When in China, do as the Chinese do. You’re embarking on a utilities journey that will most likely be in stark contrast to your previously smooth and efficient daily routine. Beijing’s complex system of top-up cards and specialized ATMs can be confusing even for hardened expats. Here are some tips to point you in the right direction.
After you’ve signed the lease, you’ll get an electricity card from either your landlord or your agent. In newer buildings, it’s one card per meter and one meter per apartment. The electricity meters are usually contained in a closet on the hallway of each floor. If there’s no shared entryway, the electricity meter will typically be on the first or top floor; just ask your landlord.
Each meter box is labeled with an apartment number. The meter should say in red digits how much money you have left. Some landlords can help top up the electricity meter if you give them a certain amount each month. But most of the time, you’ll be responsible for recharging the electricity yourself at a bank.
Older hutong houses, on the other hand, often have several electricity meters per dwelling; you can spot dense networks of these outside many siheyuan (courtyard homes) in neighborhoods like Gulou and Andingmen. Topping up electricity is a different process; usually, you just take the meter number directly to China Postal Savings Bank and tell the clerk how much money you want to put on it. (Don’t ask us why.) You can only pay in cash.
The electricity bill can vary wildly per month depending on the season and type of housing you live in. For example, old and badly-insulated hutong houses with electric radiators usually eat up a lot of electricity in the winter. However, prices are reasonable; many electric radiators can also be set to crank up the heat late at night, when electricity costs the least. Make a habit of tracking your monthly electricity consumption and over time you’ll develop a much better sense of how much to put on the card.
How to Pay for Electricity at the Bank
You have two options: Get help from a bank clerk or top up your card through one of the ATMs. For the first option, take a number and wait. Once you get to a service window, give the clerk your electricity card and some money; it should be obvious what you’re here for.
To top up your card at the ATM machine, you’ll have to go through a Chinese-language menu. Every bank is a bit different, and not all banks have this option. At China Merchants Bank, for example, you access the menu by selecting “No-Card Option.” You’ll then be prompted to enter your China Merchants Bank card number and insert the electricity card. You can then specify how many units of electricity (not RMB) you want to put on the card.
Keep the receipt. Generally, this is a good habit to get into in China. Sometimes, the landlord will ask you for proof of payment – best to keep a record, just in case.
Should you lose your electricity card, don’t panic. Call the hotline of Beijing Electricity Corporation (95588), which has an English service. That said, keep your electricity card safe; replacing it is more trouble than it’s worth.
Picture this: It’s a sunny Saturday morning and you’re finally getting to sleep in. Suddenly, there’s a loud, heavy knock on the door; it’s a woman with a shiny work badge from the gas company pinned to her chest. She barges straight into your kitchen, where she declares that you forgot to pay the gas bill.
Like many Chinese families, you’ve just been served. At the beginning of every month, the gas company usually leaves a discreet white notice on the bulletin board of each building. Many locals fail to see this and receive an abrupt visit like the one we just described. In some compounds, the management office takes care of this.
The most common way to pay gas is with a card. The latter is provided by the landlord and can be inserted into your gas meter to recharge it. You can put money on the card using a special machine at any Bank of Beijing branch. The price of gas varies costs around RMB 2.28 per unit or RMB 2.84 per unit in fancier compounds. That’s because high-end complexes tend to use “commercial gas” – the same you would find in shops and restaurants. RMB 100 buys you just over 40 units of gas, which should cover the average family for about a month.
Once the card is charged, insert it in the gas meter and hold it for a few seconds; you’ll hear a “beep” when it’s synced. The number on the meter should then be updated with the number of units you just bought. Put your card in a safe place and away from magnetic objects. If you lose or damage it, call Beijing Gas at 96777 (Chinese only).
Many hutong homes have propane gas tanks that must be switched when they’re empty. Don’t worry; the process is much simpler than you think:
- Call Beijing Gas at 96777.
- An automated menu will play. Press 2.
- There will be an agent at the end of the line. They don’t speak English, so you’ll have to ask a Chinese-speaking friend or learn to say the following: 要一罐燃气，送上门 (yao yi guan ranqi, song shang men). That means, “I need a propane tank to be delivered to my door.”
- The agent will ask for your account number, which the landlord should have given you when you moved in.
- Once the agent finds your account number, they may or may not ask you what time you want the tank delivered. If you don’t specify a time, note that it may take several hours.
- That’s it! Now just sit back and wait. The propane tank should cost around RMB 120.
As with gas, someone from the water company will check your water meter every month and may sometimes ask for the money directly. Be careful; some families have been swindled by such people. Sometimes, the person will claim that giving the money to them is the same as giving the money to the bank. Ask them to give you a bill and pay for it at the bank yourself.
You can’t drink tap water here, so most people buy a water dispenser and order 4L jugs of water. Reliable brands include Nongfu Spring (农夫山泉), Nestle (雀巢), and Watson’s (屈臣氏), which has English service. You can order them through a bottled water company, a supermarket, or an online shopping site. Buying in bulk usually saves money; for example, you can pre-pay ten jugs of Nongfu Spring for around RMB 200 and the company will throw in a bottle for free. When the jug is empty, the delivery man will exchange your old bottle for a new one and collect one of your water coupons (水票, shuipiao).
As you may already know, there are three network providers in Beijing: China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom. Each company is considered to have its pros and cons. For instance, China Mobile has better coverage nationwide while China Unicom has Internet and landline combo packages. China Telecom isn’t particularly popular, perhaps due to a lack of advertising.
For broadband Internet, make sure there’s a landline in your apartment. You can arrange to have one installed by going to China Unicom with your landlord, who will need to bring their Chinese ID. Some branches accept photocopies of their ID, but be sure to bring your own passport either way.
Once the landline is in place, call China Unicom’s hotline at 10010 (press 9 for English service). Broadband prices range from RMB 1,500-3,000 per year depending on Internet speed, which vary from 4MB to 100MB. Don’t be fooled, however; you’re lucky to reach speeds of 20MB in Beijing, so don’t overpay for a service that won’t be delivered. Get 12 months for the price of ten if you pay the Internet fee upfront, or pay monthly at no discount.
Once Internet is set up at your house, you’ll no doubt want to install Wi-Fi. You can purchase a router at any electronics market or on websites like Amazon China or JD.com. For some reason, they’re not directly available from China Unicom. Recommended brands include TP-Link, Net-Core, Net-Gear, TENDA, and Buffalo. Follow the instructions to configure the router and set up a password; if they’re in Chinese, simply Google English instructions for your specific model.
Because you didn’t purchase the router from China Unicom, you’ll have to call the seller or a third-party company if it malfunctions. We recommend JD.com for the quality of their after-sales service. If the router breaks within the warranty period, JD.com will often replace it for free rather than repair it.