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Cell phone usage in China
When planning your China travel, you might wonder whether to use your mobile phone or something else. If you prefer to keep your own, you likely can, but you may want to explore a few options.
International Roaming Service
Most mobile phone providers offer customers international roaming services on your plan. A few basic plans will not, which means you would not be able to use your mobile phone at all while there. Realistically determine how much you will plan to use your phone. Generally, this route will be most convenient, and most costly. If it is strictly reserved for emergencies, then keeping your own carrier’s plan might be fine. However, if you plan to regularly communicate, it is generally best to explore other options.
An Unlocked Phone and SIM Card
You can buy an unlocked phone and purchase a SIM card locally in China. Terminology of “unlocked phone” simply means that it is a phone that is not tied into a certain carrier’s network (like AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon). Purchasing an unlocked mobile phone smartphone can be a much easier, more reliable option than attempting to unlock a previously locked phone. You will likely pay more for the phone, but that flexibility can save you money and convenience in the long run.
If you have an unlocked phone, when in China you can simply buy a local pre-paid SIM card. These are readily found at airport shops, hotels, and convenience stores. A SIM card (aka - subscriber identity module) is a small card you slide into the phone that provides the phone with its phone number, voice and data service. The cost for a SIM card can be anywhere between RMB 100 to RMB 200 ($15 to $30) and has minutes included. Rates are reasonable and options for recharging your phone is available in English and Mandarin.
Rent or Buy a Mobile Wifi Device
If you want to use your own phone or your other devices, like your laptop, but do not want to use your international roaming service, you can purchase a mobile wifi device, also called a "MiFi" device, which acts as your own portable wifi hotspot. You can buy or rent one for about $10 per day for unlimited data usage. Some plans may give you a limited amount of data to use, then you would need to top-off the wifi device with more data for a fee.
A mobile wifi device can be a great way to stay connected while traveling, inexpensively. You can order this service, usually by renting a small handheld device, in advance of your trip. If you are traveling with more than one person, the hotspot is usually shareable for more than one device at a time.
Internet access is available throughout China, but it’s a bit different from in Western countries. Most hotels (3-star and above) provide free Wi-Fi, though the signal may be weak. Some hotels provide a computer with an ethernet cable for free Internet access.
Internet speed and Wi-Fi availability vary depending on how developed the area is that you are visiting. For example, in Beijing, you can use Wi-Fi connections almost in any restaurant, while in smaller, county-level towns it is rare to find Wi-Fi.
Keep in mind that just because you gain online access does not mean you will have complete access.
Google is prohibited in China, and oftentimes Westerners will install a Virtual Private Network (VPN) during their travel period, to make communication back home convenient. There are certain web channels and social media sites that are blocked in China, like Facebook, Instagram, Gmail, Google, and YouTube, for example. Oftentimes travelers will install a Virtual Private Network (VPN) during the travel period to make communication back home more convenient. However, make sure to do so prior to takeoff, or while in Hong Kong, which does not have these restrictions.
Also, it’s good to download the Chinese apps that can assist you significantly during your in-country travel time. Each has an international/English version which you can use.
QQ possesses several language options, which you can choose as you create an account. You can find new friends or communicate with others you meet during your trip. WeChat is another. Many people make the analogy that WeChat is like Facebook and QQ is like Instagram.
Figuring all this out might take you a little extra time, but it most likely will save you hundreds of dollars in the long run if you plan on using your phone or the internet. If you are having trouble trying to figure out where to buy a SIM card or a mobile wifi device, or if you do not know how to enable it, most our tour guides can assist.