China: Mobile Phones, SIM cards & iPhone Apps

China has the most mobile phone users in the world, and just about EVERYONE carries and uses a smartphone.  The Chinese use text messaging much more than in the USA.  Mobile phones become the lifelines for foreigners in China, for when you get yourself in trouble, have a language issue, find yourself in taxi etc..

WARNING: In order to use your existing foreign mobile phone with a Chinese mobile phone card, no matter what age or brand, it MUST be a GSM phone, and MUST be “unlocked” (99% of GSM phones from the USA/Canada are locked to a particular network and are unusable other than the original USA network, and must be able to show Chinese text characters.

without an iPhone or Chinese mobile phone.

Using a smartphone is required in China. It is STRONGLY recommended that you consider ensuring you have a mobile phone that reads Chinese text characters (no USA/Canada phones except iPhone will do this automatically), and have a local Chinese phone number.

Chinese Mobile Office

Get a LOCAL SIM Data Card (4G/LTE) to insert in your iPhones — gives you unlimited data access (often without phone calls), and you can use WeChat calling to anyone (either voice or video, to individuals or groups anywhere in the world), plus full 24/7 internet coverage. HOWEVER, you iPhone needs to “unlocked” (meaning not tied to a specific network like most USA iPhones are)

Get a 2nd phone, for local SIM Data cards that is unlocked — China specific (I do this when traveling carrying a “”travel” iPhone for local countries).

I STRONGLY suggest getting a local China SIM Unlimited Data Card, you can order from your home country, OR buy at the airport in China immediately AFTER immigration and BEFORE you go through customs – both Shanghai and Beijing airports they have booths selling this — you show your passport and they with handle it. Alternatively the first thing you do on your first day in China, is to go to local China Unicom office with your passport, and apply for local data tourism SIM card (but the process will take at least an hour — often several hours).

NOTE: A data enabled SIM card specifically intended for use in China is the most cost effective way to access mobile broadband while in China. The data SIM from China Unicom eliminates high data roaming fees associated with international roaming with your overseas cell phone service provider. With a China SIM card, you are not roaming; the data fees are extremely affordable. Most SIM card are available in mini, micro, or nano size and compatible with the latest Apple products like iPhone 6, 6S, 7, 7S, 10 and iPad pro, air and mini series as well other smart phone models like the HTC X One, Nokia Lumia 900 and Samsung Android OS’s. Most Data SIM cards are NOT enabled for voice. If you have a smart phone, you can always use any VoIP app like WeChat to make voice calls (Viber and Skype are now blocked in China).

Picking the Right Network

China has three state (or “people’s“) owned and controlled national networks:

  • China Mobile (中国移动) [largest mobile provider in the world with more than 800 million customers]
  • China Unicom (中国联通)
  • China Telecom (中国电信)

Frequencies, compatibility and coverage

Network 2G/GPRS 3G/UMTS 4G/LTE
China Mobile 900 MHz/1800 MHz TD-SCDMA* TDD-LTE: 1900 / 2300 /2500 MHz*
China Unicom 900 / 1800 MHz 2100 MHz FDD-LTE: 850 / 1800 / 2100 MHz
TDD-LTE: 2300 /2500 MHz*
China Telecom CDMA* EVDO* FDD-LTE: 800 / 1800 / 2100 MHz
TDD-LTE: 2300 / 2500 MHz*

* = not compatible with most GSM-devices sold outside of China

So 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). 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).

China Telecom uses a CDMA network which is incompatible with all GSM-phones purchased outside China.

4G/LTE started in 2013 on China Mobile as TDD-LTE, which is now starting to be used in other countries too. Certain phones like the iPhone 6 & 7 are usable on China Mobile’s 4G network. China Unicom and China Telecom were given licenses for 1800 MHz 4G FDD-LTE which are compatible with most 4G phone models worldwide and are now already on the air in most cities.

Starting up

While it has become more difficult to get a local SIM card in recent days, the process is still relatively painless (but be prepared to wait if you go the official route) There are no regulations that you have to live in the country or province. Some vendors are trying 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.

Better 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.

The problem is that most shops 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).

Unlocked Phone is Essential

To use a Chinese SIM card, secured WiFi networks or free WiFi services, your phone MUST be a GSM phone, and MUST be “unlocked” (99% of GSM phones from the USA/Canada are locked to a particular network (such as Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, Bell, Telus, Rogers etc..) and are unusable.  Most other phones around the world do not use this network system and will work in China.  Contact your local USA/Canada provider a minimum of 7 days before you arrive in China, to have them unlock your phone.  Your phone may work on unsecured WiFi networks in China (not requiring a code to be messaged to you).

Real Name Registration

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. Started in 2013, all new mobile phone users have to register their real names in order to use any services.  Behind this strict identification requirement is to track someone down in case of ‘politically incorrect’ use of the cell phone in text messages or photos etc.. (yes, everything is monitored in China, include anything you send or receive with your phone)

Leaving China

WARNING: China Unicom is very strict about prepaid plans for visitors. All 4G plans require you to cancel your plan to avoid being blacklisted. You can no longer just let your prepaid account reach zero balance and lapse on its own. If you leave the country without properly terminating your plan and account, you will not be able to re-register a new SIM/phone number on your subsequent visits to China. Termination of prepaid SIM/account require you showing up at the China Unicom corporate stores with the original ID used to registered the SIM. If you leave without properly terminating your account, the system will draw your balance through monthly plan deductions, until the balance reaches zero. The system will cancel and release your assigned phone number after 90 days after account reaches 0RMB. If you return to China at a later day 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 did not properly terminate the account prior to leaving.) If you let your SIM/account lapse in this fashion multiple times (apparently this means 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 does not matter if you wish to forfeit the balance. Account termination must be done in person, and cannot be done over the phone, 10010.com website or online chat agents.

Recommended iPhone Apps for Tourists

I strongly suggest the the following iPhone apps to download and install prior to coming to China…

WeChat: Free.  Singularly the most essential must have app in China.  You have been warned.  Call, message, translate, pay — all with WeChat.
Find My Friends: Free from Apple. By far the best way for you to find your translator/friend, and for them to find you in a crowded China where signage is in a foreign language.  Trust me, it will happen.  Works globally — think of it as Apple’s “Find My Phone” but for human beings.
VPN Express: Free for 30 days with my link.  For those of you who cannot be away from Facebook, Google, Gmail, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube or any other foreign website while in China you need a VPN that may actually connect from within the Great Firewall.
Baidu Translate: Free. The big daddy or the best voice-to-voice translation and scan a sign or menu with your camera etc…
Didi: Free.  Add your credit card and you are done.  Without the app, or a person with the app, you won’t be getting a taxi in Shanghai or Beijing.
Apple Maps: Free from Apple.  The best local mapping with both English and Chinese.
Air Matters: Free. If you care anything about your health…
TheatreTerms: yes, from the author, designed for actors and crew visiting China, but contains am offline version of this China guide and spoken translation for restaurants, taxis and general conversation too.  China in your pocket, well, smartphone.
Trip.com: Free. The best app for booking trains and flights inside China, in English.
May 21st, 2008|

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