Few things in Beijing are as essential as a mobile phone. Not only can users make calls, but they can also send payments, buy movie tickets, book flights, shop online, and more with just a few swipes of a finger.
There are three state-owned telecommunications company in China. China Mobile is the world’s largest individual mobile operator by subscribers, with over 500 million users. China Unicom is the second-largest mobile service provider in China with nearly 300 million users. China Telecom has the lowest with around 50 million users; its focus is more on broadband services.
Phones purchased in China are often incompatible with foreign service providers, so if you travel a lot for work, double-check that you’ll be able to use it overseas. iPhones with overseas contracts can be unlocked for a fee, but this isn’t the same as “jailbreaking.” Jailbreaking means enabling a phone to illegally download apps for free; this can land you with hefty fines from Apple. In Beijing, authorized Apple service centers and official Apple stores can unlock a foreign-bought iPhone as long as you have the warranty or original receipt.
Buying a New Mobile Phone
In a country obsessed with technology, expats have ample choice when it comes to mobile phones, which are sold everywhere from supermarkets to e-commerce websites. Contraband products abound, however, so it’s safer to shop at official stores, reputable online retailers, and electronics chains.
You can also go straight to a network provider. This is one of the most economic ways to do it, as telecommunications companies will have a variety of monthly plans with varying amounts of data, calling minutes, and text messages. You’ll find big-name brands such as Apple and Samsung as well as domestic brands like Huawei. Be sure to bring your passport.
If you just want a phone, go to an official branded store like Apple, Samsung, Nokia, etc. Apple has three locations in Sanlitun, Xidan, and Wangfujing. Though electronics markets like Buy Now are a popular choice, their products often don’t come with warranties, fixed prices, insurance plans protecting customers against theft or damage, great (or even average) customer service, or after-sales service. A safer bet would be electronics chains and retailers like Dazhong, Gome, Wal-Mart, Suning, and Sundan, which offer phones with warranties and after-sales service.
Another option is buying online through sites like Taobao (www.taobao.com), Jingdong (JD.com), or Amazon China (z.cn). Taobao payments must be done through Alipay (a PayPal-like service) or online banking (see p44 for more on this), while Jingdong and Amazon offer cash-on-delivery. Of these websites, only Amazon has an English version. Under Taobao, there’s a section called Tmall where customers can buy branded phones such as iPhones and Samsung Galaxy phones either alone or bundled with data plans through the three big network providers.
The most straightforward way to set up a mobile phone (including the SIM card) is through a network provider. Chinese people can be very superstitious about numbers; many are willing to spend a bit more to get a phone number with the number 8 but not the number 4. If you need to get a SIM card cut, this can be done at any service provider or Apple authorized reseller.
Alternatively, prepaid SIM cards are available at the airport, at newspaper stands, and in some convenience stores. If you don’t spend extra for an “auspicious” phone number, SIM cards with prepaid phone credit can cost as little as under RMB 100. Rates are usually RMB 0.60 per minute for incoming and outgoing calls and RMB 0.10 per SMS. But unless you’re planning to be away from Beijing a lot, prepaid SIM cards aren’t the most convenient or cost-effective option.
All three service providers offer top-up online with a local credit or debit card; check the Resources box for websites. Note that online banking must be enabled on your debit card. If you have WeChat Wallet enabled, you also can top up your phone by tapping “Wallet” under “Me.” Some banks, such as China Merchants Bank, have apps that allow users to top up their phone. Recharge cards for mobile phones are also available at newspaper stands and convenience stores, and come in denominations of RMB 30, 50, or 100.
If you have technologically-challenged relatives, there’s always the option of good old international calls. To make calls from your mobile, you have to enable the service at any branch of your service provider by bringing your passport, temporary residence form (the slip of paper you got from the police station), and your phone. There will be a minimum amount to pre-pay depending on the company. International calls range from RMB 0.3-4 per minute depending on your location within China.
International IP cards are also available from newspaper stands, which allow users to pay local rates with their SIM card when making international calls. These cards range from RMB 30-300 and cost RMB 0.15-0.30 per minute depending on your location within China.
In addition, many free apps like WeChat, Whatsapp, and Tango allow users to chat, make calls, communicate walkie-talkie style, or send multimedia messages at no extra cost on Wi-Fi or data plans.
The newest generation of tablets and smart phones can support 4G, the new mobile standard that replaces 3G. Though the early months of the rollout were marked by spotty coverage and connectivity issues, China Mobile and China Unicom now offer comprehensive 4G packages at reasonable prices. For example, China Unicom’s 4G packages range from RMB 76 per month for 400MB of data and 200 minutes to RMB 596 per month for 11GB of data and 3,000 minutes.
For new users, the registration process is the same as for 3G phones; just bring your phone and passport to any service branch. Existing users who can read Chinese can upgrade to 4G online or in person if they don’t (also with a passport). A deposit is required to activate 4G; the amount varies from provider to provider. Note that not all phone models are 4G-compatible.
- China Unicom: 中国联通 Zhongguo liantong
- China Mobile: 中国移动 Zhongguo yidong
- China Telecom: 中国电信 Zhongguo dianxing
- Service branch: 营业厅 yingye ting
- What kind of 3G/4G plans do you have? 有什么3G/4G 套餐？You shenme san G/si G taocan?
- I just want to buy a phone. 我只想要手机。Wo zhi xiang yao shouji.
- Do you have any iPhones? 有iPhone吗？ You iPhone ma?
- Do you have any mobile top-up cards? 有手机充值卡吗？You shouji chongzhi ka ma?
- I need to get my SIM card cut. 我需要剪卡。Wo xuyao jian ka.
- I use a lot of data. 我经常上网。Wo jingchang shang wang.
- How much is it? 多少钱？Duoshao qian?
- Is there a sale? 打折吗？Dazhe ma?
- How long is the warranty good for? 保修多久？Baoxiu duo jiu?
For China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom, only some of the more popular branches are listed below. For full list of locations, consult each provider’s website or call their hotline.
China Mobile 中国移动通信
1) Daily 9am-7pm. B1/F, Guoyi Guangchang, Jianguomenwei Dajie, Chaoyang District (6566 0399, hotline: 10086) www.10086.cn 朝阳区建国门外大街国宜广场地下1层; 2) Daily 9am-7pm. Shop 107, Chateau Edinburgh, 1 Baijiazhuang Lu, Chaoyang District (5967 0052) 朝阳区白家庄路1号富力爱丁堡公馆107商铺
China Unicom 中国联通
1) Daily 8.30am-6pm. Sanlitun Nan (close to the police station and Qiyuan Indian Grocery), Chaoyang District (6416 111, hotline: 10010) www.10010.com 朝阳区三里屯南（近三里屯派出所和起源超市）; 2) Daily 9am-5pm. B1/F, Tower 1, Guomao Dasha, 1 Jianguomenwai Dajie, Chaoyang District (6505 9000) 朝阳区建国门外大街1号国贸大厦1座地下1层
China Telecom 中国电信
Daily 9am-7pm. 1 Chaoyangmen Beidajie, Dongcheng District (5950 3000, hotline: 10000) 189.cn 东城区朝阳门北大街21号
This article originally appeared in the 2015 beijingkids Home and Relocation Guide. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Okalvakan (Flickr)