Posted by Jon Gu - 顾晓帆 on 6. Aug 2010
BEIJING, AUG 7 -- If you are new to Beijing or China in general, you are probably experiencing carrier woes. How do you choose a Chinese cellular phone carrier when you can barely figure out which bathroom is for men and which is for women without looking at the picture, or just how exactly to use the hole in the ground behind the stall door?
You could just buy a random SIM card at the phone booth just as you exit Beijing Capital Airport like I almost ignorantly did my first foray into the country, but do you really have a clue what you are signing up for?
China has three massive state-controlled telecoms operating in its borders. China Mobile is the largest mobile telecom company in China -- and also the world -- with over 500 million customers.
China Unicom is the second largest, while China Telecom holds up the rear as China's primary landline and DSL provider, recently breaking into the mobile phone market after acquiring China Unicom's CDMA network in 2008.
We'll briefly cover some of the features and benefits of the first two providers and largely ignore China Telecom since it uses the CDMA network instead of GSM and so will likely be incompatible with most phones purchased overseas.
China Mobile and China Unicom are both GSM carriers and as such, you can bring in any carrier-unlocked phone which supports SIM cards into the country and simply swap out your SIM with a local one.
However, not all phones are made equal: You will need to ensure that your phone supports the 900/1800mhz band. Most European phones also use this frequency and should work with no issue. North American carriers generally use the 850/1900mhz band, which is not compatible with China's GSM network.
You will need to ensure that your phone contains a quad-band radio if you wish to use it in both here and in North America. As I stupidly-discovered, a $20 T-Mobile prepaid phone will not work in China since it is both locked and doesn't have the right radio!
If you use a smartphone, you will probably be interested in data services as well as simple voice services. All three Chinese carriers were awarded 3G licenses in 2009 -- and none of the three are compatible with each other.
China Mobile uses a proprietary, China-only TD-SCDMA network for 3G data services, cleverly named “G3.” Only China Mobile’s G3 phones can access the internet through this network.
Coverage in major cities is fairly-extensive.
China Unicom uses the more standard WCDMA network for 3G data and will thus be compatible with many 3G phones brought in from overseas, such as your factory-unlocked Hong Kong iPhone. Unfortunately, the 3G services are not yet widely available. (In Beijing, it's only available inside of the 4th Ring.) If you live too far from the center of the city, you might be stuck using the slower 2G network.
China Telecom uses CDMA2000 for 3G Internet and is basically not compatible with anything that anyone outside of Asia uses, although certain carrier-unlocked Korean and Japanese handsets may work with their network.
It should be pretty clear from this data that if you plan on using the same phone both inside and outside of China, you will probably end up using China Unicom since they are the only telecom that is compatible with the 3G network the rest of the world uses.
If you plan on buying a phone in China and using it only in China, you can use any of the three carriers as they offer similarly competitive plans.
China Unicom Plans
As of August 2010, China Unicom offers two types of mobile phone monthly packages, their Plan A and Plan B. Plan A is geared more towards heavy data users while Plan B is geared towards voice users. Here are some sample plans:
Plan A 66 RMB/50/300MB/10
Plan B 66 RMB/200/60MB/10
Plan A 96 RMB/240/300MB/20
Plan B 96 RMB/450/80MB/20
Plan A 186 RMB/510/650MB/40
Plan B 186 RMB/1180/150MB/40
Plan A 286 RMB/900/950MB/50
Plan A 586 RMB/1950/2GB/100
Plan A 886 RMB/3000/3GB/120
These plans are billed monthly and you will have to show ID and sign a contract to use them. Overage charges apply for going over your monthly quota and are billed at 0.15 RMB per minute for voice and 0.0003 RMB per KB for data. The "M" Media Units are used for Unicom 3G media services such as music and video.
240 text messages are included in each plan and additional text messages are billed at 0.10 RMB per text.
China Unicom also offers a pro-rated option: pay 50 RMB per month for service and only pay for the minutes and data you use. These plans are billed at 0.36 RMB per minute for outgoing calls and 0.01 RMB per KB for data.
China Mobile Plans
China Mobile has three different subscriber levels: GoTone (全球通: Quánqiútōng), M-Zone (动感地带: Dònggǎndìdài), and EasyOwn (神州行: Shénzhōuxíng).
GoTone is their primary monthly subscription brand.
Some examples of their monthly service rates are listed below, and there are quite a few more in 50 Yuan increments that are omitted for the sake of brevity. Texts appear to be billed separately and you can purchase packages of texts independently from the phone plan.
Plan, Minutes, Data (MB)
58 RMB, 250, Local, 10MB
88 RMB, 450, Local, 150MB
188 RMB, 1400, Local
288 RMB, 1100, Nationwide
588 RMB, 2600, Nationwide
888 RMB, 4600, Nationwide
G3 88 RMB, 200, Nationwide, 500MB
G3 188 RMB, 750, Nationwide
G3 288 RMB, 1300, Nationwide, 1GB
G3 388 RMB, 2000, Nationwide
G3 588 RMB, 3200, Nationwide
G3 888 RMB, 4800, Nationwide
M-Zone is their monthly prepaid plan, geared towards younger users who use music and data services but still prefer the flexibility of a pay-as-you-go plan while retaining the convenience of certain monthly subscriber services.
After signing up with M-Zone, you put money into your account and pay per minute for voice services, billed at 0.25 RMB per minute in the daytime and 0.12 RMB per minute from 21:00 to 09:00 for local calls.
You can then text certain codes to China Mobile to deduct money from your account to add certain services.
For example, code TC20 is a 20 RMB per month subscription plan that adds 320 text messages to your plan. KTWLTC36 is a 36 RMB per month subscription plan which adds 500 text messages, and 20MB of 3G (sorry, I meant G3) data, mainly for webchat through QQ or MSN Mobile.
KTSJLL50 is a code for 50 RMB per month for 500MB of data. There are plenty of codes available to build your custom package, and we cannot cover them all here, so please view the link above or contact your local China Mobile store for more information on available M-Zone packages.
EasyOwn is the prepaid-only plan which requires nothing but a SIM card and phone recharge cards available at any convenience store, and is primarily geared, I think, towards rural residents, children, drug dealers and men needing a second phone number for their mistresses.
The basic plan is billed at 0.4 RMB per minute for incoming calls and 0.6 RMB per minute for outgoing calls. A 3RMB per month plan is rated at 60 free incoming minutes and 0.6 RMB per minute for outgoing calls.
There are also 10 and 20 RMB plans that include unlimited free incoming minutes and are billed at 0.25 RMB per min for outgoing calls. Texts are billed at 5, 10, 15 or 20RMB per month for 40, 100, 180 and 280 texts, respectively and 0.15 RMB per text for exceeding that limit.
As China Telecom uses a CDMA network and EV-DO 3G, it not compatible with GSM phones. As their network is not compatible with a majority of the phones expats will use, we will not bother reviewing their plans.
Please note that China’s phone carriers are operated through regional offices and prices vary based on the city you are in. The prices given are based on local Beijing prices.
Did you find our guide helpful? Feel free to add your suggestions and comments below.
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