It’s said that the biggest fear one has it that of public speaking. For me, my biggest fear is not having cellular service, and not being able to connect while on the go.

So, how does one connect while in China

Some quick tips to staying connected while on the go:
Telephone Telephone service is more of a mixed bag. Calling outside the country is often difficult, and usually impossible without a calling card, which can often only be bought locally. The good news is these cards are fairly cheap, and the connection is surprisingly clear, uninterrupted and delay-free. Look for IP Telephone Cards, which typically have a value of ¥100 but sometimes can be had for as little as ¥25. The cards have printed Chinese instructions, but after dialing the number listed on the card English-spoken instructions are available. As a general indication of price, a call from China to Europe lasts around 22 minutes with a ¥100 card. Calls to the U.S. and Canada are advertised to be another 20% cheaper. If your line allows for international direct dialing (IDD), the prefix for international calls in China is 00. So if you wish to make an overseas call, you would dial 00-(country code)-(area code)-(tel number). Note that calls from the mainland to Hong Kong and Macau require international dialing. IDDs could be very expensive. Ask the rate before calling. Mobile/Cellular Phones Cellular phones are using widespread offer very good service in China. They play an essential role in daily life for most Chinese and for nearly all expatriates in China.

China Phone  photo

Photo by stan

The typical expat spends a few hundred yuan buying a phone, then about ¥100 a month for the service; tourists might use it less. If you already have a GSM 900/1800 cellphone, you can roam onto Chinese networks, but calls will be very expensive (¥12-35/minute is typical). UMTS/HSDPA roaming is not available with every carrier, but you can buy a local SIM card for 3G data access (see below). Chinese CDMA networks require R-UIM (SIM card equivalent), so American CDMA phones will not work off the bat, but it’s possible to program a new Chinese prepaid number into one at some shops for a fee of ¥100-400  just don’t forget to restore your old number before you leave. The one exception is the iPhone 5; plug in a China Telecom R-UIM and it will work after a few minutes of automatic reconfiguration. Droid-series phones will have functioning call/text but making the data work will require perusing Chinese forums or finding a specialist shop at an electronics market to do the reconfiguration. If you have a non-CDMA smartphone and are planning on using 3G, China Unicom is your only option, as China Mobile uses a different technology which is unique to China. Calls and messages will still work but data won’t, at least not at 3G speeds.

It’s very difficult to get a Chinese SIM unless you speak Chinese, or have an interpreter with you. There are companies who can send these to you before you leave for China. A vending machine in Terminal 3 at Beijing airport sells China Mobile and China Unicom SIM cards for ¥100 each, and ¥50 or ¥100 recharge vouchers. For a short visit, consider renting a Chinese cell phone from a company such as Pandaphone . Rates are around ¥7 a day. The company is based in the US but has staff in China. Toll free numbers are 866-574-2050 in the U.S. or 400-820-0293 in China. The phone can be delivered to your hotel in China prior to your arrival and dropped off there at the end of your trip, or shipped to you in the US. When you rent the phone, they will offer you an access code for calling to your country, which is cheaper than buying a SIM card from a local vendor and dialing directly. If you’re staying for more than a few days, it will usually be cheaper to buy a prepaid Chinese SIM card; this gives you a Chinese phone number with a certain amount of money preloaded. Chinese tend to avoid phone numbers with the bad-luck digit ‘4’, and vendors will often be happy to offload these “unsellable” SIM-cards to foreigners at a discount. If you need a phone as well, prices start around ¥100/200 used/new.

Chinese phones, unlike those sold in many Western countries, are never “locked” and will work with any SIM card you put in them. China’s two big operators are China Mobile and China Unicom . Most SIMs sold by the two work nationwide, with Unicom allowing Hong Kong/Macau/Taiwan usage as well. There is usually a surcharge of about 1RMB/min when roaming outside the province you bought the SIM, and there are some cards that work only in a single province, so check when buying. You may also need to manually activate national roaming, which may incur a small daily surcharge as long as it’s active.

Avoid the cheaper wireless phones called PHS (??? xi?olíngt?ng, see “Area Codes”); they only work in one city. PHS are excluded from networks now. For China mobile, you can get your crs balances by calling 1008611 and get a sms with balance. International calls have to be enabled separately by applying for China Mobile’s “12593” or China Unicom’s “17911” service; both require a simple application with no deposit requirement. Usually there will be an English speaker, and let him/her know what you want. Ask for the “special” dialing code, and for 1RMB/month extra on China Mobile (free on China Unicom), this will be provided to you.

Enter the code, the country code, then the local number and you will be talking cheaply in no time. Don’t be fooled by cellphone shops with the China Mobile signage, be sure to go a to a location. The employee’s will wear a blue uniform and there will be counter services. At time of writing, China Mobile is the cheaper of the two with calls to North America/Asia around ¥0.4/min. You can also use prepaid cards for international calling; just dial the number on the card as with a regular landline phone, and the charges will go to the prepaid calling card. To recharge, visit the neighborhood office of your mobile service provider, give the staff your number and pay in cash to recharge your account. You can also recharge at any post office. Alternately, many shops will sell you a charge card, which has a number and password that must be used to call the telephone company to recharge the money in your account. You will be calling a computer and the default language is Chinese, which can be changed to English if you understand the Chinese. Charge cards are sold in denominations of ¥30, 50 and 100. (If you’re on Unicom, you have a local bank account, and you understand Chinese, you can recharge by bank transfer online; this is cheaper and sometimes there will be special offers for recharging this way) For mobile data addicts, the “Wo” 3G USIM from China Unicom starts at ¥66/month for 240 nationwide minutes, 10 videocall minutes, 300MB data, and some free multimedia/text content (ringtones, mobile news reports, wallpapers, music videos, etc).

Incoming transmissions (video/voice call, text) from anywhere is completely free. For short-term use there is no longer a basic service fee, with calls around ¥1/3 min, text messages ¥0.10 each and data ¥10/MB (overage for the ¥96 plan is a more reasonable ¥0.15/min, ¥0.10 per text ¥0.3/MB). The student plan (¥66 for 50 minutes, 240 texts, everything else same as ¥96 plan) is also an option. China Mobile offers their “Easy Own” prepaid card, the offer also includes data plan options: ¥100 or ¥200 for 1 or 2 GB of data a month. It’s possible to De-activate this service with a short message to the number 10086. There is also a 5 G cap (maximum charge per month) of ¥500. An alternative for those who want a Hong Kong number, the ability to recharge with a Visa/MasterCard cr card, and/or access to certain overseas websites that are otherwise blocked without paying a small fortune is to get dual-number Hong Kong-based SIM cards.

A Hong Kong-based China Unicom SIM costs somewhat more at HK$0.60/minute (HK$0.45/minute in Guangdong), HK$0.50/text, and internet is HK$38/300MB daily or HK$78/500MB weekly for unfiltered internet (removing the need to pay for an outside VPN) but is not as unreasonably priced as roaming from most other countries. For those who want more data at the cost of speed (no 3G access), China Mobile Hong Kong actually charges less than China Mobile proper at HK$148 for 2.5GB data compared to ¥200 for 2GB, but charges the same higher rates as China Unicom HK. Note that the downside to using a HK-based SIM is no cheap international calls; China Mobile HK, for instance, charges HK$5.80/minute to call all other countries from China, but softens the blow by offering a recharge bonus that increases with the amount of the top-up applied (for instance, a recharge of HK$300 gets you an extra HK$100, a recharge of HK$200 gets you an extra HK$50, and anything less than that but more than HK$50 gets a 10% bonus applied to it).

For the very short-term, the truly data-heavy users, or those to whom money is no object, Three HK data SIMs offer unlimited data in China (again unfiltered because everything runs through Three servers in HK) for HK$98/day. With their recharge bonus scheme a HK$300 recharge will last four days on top of the cr included with the SIM (2 days for the $198 SIM + 4 days from a $300 recharge make 6 days and HK$10 left over, for instance). All of these can be purchased in HK, from specialist SIM dealers in larger cities, or online. See also cell phones.

Other tips on staying connected while in China? Please add your comments and tips.