Making Calls in China: Mobile Phones, SIM Cards, and Dialing

Travel | by Kai Pan
Posted: September 27th, 2008 | Updated: August 17th, 2010 | Comments
Getting in touch and staying in touch has never been easier. These days, everyone and their mom has a cell phone, and we worry more about ignoring calls we don’t want to answer than trying to find a way to contact someone when we need to. Coming to China, you’ll probably want to know the basics of how to make yourself available and how to get a hold of those dearest to you: motorola-k1-black.jpgThe Cell Phone The first thing you need is a cell phone that works in China. You probably already have a cell/mobile phone but you need to check if it is an unlocked, tri-band or quad-band phone that accepts SIM cards. Ideally, you may also want to make sure your cell phone has Chinese language support, because sooner or later, you’ll be getting text messages in Chinese from all your new-found Chinese friends. Or marketers. It doesn’t matter if you can actually read or plan to learn Chinese, you’ll definitely feel much cooler getting Chinese text messages than a bunch of garbled symbols about as inscrutable as Wingdings. Getting a Cell Phone Back Home If you’re from “the West” (typically, the Americas or Europe), chances are your phone might have language support for English, French, or Spanish. Great…that’s useless here in China. The good news is that you can usually get a phone with Chinese language support from any place that has a reasonable population of ethnic Chinese people and retail businesses. You can usually find lots of nifty grey-market phones typically unavailable for your market too, but just make sure it provides English and Chinese support and will work in China. Getting a Cell Phone in China If you arrive in China and realie your phone doesn’t work, don’t fret, for it is extraordinarily easy to get a working cell phone here. Indeed, shops or stands where you can purchase a cell phone are about as ubiquitous as barber shops. Where to go to get the best deals is beyond the scope of this article so I’ll keep it simple: You can get a no-nonsense working cell phone for less than 100 RMB. In fact, it can get far cheaper, limited only by your pride and self-dignity. Yes, there are older model Nokias, LGs, Samsungs, etc. even at that price, so don’t feel like you need to settle for a unknown Chinese unit, though they’re not all that bad either. The key thing is to have them power it up, make sure it supports the languages you need, play through the menus to see if you like them, and bargain. I’ll kill you if you get ripped off. Remember, you can always get a nicer, shinier phone later on, once you feel the need to impress your new friends and have gotten acquainted with how to bargain appropriately in China. The SIM Card Alright, so you have a phone that works. Now all you need is your own snazzy China cell phone number and that comes with a pre-paid SIM card. Note: In recent years, many visitors to the Middle Kingdom might have noticed that their cell phones and SIM cards from home still work upon disembarking from their flights. You notice that your mobile phone is connected to a network (on your display it reads “China Mobile” or “CMCC”), that you can receive calls, and that you can even *gasp* make calls. This likely means your mobile carrier back home has some sort of agreement with a local Chinese carrier, extending you coverage when abroad. However, unless you have an international rate plan or you’re insane enough to pay outrageous roaming charges, you’ll opt to get a local number here with a local network. Buying a SIM Card Now, there are two major mobile telecommunication companies in China: China Mobile and China Unicom. Of the two, China mobile is by far the larger and offers better coverage while China Unicom is perhaps better known for their CDMA service. I recommend China Mobile. china_mobile.jpg china_unicom.gif Pre-paid SIM cards are widely available at most newsstands, cell phone shops, certain convenience stores, and independent resellers (the random guy with a little table set up on the sidewalk). If they sell cell phones, they sell SIM cards, though not necessarily vice versa. How much a SIM card costs depends on the phone number it is associated with. Lucky numbers are often posted up with higher prices for the superstitious (me? I make my own luck). A random non-lucky number should only cost you approximately 50-60 RMB. Ask for a SIM card, pick a number, and the person will give you a sealed envelope. Feel free to ask about the rates and limitations before paying. For example, most pre-paid SIM cards cannot initially or directly call outside the country without an international phone card. Most China Mobile pre-paid SIM cards should include about 30-50 RMB worth of credit. It should also include free incoming calls. This feature actually costs a monthly fee - 16 RMB in Shanghai, might be various in different cities [remember to ask to activate this feature]  and can be disabled if you so choose because no one calls you. There is a per minute rate for calls you make and a per message rate for each SMS text message you send. If you’re cool, you’ll quickly learn that text-messaging is big in China. For my current China Mobile package, the rate is RMB 0.13/min to call out, RMB 0.1/text message or RMB 0.15/message if you are texting cellphones outside of the network. Your SIM card will come with a card that has a password on it. For many, you will never really need this password but you should keep it anyway, even if just as a souvenir. The password will come in handy if you ever plan on registering your name to your card, which is necessary for many additional services including moving from pre-paid recharge cards to monthly billing plans and letting the Chinese government know that a potentially dangerous foreigner uses that number. Pop out the SIM card and insert it into your phone. Power on and you should be good to go. You can call 10086 at anytime to check your balance, perform some other administrative tasks, or talk to customer service to practice your Chinese. Don’t worry, they have an English language option. Recharging and Adding Money to Your SIM Card When you can’t seem to call anyone and, for some reason, people suddenly stop calling you), you’ve probably run out of stored credit for your number. This is when you buy a recharge card. Again, you can typically find recharge cards just about everywhere SIM cards and cell phones are sold. Almost all convenience stores should have recharge cards even if they don’t sell SIM cards. These recharge cards either look like plastic cards or a small sealed piece of paper, and they generally come in denominations of 50 or 100 RMB. Look for your recharge card password which is a series of numbers. You may need to scratch off something or just open the sealed piece of paper along the perforated lines. The instructions will tell you to call 138-0013-8000 (I remember it by 138-00-138-000, or by reading the recharge card). Follow the prompts and you’ll be golden. Do everything right and you should get a recorded confirmation of added value at the end, and usually then a nice text message confirming with your new total remaining value. Dialing in China One thing some people may quickly notice is that China uses an 8-digit telephone number format, with a 2-digit city code preceding it. The 2-digit city code is only necessary if you’re calling from a number that is outside that city. For example, Shanghai’s city code is 21 and calling Shanghai from outside of Shanghai would require one to dial 21-XXXX-XXXX (2-4-4), with the Xs being the desired number. Mobile phone numbers follow an 11-digit format (3-4-4). The first 3-digits is something like an area code and most cell phone numbers tend to start with 131, 134, 137, 159, etc. followed by 8 digits that has as many 8s as possible if the owner is Chinese. Those first 3-digits are always necessary when calling a cell phone. If you dial without them, you’ll likely reach a land line and someone you don’t know. Making International Calls Dialing abroad should not be too difficult. However, if you got a China Mobile pre-paid SIM card, you cannot immediately make international calls. You either need to register your name to your number and enable it or you need to get what is known as an IP card (Voice Over IP card). As with getting SIM cards and recharge cards, you should know where you can find these. They come in all sorts of lame designs and in all sorts of denominations. The important thing to remember here is that the cost of the IP card should be cheaper than the face value of the card. For example, I typically buy 100 RMB IP cards for only 30 RMB. This is not an absolute, but just be aware of it. Once you have an IP card, just follow the instructions on the card to make an international call. Again, there is usually an English option. Now that you have the tools and the knowledge to call people for help at any time, go forth and conquer. For more Kai Pan go to
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