Though we often try to wean our children (and ourselves) off of technology, connecting to others is the usually the first step when moving to a new place. Living in a new country without access to a mobile phone can leave you feeling helpless, and even desperate. The good news is that many services are but a phone call away in Beijing – but first, you need a phone.
Does My Mobile Phone Work in China?
In the past, most mobile phones bought outside the Chinese mainland wouldn’t work here. Fortunately, that changed when smart phones started to dominate the market. Your old smart phone should work here with a local SIM card, as long as it’s unlocked (not tied to a payment plan from your home country). If the new SIM card you bought needs to be cut to fit your phone, service providers can help.
Buying a Mobile Phone
If you need a new phone, rejoice! Like the rest of Asia, Beijing is obsessed with new technology and has phones for every need. Though they’re sold everywhere from shops to supermarkets, we recommend going to an established chain such as Dazhong, Gome, Wal-Mart, Suning, or Sundan (see Directories under Shopping), where prices are reasonable and authenticity is guaranteed. Though iPhones and Samsung Galaxy devices dominate the market, basic Nokia models can still be found for under RMB 300.
Bargain markets like the Silk Market and Yashow Market offer cheap phones at negotiable prices, but they don’t come with any warranties or after-sale service. Zhongguancun has the largest electronics market in Beijing and used to be called “China’s Silicon Valley,” but has lost considerable ground to online shopping sites like Jingdong (JD.com) and Amazon China. The latter launched an English interface earlier this year and offers a “Cash on Delivery” option, making Internet shopping a cinch for those who can’t read Chinese.
If you go straight to the source (China Mobile, China Unicom, or China Telecom) to buy a phone, be sure to bring your passport. You’ll find all the big-name brands in different price ranges, and many monthly payment plans come with a phone. If you just want to buy an iPhone, head to one of the official Apple Stores.
Prepaid SIM cards can be found at the airport, newspaper stands, and tobacco stores. You can also go to one of the larger branches of China Mobile, China Unicom, or China Telecom, where there is often an English-speaking member of staff on hand. Generally, China Mobile is known for its better network coverage while China Unicom offers 3G service.
Chinese people are very superstitious about numbers; many are willing to spend more to get a phone number that includes the number 8 and excludes the number 4. If that’s not an issue, you can get a SIM card for under RMB 100 with prepaid phone credit. Prepaid SIM cards usually charge RMB 0.60 per minute for incoming and outgoing calls, and RMB 0.10 per SMS.
If you need to buy an iPhone-compatible SIM card separately, bring your passport to any branch of China Unicom and take a number. If you already have a SIM card that needs to be cut to fit your new iPhone, China Unicom can also help. Many authorized Apple resellers also offer a cutting service. If you need to buy an iPhone-compatible SIM card separately, bring your passport to any branch of China Unicom and take a number.
Recharge cards can be bought in denominations of RMB 30, 50, or 100 at local newspaper stands and convenience stores. The shopkeeper will ask for your provider, but always double-check that the card matches your phone network. If you have a monthly plan, most service providers offer online payment with a Chinese credit card or bank card. Note that online banking must be enabled in advance at your bank for the latter payment option.
For overseas or roaming calls, go to a China Mobile, China Unicom, or China Telecom branch with your phone and passport. Once the agent has registered your phone into the system, they’ll enable your SIM card to receive international calls. You have to prepay at least RMB 500 to activate this service. International calls range from RMB 0.3 to RMB 4 per minute depending on your location in China.
You can also buy an international IP card from a newspaper stand to take advantage of local rates when making international calls. These range from RMB 30-40 and will cost you only RMB 0.15-0.30 per minute depending on your location in China.
Of course, most people use Skype on their computer or smart phone nowadays. The Skype website (www.skype.thom or www.skype.com) contains pricing for international calls, including unlimited calling between two countries for a reasonable monthly fee.
Chinese social media app WeChat is the newest star in international telecommunications. The free app allows users to bypass SMS charges, leave each other voice messages, and even communicate walkie-talkie style. The latest version supports international phone calls between two WeChat users.
The Complete Package
Of the three main service providers, only China Unicom currently offers 3G service for iPhones. Though China Mobile has already rolled out 4G services, the consensus is that the network is still very unstable. At the time this article was written, China Unicom was also planning to offer 4G and had started promoting the service on its website, but no dates have been announced.
China Unicom’s 3G packages range from RMB 66 to RMB 866 per month, depending on the number of text messages, minutes, and amount of data included. For example, the RMB 96 package gets you 340MB of data and 240 minutes per month. A free SIM card is included in the plan. You have a pay a deposit and register with your passport.
Though their legality is disputed, many songs, movies, and videos can be enjoyed for free in China from your phone. Baidu Music and QQ Music are popular music streaming and downloading apps, while TV Sohu and Youku are great for watching videos and movies. Enjoy!