Planning a trip to mainland China, Hong Kong, or nearby areas? Before you step out the door, you need to think about your mobile access while abroad. Having a reliable connection to a cell phone network is vital when traveling both short and long term. Maintaining good access in China can mean the difference between a safe trip and a scary one, especially when it comes to censorship and the Great Firewall of China.
If you know a little bit about SIM cards and mobile access, it’s not all that difficult to find local chips you can use in China. Nevertheless, there are several factors you need to take into consideration, including data limits and talk time. You should also be on the lookout for your privacy and keep a reliable VPN connected at all times. But don’t worry, we’ll cover all you need to know about local SIM cards for China and online security/privacy in the guide below.
- 1 Choosing the right VPN
- 2 Recommended VPNs for Chinese internet access
- 3 Benefits of getting a local Chinese SIM card
- 4 How to buy Chinese SIM cards
- 5 Top 4 best SIM cards to use in China
- 6 How to use a Chinese SIM card
- 7 Conclusion
Choosing the right VPN
China is a hotbed of censorship and surveillance. Everyone in the country should be using a VPN to keep their data safe, especially travelers. By choosing a reliable and trustworthy VPN before stepping on the plane, you can lock down your information and stay secure while abroad, even while using Chinese SIM cards and Chinese wireless data.
Best VPN features
Not all VPNs can be used in China, and even the ones that do often have trouble unblocking websites through the Great Firewall. You can follow all the tricks and tips you want, but at the end of the day, there are just a few criteria that make a VPN worthwhile in China. We used the features below to evaluate the top VPNs for keeping your data safe.
- Availability in China – Only a select few VPNs still work in China. If you sign up with a service that’s blocked, you’re out of luck.
- Good software – You’ll interact with your VPN every day. Make sure it’s easy to use.
- Fast servers – Speed is everything when it comes to the internet.
- Strong device support – Your VPN should work on every device you intend to use inside the country.
- Zero-logging policy – Only sign up with VPNs that have a strict zero-logging policy.
Recommended VPNs for Chinese internet access
Once you know what features to look for, it’s easy to narrow down the list of VPNs and choose the best one for China!
1 – ExpressVPN
ExpressVPN is one of the fastest and easiest to use VPNs on the market. It has a well-deserved reputation for being friendly for newcomers, too, as anyone can sign up and use the service to stay safe and secure on any device. ExpressVPN lets you unblock thousands of sites worldwide on PC, Mac, iOS, Android, Linux, and more, and you never have to worry about complicated configurations. With ExpressVPN, you’ll be able to take back the free and open internet from China or anywhere else on the globe in a matter of seconds.
ExpressVPN offers a good selection of privacy features to keep you safe. Data sent to and from your device is always secured with military-grade 256-bit AES encryption. It’s also backed by a strict zero-logging policy on all traffic, DNS requests, and IP addresses and is protected by an automatic kill switch and DNS leak prevention features. All of these work with ExpressVPN’s massive network of over 2,000 servers in 94 different countries, giving you a fast and secure connection anywhere in the world.
For more info about this VPN and its amazing features, check out our ExpressVPN review.
2 – NordVPN
NordVPN is a safe, secure, and well-respected VPN that countless users trust every day with their most sensitive data. The company runs a large network of servers, all of which are incredibly fast. As soon as you join you get unlimited access to over 5,220 servers in 62 countries, one of the largest networks in the business. This variety delivers incredible speeds no matter where you connect from, including China, and it allows NordVPN to deliver features like double encryption, protection from DDoS attacks, and onion routing over VPN.
NordVPN comes with everything you need to stay safe online: 256-bit AES encryption, DNS leak protection, an automatic kill switch, and a zero-logging policy that covers time stamps, DNS requests, IP addresses, and traffic. It’s extremely easy to use on any device, offering lightweight yet powerful apps for PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, and other platforms. When you need solid, fast protection, and unparalleled unblocking features, you can’t go wrong with NordVPN.
Learn more about the NordVPN experience in our full NordVPN review.
Benefits of getting a local Chinese SIM card
Traveling is stressful enough. Doing it without a reliable connection to the internet is even worse. With a Chinese SIM card on hand, you’ll be able to access the wireless web at any time, not to mention keep in touch with friends and family to let them know you’re safe.
- Overcome language barriers – Even if you study Chinese before you go, chances are you’ll encounter a few situations where the language barrier becomes a problem. Whether you’re ordering food at a restaurant or trying to negotiate cab fare, being able to call a friend for assistance is invaluable.
- Access Baidu maps – Google products are largely blocked in China. You have to use local services in their place, which means relying on Baidu for navigation access. Downloading maps from Baidu is the best way to make it through China’s streets and subways more efficiently.
- Convenience – China has a strong culture of portable convenience. Mobile payments are widely accepted, and if you want to utilize this, you have to have a local SIM card and data connection.
- Affordability – Using foreign SIM cards in China can incur some serious roaming fees. Save your money by getting a local SIM.
How to buy Chinese SIM cards
A good local SIM card for China can help you stay connected to the internet while on the go, as well as give you a lifeline in case you become stranded. Many people stick to their home carrier’s cards while moving abroad, but this can come with some incredibly high fees. If you plan ahead, however, you can bypass these charges and enjoy inexpensive internet and talk time abroad.
Where to get local SIM cards in China
SIM card shops are all over the place in cities throughout China. You can find them at most major airports, in a number of corner shops, by street vendors, and even in electronics stores. You can also pick up Chinese SIM cards at kiosks in certain shops in major cities.
To ensure you get the best deal and aren’t purchasing defective goods, however, Addictive Tips recommends you buy your SIM card from an official retailer, either in person or online, and preferably before you head to China.
Requirements to use the SIM cards
There are three major telecom service providers in China: China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom. The easiest to find (and easiest to use) SIM cards are all made available by these companies. There are also a number of options for travelers visiting China via Hong Kong.
Before you buy, make sure you have an unlocked phone that isn’t tied to any carrier. If you live in the U.S. and pay for your phone as part of a cellular contract, your phone might be locked. Contact your service provider for details about how to unlock your phone or to obtain a temporary device for traveling. You should also ask if your current device is compatible with China’s wireless networks.
Need more help setting up your phone and SIM card before visiting China? See our complete setup guide below!
Top 4 best SIM cards to use in China
Open access to the web in China via local SIM card is the best way to go, and we’ve got the top products in a handy list below.
1 – China Unicom
China Unicom’s SIM cards offer a good amount of data and plenty of SMS access and talking minutes for a reasonable price. Plans generally do not expire, meaning once you pay for the card, you are under no obligation to use up your entire allotment before the end of the month. You can even have your card delivered to most hotels in Chinese cities, all for free.
These are the most common China Unicom SIM cards available at officially licensed Unicom shops and kiosks around China. If you exceed any of the limits, especially data, you can pay a small fee to extend them, usually around 9 USD per GB.
- 500 MB of data, 100 talk minutes
- 800 MB of data, 200 talk minutes
- 11 GB of data, 3,000 talk minutes
Another popular option with China Unicom’s pre-paid SIM cards is basic 4G access with full voice and data support. This bare-bones service offers 50 minutes of talk time, 240 outgoing SMS, 300 MB of fast data, and free incoming calls/texts. Additional data is billed at MB or 100 MB increments, making it a good option for anyone who isn’t sure how much they’ll use during their trip.
To purchase these SIM cards, visit China Unicom online, then pick a plan and a delivery location.
2 – China Telecom
China’s smallest wireless provider goes out of its way to deliver great deals for travelers entering the mainland. The all-in-one service focuses on data above all else, allowing users to buy cards with multiple GB of access for small fees. Here’s a quick look at what you can get:
- 3 GB of data (expires after 30 days)
- 6 GB of data (expires after 30 days)
- 6 GB of data (expires after 180 days)
- 12 GB of data (expires after 365 days)
The downside to China Telecom’s pre-paid SIM cards is you cannot order them online, you have to buy them in person from official stores, passport in hand. Data also expires after a number of months, so choose your card wisely.
3 – Big Bay Area
If you travel into China through Hong Kong, or if your travel plans include this region, Macau, and mainland China, you might want to consider getting a SIM card through Big Bay Area. The company offers several options that include roaming minutes and data for the above areas, along with reasonable rates for data-heavy card users.
Some of the popular SIM plans with Big Bay Area include the following:
- 1 GB of data, 50 talk minutes, 50 texts
- 2 GB of data, 100 talk minutes, 100 texts
- 4 GB of data, 100 talk minutes, 100 texts
Big Bay Area cards can be purchased online, but you’ll need to pick them up in Hong Kong if you’re not a local resident. You can also buy them at CMHK shops and many airport kiosks. Note that if you buy online, you’ll get a substantial 20% discount on your purchase.
Choose one of the pre-paid Big Bay Area SIM cards and purchase online via China Mobile.
4 – China Mobile
China Mobile’s pre-paid SIM cards have limited availability. Travelers are currently unable to buy them online, as they’re only available through official stores throughout China. Additionally, plans are somewhat limited in terms of data and minutes, and premium prices are charged if you go over your allotment. However, unused data does roll over from month to month, making China Mobile SIM cards great to have as inexpensive emergency back-ups.
Some of the common pre-paid plans featured by China Mobile:
- 300 MB of data with 80 talk minutes
- 2 GB of data with 220 talk minutes
- 30 GB of data with 4,000 talk minutes
China Mobile also offers talk-centric plans that include 500 or 1,500 minutes of outgoing talking time with 12 or 20 GB of data. Going over these limits both incurs a fee and drops your speeds from 4G to 1 Mbps.
To get a China Mobile SIM card, check for one of the official stores or kiosks in the airport or in China’s major cities.
How to use a Chinese SIM card
Need some help getting your VPN or SIM card set up? Follow the steps below and you’ll be set.
Step 1 – Set up your VPN
China is famous for its heavily censored and restricted internet. If you want to maintain your privacy and keep full access to the open, free web, you need to choose a VPN long before you enter the country.
Sign into your VPN’s website and download apps for your devices, including smartphones, tablets, laptops, and anything else you’ll be traveling with. Anything that can use internet will need VPN protection. Install the app, launch the software, then enter your login credentials to activate the connection.
When the VPN software is installed and launched, you’re almost ready to go. Most apps automatically connect to a fast server as soon as they launch. This is fine for your needs, as it doesn’t matter where your virtual IP address is located, only that the connection is fast, secure, reliable, and fully operational in China.
You’ll want to verify your IP address to ensure the VPN is actually working as intended. With your VPN active and connected, open a web browser on the same device and go to ipleak.net. Wait for the page to load and it will run an IP address lookup automatically. Look at the box beneath where it says Your IP address. If it shows a country other than your own, you’re good to go.
Now you can safely connect to the internet and enjoy a private browsing experience on any device. Be sure to keep the VPN active at all times, especially when you’re in China.
Step 2 – Research SIM cards
You may need to order your Chinese pre-paid card online before you leave. For this reason, you should research and order the SIM weeks in advance, just to be on the safe side. Choose one of the selections above that offers the right balance of data, talk, and affordability. Order a starter card right away if necessary, otherwise you can continue with the steps below and buy a SIM when you’re on the mainland.
Step 3 – Unlock your phone
Using a Chinese SIM card means unlocking your phone. As mentioned above, your smartphone may be bound to a particular provider, especially if you’re under contract.
If you’re not sure, contact your carrier and explain you need unlocked access for a trip to China. As long as your account is in good standing, the wireless provider is likely to oblige. This may take a few days to complete, so do it ahead of time.
If you paid full price for your phone, use a carrier that doesn’t require contracts, or specifically bought an unlocked phone, your device is already prepped to accept a Chinese SIM card.
Step 4 – Install and use the SIM card
Depending on the device you have, installing the SIM card will be a vastly different process. Most have tiny trays on the bottom or slots hidden behind the phone’s rear cover. Check with your manual to see where the card is stored. Once you have the SIM in hand, simply add it to your phone, reboot, and you’re good to go.
It may sound like a foreboding task getting your hands on a Chinese SIM card, but once you know what to look for, it’s surprisingly easy. All you need is an unlocked phone, a VPN to keep your data secure, and an inexpensive card from one of China’s main providers. That’s it!
Got any other tips you’d like to share about SIM cards in China, or traveling through the country itself? Share your thoughts below!