How do I get a mobile or cell phone number in China?

One of the first things you’ll want to do upon arrival in China is get a cell phone and a number to get you connected to the rest of the world. Here’s how to go about it.


Choosing your contract

You can’t get a number without a SIM card and you can’t get a SIM card without choosing one contract or another. Here’s what you should consider when shopping around:

  • Do you want a pay-as-you-go service or a contracted package? Pay-as-you-go may seem easier, but if you’re staying in China for at least a year, and especially if you need to use 3G/4G, we strongly recommend a contract bundling free minutes, texts and a data package for a monthly fixed fee (if you exceed the quota, you simply pay extra for what you use). Remember that contracted phones are still paid for with top-up cards, so there’s not a huge functional difference. 
  • Will you be making a lot of calls? Some packages offer a generous quota of minutes for calls, as opposed to texts and data, while others emphasize texts and data over minutes.
  • Do you need to make a lot of long-distance domestic calls? Some packages are tailored for long-distance callers. 
  • Will you need to make or receive international calls? If so, make sure you ask for this when buying your SIM card, as some networks’ basic numbers don’t allow connections from outside China. If you don’t get an international number you will need to buy special cards to call outside of China.
  • What kind of Internet package do you need? These days, most users want some kind of 3G or 4G package, and if you need to use web-connected translation or taxi apps, you will definitely need a roaming data package.

Choosing a provider

Your options are China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom. For regular calls, there’s not much to separate the three – the Internet is the difference. In 2014 China Mobile became the first to provide 4G capacity and its competitors were seeking to catch up, but broadly speaking China Unicom’s 3G service was still the best regarded. Talk to friends and colleagues in China; they may be able to offer advice.

If you want a contract, head along to a store run by the provider of your choice and ask to browse their options. Bring your passport – contracts have to be “real-name” registered, and passports are generally the only form of ID accepted for foreigners.

The store staff will likely ask you whether your phone takes a standard-sized SIM card or a micro-SIM. If you’re not sure, they’ll be able to figure it out from your phone.

Next, you’ll likely be presented with a table featuring endless figures and alternatives. One column will feature the monthly fee. Other columns will list: 

  • The number of call minutes included in the package
  • Number of free text messages included
  • Data included, listed in MB

Choose the package that you think best suits your needs. Remember that depending on your contract, you’ll either be charged at normal rates for anything exceeding the terms of your package, or you’ll have to ‘top up’ to keep using it, so you might be better advised to choose a package that will safely cover your needs rather than aiming lower.

Once you’ve told the store assistant which package you want, they’ll take some time filling out forms, making copies of your passport and stamping pieces of paper. They might ask you to choose your mobile number.

Once all the bureaucracy is done, you’ll pay up your first month’s fee (you might need to pay a few months upfront), and then you’re ready to go!


Pay as you go

If you decide a pay as you go option is all you need, a simple SIM card usually costs around 35-50 RMB. Depending on where you buy, you may still need to present your passport.

You can go along to a store run by one of the service providers, but it’s also simple to buy a pay-as-you-go SIM from many local convenience stores (or xiaomaibu, 小卖部). You’ll find these unassuming little stores in every apartment compound and on every street – a sign on the door or window saying “SIM卡” tells you they have what you’re looking for. 

It’s possible to set up services like international calling, roaming and 3G at these places, though these can be fiddly. Go to one of the official service provider’s stores to sort this out.


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