China SIM Cards Explained!

SIM Card

In this day and age, there’s really no reason to travel without a cell phone. Prepaid local SIM cards cost so little that they become a worthy investment. After all, how else are you supposed to keep up with all your new friends? Not to mention that coordinating with a CouchSurfing host is extremely difficult without a means of calling each other!

Generally speaking, your SIM card should get you  the same coverage wherever your company’s network provides. I mean, that’s the way cell phones work, right? Well, leave it to the People’s Republic of China to make this process excessively complicated!

For such an enormous country, China only has two national cell providers; the especially large China Mobile and the considerably less common China Unicom. From a travelers point of view, they both more or less have the same product and the same costs, though finding refill cards for China Mobile is a snap, while you may have to search for a bit to find China Unicom stuff.

So, Which Company?

When I buy a pre-paid SIM, I always try and make sure that I will have the ability to call internationally. Sure, calling home is pricey, but I’ve already spent the money on a pre-paid SIM and the chances I’ll run through my balance on locals calls is incredibly slim. Of course, in China, your SIM card’s ability to do so may vary wildly depending on who you speak with.

For example, everyone at China Mobile I spoke with informed me that I would also have to buy what’s called an IP card (a pre-paid calling card) in order to call overseas and every traveler I met along the road confirmed this fact (though my CouchSurfing host in Shanghai who spoke excellent Chinese was able to make calls with his…maybe its the fact that he could communicate with the locals…or the fact that he was in Shanghai?).

China Unicom, on the other hand, will provide you with an International Direct Dialing (IDD) code…no need to purchase anything extra. The only thing is that you have to specifically ask them for this. Considering that I only knew a few word of Chinese, I resorted to making a “call” signal with my hands and saying “Mey-gwo” (USA). This was fortunately enough for them to get the gist!

So, What’s the Catch?

China’s cell providers, while national companies, only operate on a provincial level. In other words, say you buy a SIM card in Yunnan Province and then you decide to travel to Shanghai. Your phone will still work, but you’ll pay a higher “roaming” rate (even though you aren’t technically roaming).

Not only that, but, at least in my case with China Unicom, Customer Service could not tell me anything about my account, including what my remaining balance was because my card was purchased in Yunnan, not in Shanghai. Apparently I had to call the Yunnan Customer Service folks by dialing the proper area code!

To top it off, China Unicom’s IDD codes vary from one province to another too, so the code that worked for me in Yunnan, would not work for me in Shanghai!

This could explain my CouchSurfing host’s ability to obtain a China Mobile IDD code in Shanghai. I’m sure speaking nearly fluent Mandarin helped too!

So, How Do You Refill?

The short version to this that any convenience store should carry a refill card for both China Mobile and China Unicom. In Shanghai, this is literally true (of course, it took 3 hours and someone writing it down in Chinese for me to successfully get one). You dial in the code on the refill and presto! But the nationwide consistently seems to lack here too, at least with China Unicom.

Adding credit to my SIM in Kunming involved finding the one convenience store in my neighborhood that had a system for putting credit on electronically. I simply gave them my number and 20 RMB (US$3) and they took care of the rest. Of course, it helped to have exactly what I wanted written in Chinese (see a trend here?).

The good news in all this is that China’s network coverage for both companies is truly superb. I always found it incredibly impressive that everywhere I went, be it tiny little village or remote mountain pass, service was available. Now just watch out for those “roaming” charges that drain your credit faster!

Have you had experiences with China Mobile? Please share your thoughts below!


By Aaron

Hey there! I'm Aaron and this is my travel site, where I document my adventures to all corners of the world. My love for travel started at the ripe old age of four, when a midlife crisis uprooted my family to Ecuador for five years. Since then, I've been to countries on 4 different continents. When I'm not blissfully on the road, I reside in New York City, where I become the ultimate travel junkie and spend my days dreaming up my next great adventure! Read More...

3 replies on “China SIM Cards Explained!”

Hey Aaron, thanks for posting this! Realise its a little old now, however have you had any more experience since 2010? I actually started up a business selling local and roaming SIMs (, and did a bit of research and went with China Unicom (…was just looking at how I instruct people to refill, and the local convenience stores looks OK from your post. Any further (updated) tips on what I have would be appreciated! cheers, Pete

Ps happy to hook you up with SIMs for any of your future trips too!

Hi Pete,

Unfortunately, I haven’t been back to China yet, so I can’t provide you with any updated info. If I return though, I’ll definitely let you know!


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