Summary: China Mobile is the fastest but the most expensive and it only works with TD-LTE (Band 38-40) compatible phones (e.g. iPhone 6s/6s Plus). Go for China Unicom if your phone does not support these bands (e.g. iPhone 6/6S, iPhone 5/5s, Nexus 6, Samsung Galaxy S5 from the US & Canada). China Unicom is the cheapest and is sufficiently fast.
If you are a techie like I am, you cannot travel abroad without a 4G/LTE network for more than a week. As I frequent China, I was frustrated to find no clear and comprehensive guide on how to best obtain a 4G/LTE SIM card in China (you would think that with more than 100 million visitors traveling to China per year, somebody would have already documented it). So I decided to pick up the task. I visited a few carrier stores, inquired the locals, and tried the services out—I came up with this handy guide that I hope could help you stay wired in China. This article will guide you through which carrier to select, how to get the SIM, and how to recharge it if you wish to keep it.
Depends on your phone. China Mobile offers the fastest speed. Yet since most phones from North America are not compatible with China Mobile's network, your best option is China Unicom.
|iPhones sold in the US||China Mobile||China Unicom||China Telecom|
|iPhone 6s/6s Plus||yes||yes||yes|
|iPhone 6/6 Plus (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile)||no||yes||yes|
|iPhone 6/6 Plus (SIM-free)||yes||yes||yes|
China Mobile arguably offers the fastest 4G/LTE network in China. Unfortunately, its LTE network is deployed on the TD-LTE (Band 38-40) standard. This means that, if you have an iPhone 6/6 Plus from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile in the US, it will NOT work with China Mobile’s 4G/LTE network, even though you have unlocked your phone. If you got your iPhone 6/6 Plus SIM-free (not the T-Mobile Contract-free option) from the Apple Store, however, it will be compatible. iPhone 5/5s from the US are not compatible with China Mobile’s LTE network.
If you got your iPhone 6/6 Plus outside of the Americas (e.g. Europe, Australia, and Asia), it will most likely be compatible with China Mobile’s network. Only iPhone 5s from selected countries (e.g. New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, and China (duh)) will work with China Mobile's 4G Network.
Visit Apple’s page for more information about your phone’s LTE compatibility.
[UPDATE]: iPhone 6s/6s Plus from the US and Canada will be China Mobile compatible.
The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology granted China Unicom and China Telecom the license to build a mixed FDD-LTE and TD-LTE network in selected cities (all major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and Guangzhou are included). As most 4G phones from North America are FDD-LTE compatible, they will be able to connect to china Unicom and Telecom's FDD-LTE network. I was able to connect to China Unicom’s 4G network (couldn’t connect to its LTE though) with my contract-free iPhone 6 from the US with a download speed of around 35Mbps. China Telecom will work too, but its 4G/LTE network is known to be the slowest.
Android, Windows, and Blackberries
For all other phones, please consult your phone specs to see its LTE compatibility based on the following chart. Popular phones such as Nexus 6 and Samsung Galaxy S5 from the US cannot connect to China Mobile's 4G network.
|Carrier||Uplink (MHz)||Downlink (MHz)||Band||Duplex Mode|
|2320 - 2370||2320 - 2370||40||TD-LTE||4G|
China Mobile is the most expensive and China Unicom is the cheapest overall. China Mobile offers only fixed data+calling minutes plans whereas China Unicom and China Telecom offer flexible mix-and-match packages. Below is the pricing schedule of their plans. To make China Unicom and Telecom’s plans comparable to China Mobile’s fixed plans, I have included the total amount you would have to pay in the bracket if you were to get comparable calling minutes in China Mobile’s plans.
|Data||China Mobile||China Unicom||China Telecom|
(incl. 50 mins)
(RMB 62 to incl. 200 mins)
(RMB 51 to incl. 200 mins)
(incl. 420 mins.)
(RMB 94 to incl. 300 mins)
(RMB 78 to incl. 300 mins)
|2 GB||RMB 158
(incl. 510 mins)
(RMB 134 to incl. 500 mins)
(RMB 136 to incl. 500 mins)
|3 GB||RMB 188
(incl. 600 mins)
(RMB 158 to incl. 500 mins)
(RMB 173 to incl. 500 mins)
How to get it?
If you have or know somebody who has a Chinese ID, get it online. It is by far the most convenient and customizable way to go. You even get to pick your phone number. If you live in big cities, the post will deliver your SIM card to your door within 1-2 days as long as the recipient shows the ID the SIM is registered with at delivery. What is awesome about this method is that you can easily manage your account online or through their mobile app. For example, if you decide to keep the SIM card for a later visit, you can downgrade your plan on their app and upgrade it again when you revisit China. I have kept my SIM from China Unicom for as low as USD 1.5/mo. while I am away from China. Since the sites are only available in Chinese and are hard to navigate, I will make a tutorial if you request in the comment.
Links to the carriers’ official websites:
Official Retail Stores
You can also walk into any official retail stores or authorized retailers of the carriers (they are everywhere) to get a SIM card. You might have to wait in line if you go to a store in the city center (please don’t forget to get a ticket by the door for the queue). They will ask to register your passport or whatever form of recognized ID you have. ID registration, like that in the online store, is required by the government to [insert the goal you see fit]. They do not take foreign passport registration seriously from my experience. They didn’t even bother to enter my address correctly. You can register your SIM and manage your account online afterwards.
Street Phone Vendors & Repair Stores
If you don’t mind the adventure, visit a local phone vendors/repair shops, which usually have a lot of phones and phone cases on display. They would happily sell you a SIM card from any major carrier at a discounted price. No ID registration is required. Do test the SIM before you leave the store though.
How to Top Up/Recharge?
Topping up/Recharging your SIM is incredibly easy in China. You can recharge your SIM card through the carrier’s official mobile app, Wechat, Alipay, online banking, ATMs, post offices etc. You can also purchase recharge cards at phone stores or convenience stores.
I hope this article has cleared up some of your questions. Please like or share this post if it has helped you! If you have further questions, leave me a comment and I will try my best to answer it.
If you have other questions about traveling or living in China, please drop them down in the comments as well! I would be happy to develop future posts to answer your questions.