The most populated country in the world and home to unmatched geographic and cultural diversity, traveling to China can be daunting. The most economical way to stay connected is by finding a local SIM, but which is the Best SIM Card for China?
China has three main mobile operators
China Mobile is the largest operator, and China Unicom is the most friendly to visitors. China Telecom is not advised.
Where to Buy?
SIM cards are available to buy on arrival from airport vendors, but may be overpriced. You can also buy directly from provider offices, which should have english-speaking staff in major cities, and from smaller electronic stores.
Take your passport, your local address, and your unlocked mobile device.
Alternatively, order online from 3G Solutions or from SIM Easy. This has the advantage of letting you hand out your number before you leave, and on arrival let you get instantly connected incase you want to use Uber at the airport or find directions to your hotel etc.
If you plan on traveling around multiple provinces, then you need to let the staff know that this is your intention. Otherwise you may be issued with a localised SIM which will incur charges for ‘domestic roaming’ when you venture out the province! However, SIM cards are available that cover the whole of China, like our recommendation the Unicom SIM.
Free Wifi is increasingly widespread. Cafes, hotels and bars often offer a free internet connection, as do public outdoor spaces in major cities.
The ‘Great Firewall’ of China!
Censorship in China means that the following sites and apps are blocked:
Facebook, Google, and Youtube. All Google-related tools including youtube, gmail, google maps etc. Facebook, instagram, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Snapchat, Picasa, WordPress.com, Blogspot, Blogger, Flickr, SoundCloud, Hootsuite, and more.
If you want to check if a specific website or app is blocked, use the Great Fire Wall Analyzer.
Bypassing the extensive censorship in China requires some forethought, but the most straightforward way is to use a VPN (Virtual Private Network). VPN services use encryption to bypass censorship.
If you buy a China Unicom SIM, then you can get a built-in VPN at extra cost. Otherwise, you could use a free one like the Hotspot Shield VPN Proxy app, but at the cost of advert interruptions.
Alternatively, you could become acquainted with Chinese alternative services like Baidu (China’s Google) and Wechat (China’s whatsapp and alot more besides).
Certain numbers are generally considered lucky in China, particularly those ending in 8. The pronunciation in Mandarin of 8; ‘Ba’, sounds similar to the word ‘Fa’, which means to amass a fortune. As such it has connotations of wealth, prosperity, and success. Numbers ending in 4 however, are seen as bad.
As a discerning westerner, you can presumably bypass this! But be aware that prices reflect this perception, with more auspicious numbers commanding higher prices.
4G has largely superseded 3G in metropolitan areas, and 3G extends over most of the country excepting extremely rural parts like Tibet and Xinjiang. Check network coverage at your destination with Open Signal.
Topping up is fairly straightforward. Just go to either an official store,or a convenience store and purchase a recharge card. This will instruct you to call your network using the provided number and follow prompts, in English. with China Unicom there are also instant recharge machines, and you can top up using your Wechat wallet.
Don’t ever buy a SIM Card off the streets in China, street newspaper shop informal vendors may sell you a SIM card without requiring a passport. However, these SIM cards may be unregistered, impossible to register, or expired. Stay safe and buy from the official shop or an official vendor. China has banned unregistered numbers in an effort to crackdown on crime, so if you purchase one of these, you will not be able to use it.
So which is the best for SIM Card for visitors to China?
For most users, we would recommend using China Unicom for their user-friendliness and extensive 3G and 4G.
For those who do not require data, but are likely to make alot of domestic voice calls and travel to remote areas – China Mobile is a better choice.