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Cell phones in China

When you find yourself in a city that has full five-bar cell phone service on the subway, it's really hard to do without a cell phone. The process wasn't entirely painless but in all fairness I can't exactly say it's much easier with AT&T or Verizon when you actually speak the same language. I learned quite a lot in the process so figured I'd write it down in case I needed to do it again or in case it's of use to others.


  1. A China Mobile prepaid SIM (SIM kar) can be bought from a supermarket or China Mobile affiliate. You pick your number upfront and the price is largely dependent on the composition of digits. 4s are not favored since it is an unlucky number, since the words for four and death differ only in tone. Prices seem to range from 20 RMB to 1000 RMB for essentially the same thing, stores off the tourist track seem to be much more reasonable.
  2. Some SIMs need to be activated. It's an easy call but the instructions are all in Chinese on the accompanying documentation so it's not obvious how to do it. Call 13800138000 and then press 2 to cut over to the pseudo-English prompts.
  3. Credits can be refilled easily by in many stores by buying a refill card. I am told you can get better deals on TaoBao but it's all in Chinese so buying a voucher in a store was easier for me.
  4. Data plans are incredibly reasonable ($3/mo for 200 MB) and can be set up with just a text message. The M-Zone SIM cards (donggandidai) seem to be better than the EasyOwn ones for GPRS/data usage so look for the orange card with a youth on it rather than the bald guy. And definitely call 10086 to set up a reduced rate plan; I found out the hard way that once you pick your plan you're stuck with it for six months.
  5. The iPhone can be coerced into working here with some helpful free pointers from the internet. Sadly, the two apps I actually use while mobile (Tweetie and Facebook) don't work for obvious reasons. But the Maps app is proving very useful. I'm not sure if 3G is possible with my setup but the EDGE connection seems to be working out fine.
  6. Calling up AT&T prior to our departure and getting carrier unlock codes was a good idea.
  7. SMS text messaging is really popular and seems to be used across the spectrum from casual to business interactions.