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May 18, 2014

Many US or Canadian based cell phones do not work at all in China. Those that do tend to be extremely expensive and many travelers wish that the their phone hadn’t. For example, T-Mobile is currently charging $2.99 per minute plus tax for all incoming and out going calls and the other major carriers are not far behind in terms of costs.

This article is intended to advise you on whether your phone works in China and how to get the best rates for cellular service in China, regardless if your phone works or not.

Will my cell phone work in China?

Approximately 60% of all US and Canadian cell phones currently will work in China. As a rule of thumb, most phones using T-Mobile and AT&T in the United States and Rogers in Canada will work in China while most other carriers, including Sprint and Verizon will be about 50/50. In order for a cell phone to work in China, it must be a GSM phone having the 900 as well as the 1800 Mhz frequencies or bands. T-Mobile, AT&T and Rogers phones do use the GSM network but in North America, we use 1900 and 850 Mhz. Still, many cell phone models, usually called “quad bands” do have the international 900/1800 bands. 

The best way to determine if your phone does have those bands is to look at the specs in the user guide or, if you know the model, go online and search for the phone specs of your phone.

If have confirmed that your cell phone will work in China, you can either decide to keep the current SIM card with your provider in the phone and pay the extremely high rates that North American providers charge to use their service in China or, you can swap out their SIM cards and use a local Chinese one and literally spend pennies as opposed to dollars. 

Locked vs. unlocked Phones

The vast majority of US and Canadian carriers “lock” their handsets. The few hybrid CDMA/GSM cell phones that Sprint and Verizon carry generally are not locked but please check with your provider. That means that the phone will only accept their SIM cards. However, US carriers will, as long as you have been a customer with them for usually 60 days, unlock your handset upon request. Simply call them and ask them to provide you with the unlock code for your handset. They will generally provide you with this information within 24 hours. The only exception currently is for the iPhone which they will not unlock. Canadian carriers on the other hand will not unlock your phone in any circumstance. There are also online websites that will usually send you the code via email to unlock your handset. Many mom and pop brick and mortar cell phone stores, particularly in larger cities such as NYC, Miami and Los Angeles will also unlock your phone. Online stores generally charge $10-$15 and physical stores usually around $25 but more for some phone models, particularly the iPhone.

More on SIM cards for China

If you have an unlocked phone that you have determined has the proper bands for China (900/1800), you can purchase a Chinese SIM cards and get incredible rates within China or calling back to the US, Canada or elsewhere. There are two carriers in China, Unicom and China Mobile with China Mobile being the larger of the two and actually the largest telecom carrier in the world. Rates are as low as $0.05 – even to call back to the US or Canada. SIM cards for China are easy and inexpensive to find and purchase in China but, please note that there are many types available for purchase. Not all will allow you to place international calls. You may also purchase them online. There are several US vendors, including Cellular Abroad and www.amazon.com that offer  China SIM cards. Amazon possibly has the least expensive options but you can forget about them offering any type of customer service while Cellular Abroad specializes specifically in international SIM cards and is renowned for their customer service.

If your phone does not work in China, you should consider renting or purchasing a handset. 

Renting or buying a cell phone for China

At $2.99 a minute plus tax with T-Mobile, a 30 minute conversation will cost you more than $100. Even if you do not pick up the phone and the calls go directly to your voicemail, you will be charged for the call. You can purchase a SIM card for China together with a compatible cell phone for around $100. If you travel internationally, not just to China but anywhere internationally, it makes the most sense to purchase to own an unlocked phone and then purchase local SIM cards. While not every country offers rates as low as China, you certainly will pay much less than if you were to roam with your domestic provider. 

If you do not plan on traveling overseas at least once a year, and you are not staying in China for an extended period of time, say a month or so, it makes sense to rent a handset and then use a pay as you go SIM card from a Chinese carrier such as China Mobile. Unicom is the other carrier in China and, while it has decent coverage, it is nowhere as broad as China Mobile’s coverage.

Data Services

if you plan on using a laptop, the best solution is to  rent a MiFi. A hotspot creates your own person hotspot with which you can log on with any device having data including iPads, iPhones and laptops. If you roam with carriers such as AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon or others, you will incur huge data roaming services fees. Some hotels also offer wifi. If you are traveling to rural areas or if you need data pretty much any time, any place, renting a MiFi is a great solution.

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