Au Pair’s life in China: How to choose your mobile data plan
The People’s Republic of China is a very special country to buy a local SIM card. Although almost every mobile device is produced here in these days, buying a SIM card can be quite complicated, especially as very few people understand or speak English. This article applies only to mainland China and doesn’t refer to the special administration areas of Hong Kong and Macau where other laws are enforced and providers operate (see Hong Kong and Macau chapter).
China has three national networks:
China Mobile (中国移动)
China Unicom (中国联通)
China Telecom (中国电信)
All three are state- (or “people’s-“) owned and controlled. China Mobile is the largest mobile provider of the world with more than 800 Mio. customers and almost 2/3 share of the market, followed by China Unicom with 24 % and China Telecom with 14 % market share.
Frequencies, compatibility and coverage
|China Mobile||900, 1800 MHz||*TD-SCDMA*||*1900, 2300, 2500 TDD-LTE*|
|China Unicom||900, 1800 MHz||2100 MHz||1800 MHz FDD-LTE, *TDD-LTE*|
|China Telecom||*CDMA*||*EVDO*||1800 MHz FDD-LTE, *TDD-LTE*|
* = not compatible with many GSM-devices sold outside of China
China Mobile has the best coverage in the country, covering the whole nation in 2G. But you will get it only in up to EDGE speed (around a max. of 320 kbps). This is sufficient for phone calls and texts and basic data like: maps, WAP sites, instant messaging. But it is pretty useless for mobile internet or VoIP calls. For this, your only choice is China Unicom on 3G / 4G, which still has a reasonable coverage.
It’s very easy to get a local SIM card. There are no regulations that you have to live in the country or province. Some vendors are trying to sell mostly China Mobile SIM cards on the street. This is not recommended, as you don’t know, if they are valid or terminated. This way, you can skip the registration, which is mandatory since a few years, but you will get no support whatsoever.
Better go to small mobile shops or the official shops of the operators showing your passport and say “SIM Kaa” pointing at your device. Don’t expect anybody to speak English (you may be luckier if you are in a foreigner area of a big city). You may make a print copy in Chinese of the products which are featured on this site before going to the store.
Start up prices for the SIM cards can be very variable depending on the number. While a 8 in your number means good luck and an extra surcharge, a 4 in contrast is seen as bad luck and discounted. So prices are around 60 RMB for bad numbers up to 300 RMB for very lucky ones.
China Mobile (and probably the other operators too) don’t charge for new basic SIM cards (5 RMB supplement applies for microSIM, unknown for nanoSIM). The minimum initial credit is 100 RMB and you have to choose a package for service, which starts at 8 RMB per month with no inclusive minutes or SMS. You can pay more (between 18RMB and 588 RMB per month) for a variety of combinations of minutes, SMS and data. Call costs vary depending on whether you are in or out of the province where you bought and registered the SIM card, and if you are out of province, then you also pay to receive calls.
The registration can lead to some paperwork but should be done in a couple of minutes even if you don’t speak the language. These shops are very recommended especially if someone speaks English there, as he/she can help you with problems using the service. On the other side, it’s not recommended to buy the SIM card at airports, as the prices tend to be higher there, although you will easier find someone who speaks English.
Another option is to consider buying a Hong Kong-based SIM and roaming in the mainland with it. Both China Mobile and China Unicom sell dual-number SIMs in Hong Kong with very reasonably priced data packages that allow access to websites ordinarily not allowed (Great Firewall) as well as cheap voice calls and texts.
Normally, all three sizes of SIM cards are available. If not, someone will cut it to size for you.
Real Name Registration
A real name registration policy for mobile users in China was issued on September 1st, 2010, requiring people to show their national identification card and complete a registration form when purchasing a new SIM card to activate mobile services. Started on September 1st, 2013, all new mobile phone users have to register their real names in order to use any services. You might easy to get a SIM card from a retail store on street, but you still have to go to the service hall of the carrier for registration and activation before using it.
China Mobile (中国移动)
Normally, China Mobile should not be part of the list as it uses a very own and totally incompatible 3G version called TD-SCDMA (see frequencies above). It has the most developed LTE network too, but again it uses a very Chinese TDD-LTE which is only just starting to be used in a few other countries. For 4G 1900 MHz (band 39), 2300 MHz (band 40) and 2500 MHz (band 41, compatible with band 38) on TDD-LTE are employed.
On the other side, it’s the biggest operator of the world with more than 800 million customers (that’s more as twice as much as all mobile subscribers in the US on all networks together), and there are operators outside China starting to adopt TDD-LTE as well (meaning in the future more devices sold outside the country will support it). So we should make an exception.
Without doubt, it has the best network in all provinces and is your first choice for voice and text as theses rates don’t differ so much among the providers. For data you will probably get only EDGE speed up to 384 kbit/s, but often slower. So desktop websites, VPN use (see above) or VoIP are not feasible on China Mobile on most GSM-devices. The iPhone 6/6+ (except those purchased from the major carriers in America) and certain Sony phones sold in Japan (Xperia ZL2 and Z3) support the 4G used by China Mobile, resulting in a much better data experience. In addition, the iPhone 6S and 6S+ will support TD-LTE on all models as the iPad Air 2 does, so if you are getting one, you can be assured of a good data experience on China Mobile.
Easy Own and MZone
In most cities, China Mobile doesn’t sell their prepaid cards under its own brand name but under other names:
- Easy Own (神州行 Shénzhōuxínɡ)
- MZone ( 动感地带 Dònggǎn Dìdài)
are the two most popular and widespread prepaid cards.
Easy own is more directed to the rural population, while MZone more to the urban youth. Easy own is green and used to have only WAP access but has GPRS and the same data rates as MZone now. MZone is orange and supports full GPRS, but at slightly higher call rates and lower text rates.
These SIM cards are available in most cities (for prices and where to buy see Basics chapter). Prices vary by province. Shanghai is unique in that it has phased out Easy Own and now only offers MZone and its own 4G prepaid plans. It should also be noted that unlike in other provinces, Shanghai-based MZone plans only include a data allowance. Text and voice all cost extra.
To add value, remember value cards only work within the province: They’ll either be a scratch-off card, or a tear-off voucher, a typical value is 100 RMB For China Mobile, dial [tel:138-0013-8000 138-0013-8000], press “2″ for English, then press “1#,” and enter the number printed on your voucher or card.
For cheap international calls, you need to activate certain IDD prefixes. This usually requires a deposit and a visit to a China Mobile shop. Shanghai (and possibly elsewhere) offers a special 12593 prefix that costs 1 RMB per month but does not require a deposit.
You can check your balance at any time by sending an SMS with the text “ye” to the number 10086. If you have a data plan, you can send an SMS with the text “1091” to 10086, and you’ll receive a reply stating how much data you’ve used and how much is remaining.
Data feature packs
Standard rate outside package is 0.1 RMB per MB. With the introduction of new 4G plans, the monthly data feature packs have changed for new customers in most provinces:
- 150 MB: 20 RMB
- 500 MB: 30 RMB
- 1 GB: 50 RMB
- 2 GB: 70 RMB
- 3 GB: 100 RMB
- 4 GB: 130 RMB
- 6 GB: 180 RMB
- 11 GB: 280 RMB
Over limit charge : 1 RMB per MB for old customers, 0.29 RMB per MB for customers signing up after June 2015. The “unlimited” with FUP option no longer works as a standard data add-on does. Instead, you are allowed to use data beyond your plan until you have been charged either 500RMB or have used 15GB. Charges stop accumulating past 500RMB and your data usage is hard-capped at 15GB.
To activate, send SMS to 10086 with text: KT20, KT50, KT100, KT130 or KT180 and it should automatically switch to a data plan. If KT## does not work, try KTSJLL##. Text CXGPRS to 10086, to receive a statistics of using and your data limits.
In Shanghai, new subscribers are required to pick a base plan first, either an MZone or a 4G plan. MZone plans include data allowances for both mobile and at all hotspots with the SSID of “CMCC-WEB” around China, as well as free incoming calls:
- 120 MB mobile + 1 GB WiFi : 18 RMB
- 300 MB mobile + 1 GB WiFi : 28 RMB
- 500 MB mobile + 2 GB WiFi : 38 RMB
- 4G: Shanghai’s 4G plans all include voice minutes and mobile data, with free incoming calls.
- 500 MB mobile data + 50 minutes : 58 RMB
- 700 MB mobile data + 200 minutes : 88 RMB
- 1 GB mobile data + 420 minutes : 128 RMB
- 2 GB mobile data + 510 minutes : 158 RMB
- more packages can be found here
- 1 GB nighttime data between the hours of 11pm and 8am: 10 RMB
This add-on needs to be activated in-store or online. Only one night data add-on can be purchased per month; that is, once 1GB has been used up, no further night-time data can be purchased at the discounted rate.
Roaming SIM cards from China Mobile Hong Kong Edit
Unlike China Unicom, China Mobile has its own network in Hong Kong. However, this does not prevent it from offering its own roaming SIMs, and comes with many of the same benefits, like bypassing the Great Firewall, skipping registration, and being able to top up with a foreign credit card. Additionally, China Mobile HK offers a bonus scheme for users who reload online. However, their roaming SIMs are harder to find online, usually being limited to sales on eBay from third parties. If you are transiting Hong Kong on the way to China and have the time to step outside, there is a China Mobile kiosk just before security on the Departures level. Additionally, if you are flying into China on Cathay Pacific or Dragonair, the data-only 4G/3G SIM is sold in-flight for a HK$8 discount off face value. There are different SIM cards (only sold in/from Hong Kong):
- The nationwide 2G/3G SIM is the 1-Card-2-Number Prepaid SIM Card, which officially costs HK$120 but is often discounted to around HK$70 and comes with HK$60 of credit. Basic data in China is HK$1.50 per MB capped at HK$38 daily.
- The very similar 4G/3G 1-Card-2-Number Prepaid SIM Card is China Mobile’s newest 3G/4G offering, targeting people who plan on using service in both Hong Kong and mainland China. It’s sold for HK$120 (usually discounted to around HK$80) with $60 credit. Data is HK$1.50 per MB capped at HK$48 per day in both HK and the mainland.
- Their 4G/3G China 10-day Data Prepaid SIM Card offers a data-only product for use in both HK and mainland China. This SIM is HK$148 for 1.5GB of HK+Mainland data, and can be topped up at HK$100 per extra GB of data per 10 days or used at the daily rate of HK$48 in HK or China. Take care; the initial validity period is only 10 days, so it must be topped up before then for additional use.
- Another offer is the 2G/3G 1-Card-2-Number Prepaid SIM Card (Guangdong), which as the name implies, is intended mostly for those not going beyond Guangdong province. It officially costs HK$148 and comes with HK$75 of credit. The benefit is free incoming calls to the China number and only HK$0.25/minute incoming calls to the Hong Kong number while in Guangdong. Everything else is functionally identical to the nationwide version, so even for those going to Guangdong, this SIM is only of benefit to those expecting to frequently receive calls rather than make them while in the province.
All 1-Card-2-Number SIMs state on the packaging that they should be activated in Hong Kong. This is a suggestion, not mandatory; there is a bonus of unlimited data in HK for exactly 24 hours upon activation (you will get SMS confirmation of expiry time), but if you do not plan on going to HK first, it can be activated from within mainland China with no issue by dialing *#130# on the phone after signal is acquired.
Additionally, the 4G/3G SIMs now have an FUP on the daily unlimited rate. If you use more than 1GB in a day, China Mobile reserves the right to throttle your connection to not less than 128kbps.
All SIMs participate in CMHK’s top-up bonus scheme. The following bonuses apply for online top-ups, which can be done with a Visa or MasterCard issued from any country:
- HK$30-49 for a 5% bonus
- HK$50-199 for a 15% bonus
- HK$200-299 for a 20% + HK$10 bonus
- >HK$300 for a 30% + HK$10 bonus
For the monthly SIMs there are also the following data packs available for purchase as well as the daily option:
- 200 MB for HK$ 38
- 1 GB for HK$ 98 (HK$ 118 for 4G/3G SIMs)
- 2.5 GB for HK$ 148 (HK$ 198 for 2 GB for 4G/3G SIMs)
Do note, however, that if your phone does not support China Mobile’s TDD-LTE or TD-SCDMA technology, it will not be able to access 4G or 3G, respectively in mainland China. Thus the 2G card will be the better deal due to lower pricing while still allowing access to uncensored data in rural areas the others can’t reach. Their 4G/3G SIM is only an option for those who already have a 3G or 4G/LTE phone from China (or the newest iPhone or iPad).
- APN: cmnet (local SIM) / cmhk (HK SIM)
- China Mobile Customer Service Hotline: 10086 (free, English available) / 400-120-4000 (for HK SIMs, no menus, direct line to a live person but domestic call rate will be charged)
- Website: in Mandarin: http://www.bj.10086.cn/index/ or http://www.hk.chinamobile.com/en/ for HK SIMs in English
China Unicom (中国联通)
China Unicom is the 2nd provider in the country and should be your preferred choice for data as it’s the only one which uses 3G UMTS up to HSPA+ speed on 2100 Mhz like in most other places in Asia, Europe or Australia (see Basics chapter).
Their coverage is not as good as China Mobile’s but still reasonable and sufficient. They even started FDD-LTE on 1800 MHz in some city centers in 2014 which is mostly used for LTE in other countries too.
It is recommended to buy their SIM cards in their shops or small mobile outlets with registration. As Google Maps are currently blocked in China, search on YAHOO or Bing to find the nearest store.
3G/4G value pack (3G/4G 套餐)
This is their universal voice and data SIM valid nationwide in China. China Unicom 4G network already covers most cities in Mainland China. 4G tariff in English here:http://www.3gsolutions.com.cn/chinaunicomprepaid4gsimcard . If your phone supports LTE-FDD 1800 Mhz (band 3), try to get 4G value pack. Otherwise, you can get 3G value pack. Try to get the 3G “A” tariff line, which is better for data than B or C. Here is a copy of their tariffs for print out:http://3g.10010.com/3gindex/card_money.html (in Chinese) or in English here:http://www.3gsolutions.com.cn/page/mthplan
This is officially a “contract”, but can be terminated by just not topping up in the following month. You are supposed to give a local address. So bring a hotel card with an address along.
For monthly RMB 66 for instance you get 300 MB data and 50 domestic minutes in and out. Additional calls will be 0.20 RMB and additional data 0.0003 per KB.
You might print out their prepaid tariffs as well: http://3g.10010.com/3gindex/3gfee/yu_plan.html
Here you see that only the small packages up to 96 RMB are for prepaid only. When they want to charge you a deposit, direct them to their prepaid survey, or make a “contract”. For all higher values, they like to see a deposit, which is inconvenient as it pays back only slowly in the following months.
However, the default rate of data stays at 0.0003 RMB per KB all the time, that’s 0.3 RMB per MB or 30 RMB for 100 MB. But in packages 450 MB more data costs you around 130 RMB more or 1 GB costs around 300 RMB, which is both about the same as the default rate. The packages only make sense if you use a lot of local calls too, which are included. So for more data only just use the cheap default rate and don’t buy a larger pack.
Remember the value pack has a recurring billing cycle. You add credit to your China Unicom account and fees will be deducted, in advance, on the 1st day of each month. Keep in mind, though, that China Unicom’s billing cycle begins on the 1st day of each month regardless of the day on which you opened your account. This means that if you opened your account on May 29, you will be billed immediately a full month’s worth of charges for services between May 29 and 31, and a new billing cycle still begins on June 1.
For temporary visitors of China, 3G value pack also offers an option to switch the account to dormant mode when you leave the country. Once enabled, your account is required to stay dormant for a minimum of 3 billing months. Dormant mode gives you the option to preserve your +186 number in China while you are away from the country and reactivate your SIM immediately upon return. You dial 10010 to change these options, and customer service handles requests in English. When your account is dormant, a service fee of 5 RMB is deducted on the 1st day of each month.
3G Web Surfing Pass (3G 上网卡)
This is a data-only SIM directed to modems, tablets and routers for heavy data volumes in 3G. You can use it in phones too, but it has no voice nor text or 4G/LTE.
It is a one-off prepaid card without any obligations available in two denominations:
- 3 GB valid for 6 months: 3 GB national data: ¥ 300
- 6 GB valid for one year: 6 GB national data: ¥ 600
Some prepaid card offering addtional local data bonus, it’s various depends on province. Note that these cards distinguish national and provincial data. You get the local bonus only in the province associated to the SIM card (see Basics chapter). Product link (Beijing for example, in Chnese): http://s.10010.com/CardList
China Unicom claims to have released a nationwide refill card. A lot of users however were not able to top it up outside the province the SIM card is attached too. So try it with a small amount (e.g. 20 RMB) first if it really works. Also if you buy the refill code online on HK website, it will not work in China.
If you fail, you can ask a Chinese friend to load it on their website with a Chinese credit card, try to find a location which is able to make a direct (electronic) top up or use one of the internet agencies which do top ups for a surcharge like ezetop or worldremit and others.
Roaming SIM cards from China Unicom Hong Kong
China Unicom also operates a MVNO in Hong Kong. They sell dual-number roaming SIMs that work in both Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. One reason to get a SIM in Hong Kong instead of mainland China is because a China Unicom HK SIM will pass all data through Hong Kong, allowing through the “Great Firewall of China” (see Basics). Another reason is to be able to add money using a foreign Visa/MasterCard or PayPal, which you can’t do with a mainland SIM. This also conveniently avoids the issue of out-of-province top-ups since it’s all done online. You can skip registration for these cards too.
Caution: Only use mainland recharge vouchers as a last resort with a Hong Kong SIM. Vouchers from any province will work, but the HKD conversion happens at a 1:1 rate, meaning you lose over HK$20 per 100RMB topped up.
However these cards need to be purchased before travelling to mainland China in Hong Kong or online out of Hong Kong as they are not available in mainland China.
Their “Cross Border King Dual Number Prepaid SIM” is sold officially for HK$ 120 but often discounted to HK$ 80 or less with HK$ 66 credit. Default data is HK$ 2 per MB for Hong Kong and China and a monthly administration fee of HK$ 6 is debited. Voice costs HK$0.45/minute in Guangdong and HK$0.60/minute elsewhere. Three data passes can be bought:
- monthly 100 MB pass for HK$ 35. Activation: *118*431#
- 1 day: 300 MB for HK$ 38. Activation: *118*441#
- 7 days: 500 MB for HK$ 78. Activation: *118*500#
Days are 0.00-23.59h Hong Kong time, passes don’t renew automatically and overuse is charged by the default rate. Product Link: http://store.hk.chinaunicom.com/jsp/sys/mall/netcard-detail.jsp?salproid=453433
Warning: when you choose a data pass package, you won’t be able to change it before it expires and you won’t be able to buy extra MB by using the same activation code. Each extra MB costs HK$ 2, which is rather costly. Even though the pamphlet lists *118*430# as cancel code (for monthly pass), it doesn’t work. It was confirmed by calling the operator. The best way to get the most reasonable rate is to charge extra HK$ right after you buy the SIM card, then activate the data pass (1-day or 7-day).
They have a very similar product also called “Cross Border King Dual Number Prepaid SIM” for HK$ 138, often discounted to HK$ 98 with HK$80 credit. This card may be better value, as incoming calls are free, calls in all provinces are only HK$0.45/minute, default data is HK$ 0.6 per MB, and these packages are available:
- 7 days: 300 MB for HK$ 48 Activation: *118*448#
- 30 days: 500 MB for HK$ 68. Activation: *118*468#
However, this card includes an increased monthly administration fee of HK$18 per month.
Finally, they have a data-only SIM for Hong Kong and China, sold for HK$ 150, often discounted to HK$ 128 with 1 GB of data in Hong Kong (on 3 network) or China in 7 days. This SIM is available in nano or micro size only. You can recharge by credit card or HK$ 100 vouchers available in 7-Eleven stores in HK another 1 GB within 7 days for HK$ 100.
Product link: http://store.hk.chinaunicom.com/jsp/sys/mall/netcard-detail.jsp?salproid=453512 (don’t mix it up with similar looking roaming cards for other countries)
- APN: 3gnet for all SIMs
- Customer Service (in English available): 10010 for mainland SIMs or 13068400177 for Hong Kong SIMs
- Website in Mandarin only: http://3g.10010.com for mainland SIMs or http://store.hk.chinaunicom.comfor Hong Kong SIMs.
China Telecom (中国电信)
China Telecom uses CDMA (and thus EVDO for 3G) like (Sprint and Verizon) in the US and in a few other Asian countries, which is incompatible with GSM-devices (see above). Their reliance on R-UIMs instead of the traditional North American method of storing programming data in the phone means that from overseas, only a select few unlockable devices from the Japanese CDMA provider “au” and some Verizon phones from the US (and the latest generation of Verizon/Sprint-models with LTE and SIM/R-UIM slots) are capable of using their network for voice and text. Older Verizon and most Sprint phones without card slots can be made to function on the network. However this usually requires the buyer to purchase their prepaid starter pack online and also requires to have a lot of technical knowledge depending on the phone in question.
Furthermore China Telecom has the smallest network with a market share of around 14 %. As a consequence, it has much lower-priced plans and a long-standing practice of offering significant amounts of bonus credit with new subscriptions to attract more customers. For customers with compatible phones or tablets, China Telecom will most likely be a better deal. Do note, however, that only Verizon and unlockable au LTE-capable CDMA devices will completely function upon insertion of a China Telecom R-UIM; while older Android handsets will only function with voice and text without additional software modification, newer handsets will only need to be modified if your local area has been upgraded to eHRPD data (an enhancement to existing 3G to allow easier hand-offs to LTE). iPhone 5 and newer from Verizon will generally function without further tinkering.
With these rates being so much lower than on the two major players, you might think of getting a CDMA USB-dongle or Mifi for data which is available for a few hundred RMBs if you stay longer in China. If you do not plan on leaving a major city and only need data, China Telecom runs an LTE network that is compatible with most devices sold overseas.
Start up and availability
Overseas visitors requiring Chinese prepaid SIM cards will need to show a passport only when buying at an official China Telecom location. It may be better to purchase a R-UIM from a generic mobile shop. They do not require a passport and they invariably have a wider selection of plans to choose from (especially useful in some cities where the local China Telecom offices are told to push certain packages).
Deposit required varies from 50 to 900 RMB depending on desired plan but monthly charges can be taken from this. Be careful; the deposit with China Telecom is not refundable. However, the plan will typically leave little credit after the monthly plan charge is deducted.
Data feature packs
Data plans that sold by usage typically do not sell data on a rolling monthly basis, but instead sell a set amount of data good for a set amount of time, allowing for more flexible usage. Single-month SIMs are available, but not easy to find, and most third-party vendors will want to push multi-month packs on you instead. Unfortunately, there is no movement to make single-month cards more widely available. Like Unicom, on China Telecom data is distinguished into local data valid within the province associated with the SIM card and national data which is valid nationwide.
|Price||National Data||plus Local Data||Validity|
|50 RMB||1 GB||1 GB||30 days|
|100 RMB||3 GB||3 GB||30 days|
|180 RMB||6 GB||6 GB||30 days|
|100 RMB||2 GB||2 GB||90 days|
|200 RMB||4 GB||4 GB||90 days|
|300 RMB||6 GB||6 GB||180 days|
|600 RMB||12 GB||12 GB||180 days|
Product link: http://www.189.cn/products/0609326550.html. These SIM cards are data-only and also on 4G where available. For other products, check their website.
Asking for ‘data only SIM-cards’ may confuse the Telecom sales people. Instead ask for “internet card” (liu liang ka) or print out the offers above. You need to provide your passport and a phone number (ideally for your hotel) and the process can be more time consuming than expected.