How to: Local 3G SIM card for visitors of China (China Unicom in Shanghai)

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I visit China regularly, about two to three times a year, and each stay lasts anywhere between a week and a month. When China was new to me still, I was more than satisfied exploring the country with an old bar phone that I borrowed from a local friend. However, as time went on and I developed dependence on Baidu (China’s Google), Ctrip (China’s Expedia), Dianping (China’s Yelp), and other domestic online services, I desperately wanted to enable cellular data on my mobile devices.

Obtaining a local SIM card for my Android phone and cellular iPad turned out to be more challenging than expected. I found no definitive guides on the web and spent a fair bit of time piecing things together from a bunch of disjointed information (and sifting through misleading ones) gathered from local Chinese friends and expat forums. Once I figured out where to look, who to ask, and what to get, the procedure was ridiculously simple.

I decided to write up a guide for those of you who are temporary but relatively long-term visitors of China, probably for research, study, or work reasons, and don’t want to pay for expensive roaming packages or be tied to yet another mobile phone contract. I hope what I learned from my experience can help you save time, money, and energy.

What You Need

An unlocked UMTS/GSM smartphone, or a tablet device with cellular data capability.

In US and Canada, this includes most 3G/LTE smartphones that work on AT&T, T-Mobile, Telus, Bell, and Rogers/Fido, cellular models of iPad (1, 2, or 3rd generation), and cellular models of Samsung Galaxy tablets.

If you acquired your phone on contract (if you’re not sure, you probably did), you need to call your mobile service provider to unlock the carrier-lock on your phone’s SIM slot. To my knowledge, T-Mobile, Telus, Bell, and Rogers/Fido unlock virtually all their smartphones. AT&T does for most Android phones but not under-contract iPhones. Most Verizon and Sprint smartphones are CDMA variants and therefore not compatible in China. In the case of the iPhone, UMTS/GSM capability varies depending on the carrier and model:

AT&T smartphones in generalcall to unlock.
AT&T iPhonepossible to unlock only if out of contract.
Telus, Bell, Rogers/Fidocall to unlock.
Verizon/Sprint iPhone 4not possible; either GSM chip not present (black model) or no removable SIM slot (white model).
Verizon/Sprint iPhone 4Scall to unlock the SIM slot.
Verizon iPhone 5SIM slot comes factory-unlocked; but a nano SIM is required.
iPad cellular models
both GSM and CDMA+GSM variants
colloquially known as ‘AT&T’ and ‘Verizon’ models, respectively
SIM slot comes factory unlocked.
Android tablets with cellular data capability
e.g., Samsung Galaxy tablets
SIM slot comes unlocked if purchased at full price; call to unlock if acquired on contract.

Alternatively, you can find some very decent, unlocked Huawei Android phones in China at an affordable price.

UMTS Compatibility

The mobile telecommunications industry in China is run by three state-owned companies: China Telecom 中国电信, China Unicom 中国联通, and China Mobile 中国移动通信. Because China Telecom and China Mobile provide their cellular services on CDMA technology, our only viable option is China Unicom’s UMTS/GSM network.

China Unicom operates its UMTS network at 2100 MHz band, which is compatible with most tri-band (supports 850, 1900, and 2100 MHz) and quad-band (supports 850, 900, 1900, and 2100 MHz) UMTS/GSM phones. Their cellular data service is available at GPRS/EDGE and up to HSPA+ speeds.

A Sample UMTS Compatibility Chart

iPhone 4 model A1332
GSM or ‘AT&T’ version
850 | 900 | 1,900 | 2,100 MHzyes
iPhone 4 model A1349
CDMA for Verizon and Sprint
dual-band CDMA/EVDO Rev. Ano
iPhone 4S GSM model
AT&T, Telus, Bell, Rogers/Fido
850 | 900 | 1,900 | 2,100 MHzyes
iPhone 4S CDMA model
Verizon, Sprint
dual-band CDMA/EVDO Rev. A
850 | 900 | 1,900 | 2,100 MHz
yes
iPhone 5 GSM models
AT&T
850 | 900 | 1,900 | 2,100 MHzyes
iPhone 5 CDMA model
Verizon, Sprint
dual-band CDMA/EVDO Rev. A
850 | 900 | 1,900 | 2,100 MHz
yes
Galaxy Nexus
HSPA+ model
850 | 900 | 1,700 | 1,900 | 2,100 MHzyes
Galaxy Nexus
CDMA/LTE model
1xRTT, EV-DO Rev. Ano
Samsung Galaxy S3
all models
850 | 900 | 1,900 | 2,100 MHz
T-Mobile variant also supports AWS 1,700 MHz
yes
HTC One X850 | 900 | 1,900 | 2,100 MHzyes
Nokia Lumia 900 model RM-808
AT&T variant
850 | 1,900 | 2,100 MHzyes
Nokia Lumia 900 model RM-823850 | 900 | 1,900 | 2,100 MHzyes
iPad 1 and 2 WiFi + 3G models850 | 1,900 | 2,100 MHzyes
iPad 3rd generation
WiFi + cellular GSM model
850 | 900 | 1,900 | 2,100 MHzyes
iPad 3rd generation
WiFi + cellular CDMA model
dual-band CDMA/EVDO Rev. A
850 | 900 | 1,900 | 2,100 MHz
yes

China Unicom: Prepaid 3G Service Plans

Before you begin shopping for 3G service options, you need to be aware of two sources of confusion: (1) many local retail shops have China Unicom logos on display but offer only a selection of available services; and (2) the corporate website, www.chinaunicom.com.cn, provides no information about cellular service—for that, go to www.10010.com.

First, I suggest that you find a China Unicom branch near you. A Google Maps search did the trick in my case. I found a nearby location within blocks from Shuicheng Lu Station on Metro Line 10 and paid them a visit. The friendly staff in Shuicheng Lu location was prepared to help me, to my pleasant surprise, in several languages. During my last visit in July 2012, I received help from decent speakers of English and/or Japanese, and they were looking into hiring a Korean speaker to the team. I was able to communicate with them in English without much trouble for the most part, though at times I mixed in some Mandarin to clarify a few points. Bring your passport, your local address in China, and your mobile device to test your new SIM.

At the time, I was shopping for prepaid data service for my cellular iPad. Not knowing what to do, I started by asking a dozen or so retail shops in the local neighborhood and received nothing more than looks of bewilderment. It turns out that China Unicom does offer a dedicated 3G data plan for iPad but this service is available at the official branch locations only—the Shuicheng Lu location did. If you are shopping for a regular voice service with 3G data for your smartphone, you may not need to make the extra steps of searching for an official branch and having to travel there. But if you want a tablet data plan, you do.

China Unicom offers two 3G data options on their SIM cards assigned with area code +186: ‘3G value pack’ (3G 套餐) and ‘3G web surfing pass’ (3G 上网卡). 3G value pack targets smartphone users, and 3G web surfing pass is for tablets. You will find a detailed breakdown of their service offerings at www.10010.com. I took screenshots of their latest services plans (current as of October 2012) below. (I will provide an English translation of those two images at a future revision of this guide.)

3G Value Pack (click for full size)
3G Web Surfing Pass

Billing Cycle and Dormant Mode

Both 3G value pack and 3G web surfing pass are prepaid plans.

In the case of 3G value pack, you add credit to your China Unicom account and fees will be deducted, in advance, on the 1st day of each month. Keep in mind, though, that China Unicom’s billing cycle begins on the 1st day of each month regardless of the day on which you opened your account. This means that if you opened your account on May 29, you will be billed immediately a full month’s worth of charges for services between May 29 and 31, and a new billing cycle still begins on June 1.

For temporary visitors of China, 3G value pack also offers an option to switch the account to dormant mode when you leave the country. Once enabled, your account is required to stay dormant for a minimum of 3 billing months. Dormant mode gives you the option to preserve your +186 number in China while you are away from the country and reactivate your SIM immediately upon return. You dial 10010 to change these options, and customer service handles requests in English, Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, among other languages that I no longer recall. When your account is dormant, a service fee of 5 RMB is deducted on the 1st day of each month.

3G web surfing pass operates differently. You are purchasing a set amount of data usage, which expires in 6 months or 1 year depending on the service.