Smartphones have become indispensable in our everyday lives. We depend on them for emergencies, for information, and even for connecting and communicating to the rest of the world, it is imperative that we have to be sure that they could still work when we cross international borders. Not sure how to ensure cell service when traveling to China? Read on and find out how you can stay connected while traveling in China.

Can I Use My Home Town Cellphones in China?

Do U.S. smartphones work in China? Potentially. In order for your phone to function abroad, you will have to have access to carriers in China. There are only 2 possible ways:

  • if you have an international plan in your home town carrier data plan or roam in China, or,
  • use a local China sim with an unlocked phone.

Unlock your Smartphone and Get a Local SIM in China

Check if your phone is locked or unlocked

If you have no idea whether your phone is locked or not, you could consult your local cellular carrier, most phones from North America are locked. But usually you will know if it is unlocked because it usually costs more than a regular contract phone; if you get your phone from a data plan contract and it even has the telecom’s logo imprinted on your phone, eg sprint/at&t/vodafone, most likely your phone is locked.

Locked smartphones with telecom logo

Smartphones having telecom logo imprinted or installed are usually locked phones

Unlocked Phone

To unlock your phone, you will have to call your local telecom and request this service. This could cost between $100 to $300 USD and the price varies in different countries.

Local SIM Card in China

If you already own an unlocked phone, you will just need to get a local sim card to get data service in China. Sim cards are easy to find at most phone stores or train stations and airports, all you have to do is insert the card and call the number on the package to start service. You can top up at pretty much any convenience store or phone store if you are running low on data or minutes. But if your phone is locked, do not bother buying a China local sim as it will not work on locked phones.

If you are those type who could not live without the Internet and will have to search for information, post your trip photos or communicate with your friends on the other side of the world, get an unlock phone and obtain a local sim card. This is a better and cheaper solution if you are traveling in China for days and weeks. The Internet speed you get with local cellular carriers are much faster than roaming for International plan. And with an unlocked phone, you could use that on ANY local sim cards in the world! Say if your next destination is Japan, Singapore or South Korea, your locked phone will be able to work on their local sim cards.

china-biggest-telecom

The three largest carriers in China providing sim card calling and data services are China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom.

International Plan with Your Home Cellular Carrier or Roaming in China

If you do not use a lot of data and preferred to keep your phone as-is, you could apply the international plan in your home town and usually, they will have plans including a list of hundreds of countries for calling and data.

Also, you could select roaming data from your telecom for your trip to China. This is really only useful for short trips and very limited data, because roaming can rack up your phone bill alarmingly. Roaming data are charged by KB, and loading a single page of website is already 2MB (2000KB) in general.

Roaming in China or International Plan is suitable for travelers who stay in China only for one or two days, and are not hungry for Internet access.

China Wifi For the Internet

Of course, you could always reject 3G or GSM services and choose to bring your phone to China and use it only on Wifi, just that not all areas in China have free wifi service, or any wifi services at all. It also would not help you in an emergency.

Cellphones in China

If all of that sounds complicated to you, don’t worry! You can always get a phone in China to use during your time there. Fortunately for you, Chinese smartphones are pretty cheap. Unfortunately for you, your favorite Western apps may not be available. Chinese phones can only use apps in China market (eg China Play Store for Android and China iTunes), so you may have to reorganize things a bit.

If you plan to take the phone back to the U.S., Canada or other parts in the world, you may have some trouble because phones from China would be preset as China, same as the locked phone is locked to be used in your home country, and you may not be able to unlock it to use it when you go back home. Another issue to think about using China app store, even in the West, sites like Facebook and Twitter will be blocked or no apps will be available.

Great Firewall of China Prevent Access of Some Western Sites

Speaking of blocked sites, the “Great Firewall of China” restricts many websites that you might be accustomed to using. Even with an unlocked phone, with the China Sim you won’t be able to visit many popular sites, like your favorite social media platform or perhaps even your company website. There is a way around this, however. You can install a Virtual Private Network (VPN) on your phone in order to bypass some of China’s internet restrictions. The VPN gives you a virtual portal into the Internet system of the U.S. or whatever country you choose to link to. Just be careful that the VPN you choose is safe and will not allow other users to access your personal information.

Renting Phones

If none of those options fit your needs, you can rent a phone in China. This will cost you less than the price of buying a new phone, but you will still have access to all the features of Chinese smartphones without the hassle of unlocking your U.S. phone or switching data plan. You’ll have good rates and still be able to call internationally any time you want.

Conclusion

There is a lot that goes into planning your phone choices in China, but the good news is that there is always a plan out there which fits your bill. Good luck and happy travels!