How to call abroad from the Chinese mainland

Image from The Key to Science; edited by One-Stop staff

Want to know how to call home from China? There are several ways you can use to make international calls from the Chinese mainland, varying in price and practicality depending on your situation. Here’s a run-down of some of the options, including a way to dial international numbers from your own mobile at a reduced rate.


Call with your phone

If you have a Chinese SIM card then you may already have the ability to make international calls – the staff should have offered you the option when you bought it. If they didn’t, or if their offer was lost in translation, you can still make calls but you’ll need to do some setting up first:

  1. Go to the office or sales room of your chosen telephone service. Tell the staff you want to make international calls, and need to switch on this function in your SIM card. 
  2. If necessary, the staff there will swap your existing SIM card with an international-call-compatible one; you will probably keep your existing number, but remember to transfer your contacts into your phone memory first if they’re saved to the SIM. The new SIM card will probably be free, but you may need to change your service package and consequently pay a different fee.
  3. In some instances, the telephone company may ask you to leave a deposit in your telephone account, in case you run off without paying your international bills. In some places, this will be given back to you when you cancel your SIM; in others, especially the bigger cities, they will just let you use it as part of your international phone bill. The amount varies, but is normally 300-1,000 yuan
  4. Once the service has been activated you can dial foreign numbers from your mobile as if they were regular ones; just dial the country or region dialing code (placing two zeroes before the number), then the city code (sometimes minus the first 0), then the landline number. If calling a cell phone then it’s simply a case of using the country or region dialing code followed by the cell number. 
  5. If you use China Mobile, you can also dial 17951 before the country or region code, and you will be given a slight discount on the call.
    If you use China Unicom, add 17910 or 17911 instead.
    If you use China Telecom, add 17901 or 11808. 
  6. Charges vary depending on your country being called. For example, at the time of writing if you were to call the US, China Mobile will charge 0.39 yuan per minute, China Unicom will charge 2.4 yuan per minute, and China Telecom 0.3 yuan per minute for the first five minutes, then 0.18 yuan per minute afterwards. To check the current charges for China Mobile, see here, for China Unicom see here, and for China Telecom see here


International calling allowance

Another alternative, if you don’t want to bother messing around with your SIM card and telecoms company, involves buying an ‘international calling allowance’; this is a fee that is bonded to your phone number (regardless of which company you’re with) and is automatically used when you call abroad. Prices vary, but can be as low as 0.15 yuan per minute when calling the US.

Such services can be found on online shopping sites such as – just search for 国际电话卡 (guójì diànhuàkǎ) to bring up a list of the available options. Once you’ve paid up, you give the service staff your phone number – either a landline or a cell phone one – and they will bond the allotted amount to your account, to be automatically used for future calls. This process will need a decent mastery of Chinese, however, so you may want to get a friend to help you out. 

Because this service does not involve the transfer of physical goods, you should try calling an international number to confirm that the allowance has been bonded to your phone account before you authorize the payment. 


Internet dialing tools

Skype is widely used by people who want to make international phone calls relatively cheaply. Calls are free when made between two Skype users, as are the video calls that can be made using the software. The Skype smart phone app acts in much the same fashion, and connects to computers as well as smart phones.

Skype users can also top up their accounts using bank cards, then use the money on their account to call regular landline or cell phone numbers, for a fee. When making calls, users should dial the country or region dialing code (placing two zeroes before the number), then the city code (sometimes minus the first 0), then the landline number. If calling a mobile then it’s simply a case of using the country or region dialing code followed by the mobile phone number. Calls to different countries cost different amounts; you can check on the prices here


WeChat (known in China as Weixin) is social networking app that enables text message, audio message, picture sending and also voice call. The voice call function let users talk through the app to other WeChat users free of charge. However, it does not support calls made to landline or mobile numbers.


Useful Chinese words and phrases

国际长途 kāitōng  Activate a service 
功能 gōngnéng  Function 
开通 guójì chángtú International call 
收费 shōufèi  Charge a fee 
软件 ruǎnjiàn  Software 


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