To put it nicely, China has its own unique way of doing many things. While obviously most of their laws, customs and practices do not pertain nor effect us on a daily basis, there certainly are a few of them that do challenge the business traveler, student or tourist to China. One of the the big ones pertains to cellular service in China. Many articles have been written on the issues of security breach and the fact that you should not bring your own phone to China. This does not mean that you have to be completely without a phone. It just means you should avoid bringing your personal phone with all your personal photos, emails, passwords and other data on it.
Of course, you can just not travel to China with a phone at all. Since this is not a good option for anyone wanting to use a translating app, a GPS app such as Google Maps or simply stay in touch with friends and family back home, which means basically anyone, lets explore some information on how to buy a Chinese SIM card.
First off, you need to consider what phone you will use with your new SIM card. You should avoid using your primary phone due to security issues. if you have a secondary phone, such as an an older phone from your carrier, chances are it is either unlocked (if it is through Verizon) or “unlockable.” Another option is also renting a phone for China, By unlockable, this means that it is paid off and that the carrier, if you contact them, will give you the code to allow any other SIM card to be used in the device. Once the phone is unlocked, make sure that you wipe it clean of any of the personal data on the phone. The easiest way is to restore the phone to its factory condition, i.e., with no data on it. For more information on this, read this article for Apple on how to restore you phone to factory settings and this one for Android phones.
Once you have a secondary device, you can simply purchase a China SIM card through Cellular Abroad. Getting a SIM card prior to your trip can help you avoid a ton of hassle as opposed to purchasing a SIM once you arrive at your destination. In fact, as of December 2019, getting a SIM card locally has become even more difficult. Previously, you only had to give the store employee your passport, which he would scan and keep a copy of. Now, the store employees that sell you a SIM card are required to do a “portrait match” of the person buying the SIM against his or her Chinese issued documentation. While it is not clear yet if this pertains to foreigners visiting the country on a temporary basis, many shops just steer clear of selling to tourists all together for fear of not applying the law correctly. So, buying a SIM cards locally is not as simple as going into a cell phone store. You may have to go to several in order to find someone willing to sell you one. There are also other challenges to consider if you are thinking about buying a SIM in China.
Many travelers purchasing SIM cards from Cellular Abroad do so because they report that they were “ripped off” last time they bought one directly in China. Being ripped off can mean a couple of things as our customers have told us. There is a good chance that you will pay more than what a Chinese would pay but that is really the least of it. The real issues is what often happens is that you purchase a SIM card with service that is supped to be valid for your entire trip only to find out that after a couple of days, the service is terminated. This practice is a huge inconvenience not only because, in theory, you would have to buy another SIM but because in practice, you can only have one SIM card registered to you and therefore you will not be able to get another SIM even if you tried. Having said that, there is always a price for everything in China but do you really want to do something potentially illegal while in China?
Another trick is that you buy a certain amount of minutes or data, at least you think you do, only to find out that what you really got is a fraction of what you paid for. Also, many SIM cards are regional meaning that if you travel from one province to another, it will not work.
In sum, nobody wants to travel and be completely without cellular service and certainly nobody wants to be a victim of security breach but nobody wants to go through a plethora of inconveniences to get a SIM card that works in China. Your best option and most affordable option is to use a phone with none of your information on it and then to get a SIM card from Cellular Abroad before you travel.