4G value packs also offer an option to switch the account to dormant mode when you leave the country. Once enabled, your account is required to stay dormant for a minimum of 3 billing months. Dormant mode gives you the option to preserve your +186 number in China while you are away from the country and reactivate your SIM immediately upon return. You dial 10010 to change these options, and customer service handles requests in English. When your account is dormant, a service fee of 5 RMB is deducted on the 1st day of each month.
"Ice Cream" (Unlimited) Plan (冰激凌套餐) Edit
In certain cities and provinces, China Unicom offers unlimited talk and data (SMS is charged) plans under the name "Ice Cream Plan". Like "unlimited" plans in many countries, a certain amount of full-speed data is included, and is throttled after.
For example, in Shanghai the following types of "Ice Cream Plan" are offered:
- 99 RMB: 300 national minutes, 20 GB national data in full-speed, throttled to 1 Mbps after
- 199 RMB: unlimited talk, 40 GB national data in full-speed, throttled to 7.2 Mbps up to 100 GB, then 1 Mbps after
Check with the local China Unicom in the province you will be staying in, as these terms may be different (for example, in Jiangsu Province, the local unlimited plan only includes 2 GB of national full-speed data).
Additionally, some provinces also allow the option to share the local unlimited plan among multiple people using additional SIMs (副卡). Using Shanghai as an example, the two additional SIMs are can be added for 6 RMB/month each to share the full-speed allowance of the first SIM.
4G Data-only / Web Surfing Pass (4G 上网卡) Edit
This is a data-only SIM directed to modems, tablets, routers and MiFi's for heavy data volumes in 3G and 4G/LTE. You can use it in phones too, but it has no voice nor text. It is a one-off prepaid card without any obligations with 5 GB national data valid for one year sold at ¥ 480 (link) often discounted to double data. These data SIM cards will now be registered too and you need to show your passport. They work immediately with any phone, tablet or laptop.
There are other offers too depending on province. Note that some of these SIM cards distinguish national and provincial data. You get the local bonus only in the province associated with the SIM card (see Basics chapter).
Topping up Edit
China Unicom claims to have released a nationwide refill card. A lot of users however were not able to top-up outside the province the SIM card is attached too. So try it with a small amount (e.g. 20 RMB) first if it really works. Also if you buy the refill code online on HK website, it will not work in China.
If you fail, you can ask a Chinese friend to load it on their website with a Chinese credit card, try to find a location which is able to make a direct (electronic) top-up or use one of the internet agencies which do top ups for a surcharge like ezetop or worldremit and others.
Various resellers market the SIM cards of China Unicom abroad. They will be delivered from China to your home country. This gives you the advantage of an English-speaking support and a working option from the start, but comes with high surchages for their service. We mention three companies here below.
3G SOLUTIONS Edit
3G SOLUTIONS is a reputable company which markets the products of China Unicom abroad for years. They send China Unicom Prepaid 4G SIM cards (valid for 30 days) & Pay As You Go SIM (valid for years) from mainland China (not HK) to any place in China and abroad and do top-ups too.
- Prepaid 4G SIM:
- 1 GB: US$ 24.99
- 2 GB: US$ 34.99
- 3 GB: US$ 44.99
- 6 GB: US$ 69.99
Additional data is 0.20 CNY per MB.
- Pay As You Go SIM
- 1 GB: US$ 29.99
- 3 GB: US$ 49.99
- 6 GB: US$ 86.99
Additional data is 0.30 CNY per MB.
Lyvcom is an authorized distributor of China Unicom for selling into international visitor market segments in China and overseas. They sell China Unicom SIM cards abroad through the websites of Amazon US, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy with worldwide delivery for a premium. Lyvcom re-sells China Unicom's network in up to 4G/LTE speed and are valid for 90 days:
- 1 GB: US$ 25
- 2 GB: US$ 40
- 6 GB: US$ 75
Additional data is 0.20 CNY per MB. It contains 50 local call mins or 100 texts. IDD calls are possible. All incoming calls and texts are free.
After you order your SIM card, your must email: passport information, Amazon order ID, phone number of the SIM card holder. Detail instruction will be sent to you via Amazon messaging center once your make your order. The activation process won't shorten SIM card validation period, which only starts when you actually use the SIM card and it will be valid for 90 days from first use. Extensions are sold too. Be aware that data added via other channels except mychinaunicom.com may not be workable and may even suspend the card.
SIM Easy Edit
SIM Easy has partnered with China Unicom to sell similar SIM cards with preloaded 3G/4G data packages abroad. They are available with free international delivery. During the checkout process a copy of passport page is required for official registration that they will do for you. These packages are offered on 4G/LTE up to 300 Mbps in all three sizes:
- 2 GB for 30 days: US$ 30
- 3 GB and 50 local mins for 90 days: US$ 42.50
- 6 GB and 50 local mins for 90 days: US$ 77.50
More info Edit
- APN: 3gnet
- Customer Service (in English available): 10010
- Website in Mandarin only: http://4g.10010.com
China Unicom Hong Kong (for roaming in China) Edit
China Unicom also operates a MVNO in Hong Kong. They sell roaming SIMs that work in both Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. One reason to get a SIM in Hong Kong instead of mainland China is because a China Unicom HK SIM will pass all data through Hong Kong, allowing through the “Great Firewall of China” (see Basics). Another reason is to be able to add money using a foreign Visa/MasterCard or PayPal at http://www.cugstore.com/tp/, which you can't do with a mainland SIM. This also conveniently avoids the issue of out-of-province top-ups since it's all done online. You can skip registration for the Hong Kong number cards too, but the dual-number SIMs (officially available once again as of August 29, 2017) must be registered at time of purchase. This does not affect your ability to access any websites.
The China Unicom Hong Kong website is now in English, making the purchase and top-up process much easier than with mainland-based service. They also sell it through other platforms like Amazon.com or eBay.
Mainland recharge vouchers will no longer work with new Hong Kong SIMs due to the lack of a mainland number, and are still not recommended for those who hold existing, registered dual-number SIMs.
However these cards need to be purchased before travelling to mainland China in Hong Kong or online out of Hong Kong as they are not available in mainland China.
Their new online shop now available in English with sites for the UK, US, Germany, Russia, etc. makes it much easier to order Chinese SIM cards. Delivery time will vary and a shipping fee is added to some countries. The necessary real name registration (see below) can be made on their website too.
Unlike regular Hong Kong SIM cards, starting 2016, dual-number SIM cards need to be activated with a copy of passport and this has to be done in HK in person: see here The HK regulator has issued a consumer alert about dual number SIMs. For compliance with regulations in the mainland, HK operators need to collect personal information and to obtain their consent to transfer the information to mobile operators and authorities in the mainland in order to enable them to continue the use of the mainland mobile numbers. If subscribers do not provide the required information or give their consent about transfer of such information, use of the mainland mobile numbers may be suspended. This also applies to the new dual-number SIMs that China Unicom has started selling in Hong Kong again; they must be purchased at a China Unicom store and must be registered at point of sale.
Hong Kong offers Edit
For voice and data in Hong Kong and mainland China they offer the Cross Border King 4G HongKong SIM for HK$ 99, with the same credit valid for 90 days from the date of activation. If you can not find the Cross Border King SIM in stock, the 4G Local Voice and Data Prepaid SIM is now functionally identical, but at a lower upfront price (HK$ 48 for HK$ 46 credit). Both are valid in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Japan. Standard rate is HK$ 0.80 per MB (= HK$ 800 per GB!) in Hong Kong and the mainland (capped at HK$ 28 daily in Hong Kong only), and a high HK$ 0.02 per kb (= HK$ 20 per MB) capped at HK$ 68 per day for Macau, Taiwan, and Japan. These packages are available for Hong Kong and mainland China:
- 500 MB for 7 days: HK$ 48 - activation: *118*600#
- 500 MB for 30 days: HK$ 68 - activation: **118*601#
- 1 GB for for 30 days: HK$ 88 - activation: **118*504#
- 2 GB for 30 days: HK$ 148 - activation: **118*602#
These cards both charge a monthly administration fee of HK$ 6, applied at activation and on each 1st day of the calendar month again. Overage in mainland China is HK$ 0.8 per MB. They will be cancelled on the 8th or 31st day at midnight and don't auto-renew.
When you have exhausted the data in the package, you will get a text message informing you. You can then start a new package if you have sufficient credit in your account. Note that you can only use Hong Kong-based payment methods (Visa, UnionPay; 7-11 stores sell top-up cards) to add credit to the account. If you don't have access to these, you'll need to make sure the SIM comes with enough pre-loaded credit for your needs.
Finally, they have different data-only SIM cards for China, now all with 4G:
- Mainland & Hong Kong 8 Days Data SIM: HK$ 150 with 2 GB for 8 days
- Greater China 15 Days Data SIM: HK$ 178 with 2 GB for 15 days
- Greater China 30 Days Data SIM: HK$ 240 with 3 GB for 30 days
There is no longer a hard cap on data-only SIMs; once high-speed data has been used up, data speeds will simply be throttled to not less than 128kbps. The 8-day SIM and the 30-day SIM can be topped up, the 15 day SIM can not. The following top-ups are offered:
- 8-day SIM: HK$ 100: 8 days, 2 GB
- 30-day SIM: HK$ 180: 30 days, 3 GB
They also offer SIM cards that are only valid for Guangdong province and Hong Kong (see website).
More info Edit
- APN: 3gnet
- Customer Service (in English available): [tel:13068400177 13068400177] for CU Hong Kong SIMs
- Website in English for CU Hong Kong SIMs: https://www.cuniq.com
China Telecom (中国电信) Edit
China Telecom uses CDMA (and thus EVDO for 3G) like (Sprint and Verizon) in the US and in a few other Asian countries, which is incompatible with GSM-devices (see above).
Their reliance on R-UIMs instead of the traditional North American method of storing programming data in the phone means that from overseas, only devices with both LTE and CDMA support as well as some older CDMA-only devices with SIM/R-UIM slots are capable of using their network for voice and text. Older Verizon and most Sprint phones without card slots can be made to function on the network, however, this method is no longer available to visitors (purchasing mobile phone service online now requires real-time identity verification using a system that only functions with Chinese ID).
You also need to check that your device supports CDMA BC0. If you want LTE you need support for bands 1, 3, 20, 40 and 41. To use LTE you don't need your device to be compatible with their CDMA network, but being without you would be limited to LTE coverage.
Furthermore, China Telecom has the smallest network with a market share of around 14 %. As a consequence, it has lower-priced plans and a long-standing practice of offering significant amounts of bonus credit with new subscriptions to attract more customers. For customers with compatible phones or tablets, China Telecom will most likely be a better deal. Do note, however, that only LTE-capable CDMA devices will completely function upon insertion of a China Telecom R-UIM; older Android handsets will only function with voice and text without additional software modification. iPhone 5 and newer from Verizon and Nexus 5X/6P and iPhone 6 and newer from all carriers will also function with China Telecom without modification. iPad Air and newer will also function with China Telecom for data only.
With these rates being much lower than on the two major players, you might also think of getting a CDMA USB-dongle or MiFi for data which is available for a few hundred RMBs, if you stay for longer in China. If you do not plan on leaving a major city and only need data, China Telecom runs a 4G/LTE network that is compatible with most data-capable devices sold overseas, even if they were made for GSM carriers.
Start-up and availability Edit
Overseas visitors requiring Chinese prepaid SIM cards will need to show a passport only when buying at an official China Telecom location. Purchasing a SIM from a smaller shop officially requires the buyer to take the SIM to a store for activation if they do not posess a Chinese citizen ID card; the store may or may not be willing to activate it for you with a staff-provided ID card. Also note that not every China Telecom store can activate SIM cards for foreigners- even in big cities like Shanghai, some China Telecom stores, even in busy parts of town may ask you to go to one of the largest main locations in the city center for registration.
Deposit required varies from 50 to 900 RMB depending on desired plan but monthly charges can be taken from this. Be careful; the deposit with China Telecom is not refundable. However, the plan will typically leave little credit after the monthly plan charge is deducted.
|3 RMB||100 MB||0 mins|
|19 RMB||500 MB||200 mins|
|39 RMB||2 GB||100 mins|
|59 RMB||5 GB||200 mins|
|79 RMB||10 GB||200 mins|
|99 RMB||20 GB||300 mins|
|199 RMB||40 GB||1000 mins|
Data feature packs Edit
4G data plans that are sold by usage typically don't sell data on a rolling monthly basis, but instead a certain amount of data good for a set amount of time, allowing for more flexible usage. Single-month SIMs are available, but not easy to find, and most third-party vendors will want to push multi-month packs on you instead. Unfortunately, there is no movement to make single-month cards more widely available.
|10 RMB||500 MB||One month|
|20 RMB||2 GB|
|40 RMB||6 GB|
|60 RMB||10 GB|
Product link: http://www.189.cn/products/0609326550.html. These SIM cards are nationwide data-only and on 2G (CDMA), 3G (EVDO) and 4G (LTE) too and on their (unlimited) Wi-Fi, where available. Overuse fees are at a low 0.03 RMB per MB. For other products, check their website.
Asking for 'data only SIM-cards' may confuse the Telecom sales people. Instead ask for "internet card" (liu liang ka) or print out the offer above. You need to provide your passport and a phone number (ideally for your hotel) and the process can be more time consuming than expected.
More info Edit
- APN: ctnet
- Customer Hotline (in English available, if you are lucky): 10000
- Website in Mandarin: http://www.189.cn
Roaming SIM cards from abroad Edit
Recently, more options have become available from providers outside China (and Hong Kong) that offer reasonable roaming prices for mainland China. While these offers are more expensive than local SIM cards and possibly Hong Kong roaming SIM cards too, they also skip Chinese censorship and are easily expandable in volume and time.
TravelSIM and AirBalticCard Edit
An offer is given out from TravelSIM and their clones and copies based on an Estonian platform like AirBaltic card and others:
- 1 GB roaming data in China for 30 days: € 15
- 3 GB roaming data in China for 30 days: € 26
- € 0.015 per MB for 365 days: € 1
Check their and other offers from international roaming providers in our all countries section. Roaming is on 4G of China Mobile and China Unicom. Check technical specs of the networks and your device.
Travel SIM Asia Edit
Thailand-based China roaming SIMs are significantly cheaper, but come with restrictions. TrueMove H in Thailand now sells the "Travel SIM Asia", a SIM which includes roaming in multiple Asian countries, including China:
- Starter pack: THB 399
- 1 GB for 3 days: THB 150, activate by dialing *115*150#
- "non-stop" (4 GB high speed, 128 kbps after) for 8 days: THB 299, activate by dialing *115*299#
The major restriction is that the roaming partner is China Mobile, which means that many phones will not be compatible, and that purchasing the SIM normally requires registration in person in Thailand. However, this SIM is also sold outside Thailand (Amazon US stocks the starter pack for varying prices depending on the seller- usually US$ 17-20, and it can be purchased at the Ap Liu street market in Hong Kong for HK$ 90 as of early December 2017) without registration required, possibly because it's not intended for use in Thailand. However, SIMs purchased outside Thailand can not be registered to True iService (online account), and can not be topped up on the TrueMove website either; a third party agency must be used.
Also note that Thailand does have its own censorship regime; certain websites will still be blocked (just not nearly as many as with a local SIM), and if you for some reason choose to violate Thailand's lese majeste laws, don't expect your SIM to remain functional.
This roaming SIM card issued by True's competitor AIS in Thailand is sold all over SE Asia and beyond. From now on it includes China Mobile and China Unicom roaming in up to 4G to its list of countries.
Their Asian SIM card with China included comes at 399 THB list price and includes 4 GB for 8 days. 1 GB can be added for 2 days at 119 THB or 4 GB for 8 days at 299 THB by USSD code. Top-ups can be made from abroad by mobiletopup.
No Chinese firewall is enforced, but the same Thai restrictions as mentioned under Travel SIM Asia above may apply and the lifespan of the SIM is very limited without frequent top-ups.
Other options Edit
Other good options come from Ukraine and Russia:
- From Ukraine Kyivstar 100 MB per day at UAH 60 or Lifecell with 100 MB per day at UAH 30. For details check here.
- DrimSIM from Russia with € 0.025 per MB is testing 4G/LTE roaming in China too. For details check their section here.
Purchasing/Renting a Phone or Portable WiFi with data SIMEdit
UCOM Mobile Edit
UCOM Mobile provides portable WiFi rental & prepaid data SIM sale in China mainland. They offer pay-as-you-go plans with 3 or 6 GB for short-term visitor at very high prices. You can place an order online and arrange pickup/drop-off in your hotel. Furthermore, they offer unlimited VPN service available to access blocked websites (Google, Facebook etc.) in China.
- Website: http://www.ucomobile.com
Klook Portable WiFi Rentals for travellers coming from Hong Kong or Taiwan Edit
Their portable WiFi rentals are available for travellers coming from either of these countries via Hong Kong International Airport or Taiwan Airports. The routers can be picked up and dropped off at the same airport they were picked up. They offer unlimited 4G data at good rates and access to websites restricted by the Great Firewall. You must order the router in advance and pay using international credit cards or PayPal.
- Hong Kong pickup: HK$ 25 per day with 'unlimited' 4G speeds
- Taiwan Pickup (at all airports): TW$ 239 per day with 500 MB 4G speeds
LoyoMobile resells HK- and mainland China SIM cards abroad with a substantial premium and worldwide delivery. Cross-boarder SIM cards by China Unicom HK and SIMs from China Unicom are offered. They offer free shipping to China and Hong Kong and deliver to the local hotel where you stay.
- Website: http://www.loyomobile.com