You know how annoying getting a cellphone in the US is? You have to buy an expensive phone, get a plan to meet all your needs, and usually sign the next two years of your life away in a contract.
Well, the good news is getting cellphone service is cheaper, easier and less of a commitment!
Getting the Phone
1. Short-term visitors who only need to contact people in US
Bring your phone with your American SIM card already in it, just like you would use it in the states. There’s no need to unlock it because you’re not putting in a foreign SIM. Turn off your data roaming, and connect to wifi at coffee shops and restaurants to contact people via email, free wifi-texting apps (like What’s App and WeChat). If you receive calls or texts (not through wifi), you might be charged a little extra, but this is the easiest and cheapest option for most travelers to China.
2. Short-term visitors who need to contact people in China
Don’t worry about unlocking your smartphone, just buy a cheap, basic phone to use in China. These phones run about ¥60 or $10, hold a battery charge for 2-3 weeks and have decent service. Just make sure it has English as well. Of course, all they can do is make/receive phone calls and texts, and maybe the occasional Snake game (flashback to 2003 brick phones)! I would only recommend this for visitors who don’t plan on texting much because texting on these outdated phones is definitely a trial in patience. You can always still carry around your smartphone and use the wifi, apps, and camera like it’s an expensive iPod touch.
3. Long-term visitors
Have your phone unlocked in the US and buy a SIM card in China. Unlocking your phone in the States varies from company to company. Some companies charge a fee, others just make you jump through hoops. With T-Mobile, I just called them and told them I wanted to unlock my iPhone. They checked to make sure I had paid for my phone in its entirety. In a few days, they sent me instructions on how to unlock my phone for free. Then, you just put in your SIM card and voila, it works! (If you have a micro sim slot, like iPhones have, you need to ask your Chinese carrier to cut the SIM card for you.)
Don’t bring your smartphone to China and have it unlocked here. China is full of sketchy street vendors who are willing to take your $600 smart phone and magically unlock it, but there are a lot of scams or they could easily mess up your phone.
Don’t buy a smartphone in China. Phones and technology was on my list of what NOT to buy in China because they are more expensive and may not be compatible with cellphone carriers back home.
Getting the service
After you have your phone, you need to get a Chinese service provider. Your major options are: China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom. You should buy a SIM card directly from one of these companies. Ask to see a list of the plans (how many minutes, calls, and data). I recommend you take a picture of this list so that you can reference the codes later. With China Mobile, all the plans include data, even if you have one of the aforementioned cheap, Chinese phones with no internet capability. Pick a plan, but don’t stress out because you can change it later.
Now, for the fun part!
You can load money to your account like a pre-paid phone. Say you got a basic plan for ¥30 ($5) a month, if you load ¥100 ($16) to your account, you won’t have to worry about anything for 3 months. Your cellphone company will send you a text (in Chinese) alerting you when your balance is low. (If you don’t know Chinese, you can guess by looking at the amount in front of the 元 character. That’s how much money is left in your account.)
Also, if you use more texts/minutes/data than your plan allows, you’ll also get a text warning you, as extra texts/minutes/data will cost you more money. You can change your plan or add text/minutes/data at any time by texting a 6 letter/number code back to your cellphone company. Those codes should be listed on that plan sheet you took a picture of!
Paying for your service
Whenever you want to load more money to your account, you can return to any of the brick and mortar stores for your cellphone company. OR you can go to various/sometimes sketchy street stalls and book stands and load money to your cellphone account that way.
This works in two ways:
1. Pay ¥30, ¥50 or ¥100 for a charge card (sometimes you have a pay a few yuan fee). Call the number on the back and type in the scratch-off code on the back. Go ahead and call the number right in front of them to make sure it works. If you can’t figure it out, they’ll probably be willing to help you make the call.
2. Give the vendor your number and tell him how much you want to add to your charge account. He or she will enter the phone number into a system, and your phone should get a text confirming the amount added within a few minutes. This way is a little riskier. It’s safest to wait at the booth until you get the text, just to make sure.
Obviously, when dealing with anything in China, the more Chinese you know the better. Some useful words to know:
手机 – shou3jī – cellphone
充值 -chōngzhí – charge (as in a phone card)
短信 – duan3xìn – text message
打电话 – da3diànhuà – make a phone call
卡 – ka3 – card
If all else fails, don’t worry about your cellphone service, ask nice strangers
on the street to borrow their phones, just go out and explore!