Buying a China prepaid SIM card

You will want a SIM card in China to call your friends or just look up things online. Getting a SIM card could prove troublesome for many visitors. It’s not easy for foreigners to navigate the purchase process since everything is exclusively in Chinese, and things work in a very Chinese manner; meaning not very straightforward for those used to more Western ways. I’ll try to provide some tips.


China Mobile Networks

There’s three national networks:

  • China Mobile (中国移动)
  • China Unicom (中国联通)
  • China Telecom (中国电信)

Buying your SIM in China

The general process for buying a prepaid SIM card in mainland:

  1. go to the mobile phone store
  2. provide your passport
  3. purchase a SIM card
  4. load credit on it.

Communication will be difficult without mandarin, believe me, I’ve done it.

Some of the smaller stores might not even accept your passport, it’s pretty cumbersome. If you find some guy on the street, make sure you test out the SIM card and check the credit before paying and leaving.

Alternative Options

Honestly I’ve found it easier to use a HK card with roaming capabilities in China. There’s a few benefits, first HK cards are in both English and Chinese. There’s no registration required, and all refills are pretty easy. One of my biggest gripes with the China cards are trying to figure how much money you’ve used up and getting it refilled. China isn’t friendly to foreign credit cards and all of the interfaces are in Chinese.

If you’ll be in HK, obtain a SIM card that’ll work in China. There’s plenty of selection sold in Hong Kong at mobile phone stores. Or you can buy your China prepaid SIM online via our partner too.

Pricing to expect

If you decide to get a prepaid SIM in China, here’s a roundup of general pricing to expect. You just have to ask the person at the store for what’s available when you go, there’s no reliable website. Please leave us a comment with your experience and pricing afterwards.


The prepaid SIM cards are refillable. Easiest to go to a store to get it done there and pay RMB cash. Your Visa/MasterCard/Amex will likely pose issues, as will online/phone refill. All confirmations will be sent to your phone in simplified Chinese.


Keep in mind you need your passport as well as an unlocked GSM capable phone. Anything sold in the last 5 years should work fine.

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