You all know that feeling of panic when you put your hand in your pocket and realize that you have left your faithful companion, your mobile phone, at home. If you are planning a trip to China in the future, you may have this kind of concern and wonder: “How will I use my mobile phone in China? Or how will I access the Internet in China?” But don’t worry! This article will answer your questions.
Unfortunately, many mobile operators charge very high fees for international roaming. So it may not be the most economical way to use your mobile phone in China. Check with your operator before your trip to find out the price charged for data use, phone calls and text messaging abroad. Some operators have more reasonable costs than others and rates vary from one country to another. Some networks do not offer roaming service in China, so it is best to check with your operator before travelling.
Buy a local SIM card
If your operator does not have any feasible international options, a popular alternative is simply to buy a SIM card when you arrive in China. For the uninitiated, a SIM card is a chip that you insert into your phone that provides voice and mobile data services, as well as a local number.
SIM cards are available in China at all operators’ points of sale, visit https://www.simoptions.com for more about China SIM cards. There are even vending machines that sell them and you can get one when you arrive at the airport. The three main operators in China are China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, with China Mobile being the largest. Their shops are all over China.
We suggest that you buy your SIM card in a store, as you can ask staff to help you activate your SIM card. Staff will probably only speak Chinese, but you can use a translation application to facilitate communication. Please note that due to the Chinese government’s ban on anonymous use of the mobile phone service, SIM cards can only be used after presentation of proof of identity with your passport. Be careful not to throw away or misplace your original SIM card, as you will need to reinsert it when you return home.
Most Chinese SIM cards offer local and international data and call coverage. Depending on the package you choose, the price generally varies between 100 RMB (about 15 USD) and 500 RMB (about 75 USD). You can reload it if necessary in your operator’s store once the credits are exhausted. It is certainly the cheapest way to use your phone to access the Web and make local calls, and the fees for international calls are generally quite low.
If you are participating in one of our tours, your guide can take you to the operator’s store and help you buy and configure the SIM card. We can also help you organize and activate a prepaid SIM card before you arrive. Your guide will give it to you when he/she meets you at the airport, or we can deliver it to your hotel. If you would like us to help you obtain a SIM card, please let your travel specialist know.
If you decide to buy a local SIM card while in China, you will first need to check that your phone is compatible. Indeed, many operators lock phones so that you can only use them on their network. If you purchased your iPhone through an operator such as Verizon, this probably applies to you. You will need to unlock or “desemlock” your phone before you can use it internationally, but the procedure is quite simple. In most cases, you can simply contact your operator, explain your situation and ask for your phone to be unlocked. The service is generally free of charge, without any problem. However, you may encounter problems if you are still under contract or if you have not finished paying for your phone. If this is the case, some operators may refuse to unlock your phone. If you are unsure whether your phone is locked or not, contact your operator.
International tourists should also be aware that China Mobile’s 4G network operates on the TDD-LTE, which is rather unique to China. You must therefore ensure that your phone supports bands 39, 40 and 41 of the TD-LTE, if you want to use China Mobile’s network (via a SIM card). China Telecom’s China Unicom and 4G networks operate on FDD-LTE, used by most countries.
Accessing the Internet while travelling in China
If a local SIM card is already installed on your mobile phone, you can connect to China’s 4G mobile network and access the Internet at any time. The 4G network covers most regions in China. The 4G signal is generally strong and stable, except in very remote areas. The 4G Internet connection speed is also good, although it may not be as fast as in your home country.
In addition to the 4G network, free WiFi is widespread in China. During your stay in China, your hotel will probably have free Wi-Fi. Other places, such as restaurants, bars or tea shops and airports, often also offer free Wi-Fi connection. If you don’t need to stay connected all the time, the free WiFi service you’ll get from time to time can probably meet your non-urgent Internet access needs. Just be aware that free WiFi connections in some places can be slow or unstable.
To connect to a free WiFi network, simply enter a password (you can ask the staff if necessary), but the connection process can sometimes be different. If you don’t know how to proceed, simply ask your guide or staff to help you.
For travellers who do not need to make phone calls and only want to use the Internet, renting a Wi-Fi mobile device, or “MiFi”, is also a simple and affordable alternative. A mobile hotspot contains a SIM card and allows you to connect to the local 4G network and access the Internet when you travel, on all your devices, such as your mobile phone or laptop.
If you want to rent a MiFi device, you can rent one online, then pick it up at the airport upon arrival or have it delivered to your hotel. You can rent one when you arrive in one of the MiFi equipment stores at Beijing and Shanghai airports.
Get a VPN before leaving for China
Before you travel to China, it is important to know that many of the sites and applications you usually use can be blocked by China’s Great Firewall. Some websites or services inaccessible in China include Facebook, Instagram, Google and all Google services, YouTube, Twitter and a large number of news pages. Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, Apple Maps, WhatsApp and Skype can be used normally, although interruptions may occur when using the latter two.
If you need to access these blocked websites or services in China, you will need to use a virtual private network, or VPN. A VPN will allow you to bypass the firewall and use all your standard applications and websites. You can search online for VPN providers. There are a large number of choices and many offer monthly packages that you can cancel at any time. There are some free VPN services available, but paid VPNs are generally more reliable. Some VPNs that work in China are ExpressVPN (favorite of residents and expatriates), VyprVPN, Astrill and NordVPN.
VPN applications are also prohibited on the App Store in China. If you want to use a VPN application during your trip, you will need to download and configure it before travelling to China.
For international tourists who will be travelling to China for a short period of time, we suggest purchasing a local SIM card with several GB of data and using data-based applications such as Whatsapp, Skype, Messenger, etc. to make phone calls and send SMS. You can also install and use WeChat, an application similar to Whatsapp widely used in China, to stay in touch with your guide, travel specialist and others in China.
Although there are some obstacles to using your mobile phone and Internet access in China, it is quite possible and relatively inexpensive to overcome them, so that your faithful companion can travel to China with you!