This article is for those who are going to visit China and looking for the best way to stay connected during their trip. We suggest China SIM cards as a means of connection while traveling China. Though travelers can get the Internet when traveling abroad by WiFi, pocket WiFi, or roaming, using a SIM card stands out as the most comprehensive option. This also applies for China. Find out the reasons below. Here, you will learn which types of SIM card tourists should choose for their trip to China, where to buy, up-to-date price and best plans for tourists.
I. Can Foreigners Get a SIM Card in China?
Yes. Foreigners can get a SIM card in China as long as their phone is unlocked and they meet the simple identity verification requirements.
However, please note that are are local SIM card for China and international SIM card for China. The earlier is for Chinese residents only while the latter is for foreigners/travelers to China.
Here we explain in detail:
- Foreigners’ phones need to be unlocked and must support China’s 3G and 4G networks.
- Foreigners to China cannot buy a local SIM card directly from Chinese mobile internet providers in the city center because it requires Chinese address and Chinese ID. But, they can buy at airports.
- Foreigners may need to provide their passport (or a photocopy) in order to buy or activate a Chinese SIM card at airports. This is because China requires real-name registration for anyone activating a SIM card.
- Certain carriers like China Unicom are more compatible with foreign phones and offer prepaid plans designed for travelers from abroad.
- Foreigners to China are recommended to buy international China SIM card which are designed specifically for tourists.
II. Should You Get a Sim Card in China?
It is highly recommended to buy an international SIM card for China travel because global roaming with your own operator is very expensive in China (over $10 per MB). Local prepaid SIMs make travel connectivity budget-friendly.
Besides roaming with your local SIM card, you have other options to get Internet while traveling China like pocket WiFi or free WiFi at public places. But, they all have downsides. Let’s take a quick look at the comparison table on pros and cons of different options to stay connected in China for travelers:
|China SIM card
Diverse affordable plans;
Fast speeds on 4G network;. Requires phone unlocked.
|Need to purchase data packages;
|Hotel/cafe/ Public WiFi
|Free;No setup needed.
Unavailable outside hotspots;
|International roaming on home network
|Convenient – No need to purchase a new SIM card or eSIM;
Use the same number.
|Extremely expensive per MB used;
Plans usually lack good value;
Data speeds can be slow;
Some websites and apps are blocked
Which is more convenient in China among these options?
Based on the comparison, buying a prepaid China SIM card seems to be the most convenient option overall. They are widely available, affordable, and offer a variety of plans. But, it’s important to choose the China SIM card plans that meet your needs.
▶ Our recommendation: Surely, you can use a China SIM card to fully enjoy your rewarding experience in the country. But, if your phone is compatible with eSIM, bravo!!! it is your better choice thanks to its extra convenience. We will discuss further below.
Pro Tip: Extra things to pay attention to when using your phone in China for SIM card use:
- SIM card registration: Have your passport on hand for verification
- VPN: Some websites and apps are blocked in China, so you may need to use a VPN to access them.
- Download any translation apps before your trip.
III. Types of China SIM Card for Tourists – Which One is the Best?
There are 02 main types of China SIM cards for tourists, based on the form.
- China prepaid physical SIM cards
- China prepaid virtual SIM card (eSIM)
1. China Prepaid Physical SIM Card
What it is:
- A physical SIM card that you can purchase and insert into your phone.
How it works:
- Once you insert the SIM card into your phone, you’ll need to activate it by following the instructions provided by the carrier.
- You can then choose a data plan that suits your needs and start using your phone in China.
- Varies depending on the carrier and the data plan you choose.
- Generally, you can expect to pay around $10 for a basic plan with 1GB of data.
Who it is suitable for:
- Tourists who are planning to stay in China for a short period of time (less than a month) and who want a simple and affordable way to stay connected.
- Tourists who are not comfortable with setting up a virtual SIM card.
- Convenient to purchase and activate.
- Widely available at airports, train stations, and convenience stores.
- No need to worry about compatibility issues with your phone.
- You need to carry a physical SIM card with you.
- You may need to cut the SIM card to fit your phone.
- You may need to register your SIM card with the carrier, which can be time-consuming.
2. China Prepaid Virtual SIM Card (eSIM)
What it is:
- A digital SIM card embedded into the motherboard of a mobile device. You can purchase and activate online.
- eSIM can only work on mobile devices with the eSIM function.
- Some mobile operators in China now offer prepaid eSIM plans targeted at tourists. China Unicom and China Mobile are starting to provide this service.
How it works:
- Once you purchase an eSIM, you’ll receive a QR code that you can scan with your phone to install the eSIM on your phone.
- Typical eSIM plans are around 30-50 yuan ($5-8 USD) for 30 days with talk/text and a data allowance (1-2GB usually).
Who it is suitable for:
- Tourists who are planning to stay in China for a short period of time (less than a month) and who want a convenient and flexible way to stay connected.
- Tourists who have a phone that supports eSIM technology.
- Convenient to purchase and activate.
- No need to carry a physical SIM card with you.
- Can be easily transferred to another eSIM-compatible device.
- Not all phones support eSIM technology.
- You may need to register your eSIM with the carrier, which can be time-consuming.
- Limited availability compared to physical SIM cards.
▶ Our Recommendation:
A tourist to China should choose a prepaid physical SIM card with data only if they are planning to stay in China for a short period of time (less than a month) and want a simple and affordable way to stay connected without the need to maintain contacts with analog calls and texts.
However, if they have a phone that supports eSIM technology and want a more convenient and flexible option, they should choose a prepaid virtual SIM card (eSIM) with data. See a full list of eSIM-compatible devices.
IV. Buy Best China SIM Card Packages for Tourists and Price – Which to choose?
There are 03 major China mobile network operators: China Mobile, China Telecom, and China Unicom. Each has plans designed specifically for travelers to China. Take a look at each provider’s plans:
1. Buy China Mobile SIM Card Plans and Price
Here are the main SIM card plans offered by China Mobile for tourists:
- 120GB of high-speed data, valid for 365 days = HK$268 (US$34). It works on 4G network.
- 15GB of high-speed internet data, valid for 30 days = CNY128 (US$18).
- 30GB of mobile data per month + 300 minutes of local calls, valid for 90 days = CNY258 (US$36).
- unlimited 4G data, valid for 30 days in mainland China and Hong Kong = HK$100 (US$13).
2. Buy China Telecom SIM Card Plans and Price
There are 02 prepaid SIM card plans offered by China Telecom for tourists:
- 2GB of high-speed internet data valid for 30 days = 15 USD.
- 8GB of high-speed internet data valid for 30 days = 20 USD.
Both plans DO NOT include local or international calls. Only mobile internet data is included for browsing and using apps.
3. Buy China Unicom SIM Card Plans and Price
China Unicom SIM card packages for tourists are:
- 20GB data +300 minutes of calls + 300 texts, valid for 30 days = $20. This plan works on 5G network.
- 10GB high-speed data, valid for 30 days = $10.
- Unlimited data but limited to 2G speed after 10GB usage = $15.
- unlimited data with VPN access, valid for 90 days = $30.
Note: Prices and plan details mentioned above are approximate and may change over time. Tourists must check the latest details on the China mobile network operator’s official website before purchasing a plan.
▶ Our recommendation:
The major operators all deliver reliable high-speed 4G networks. Choosing the right plan duration and size ensures affordable Internet on your China trip.
IV. Where to Buy a Tourist SIM Card for China?
Here are the options for buying a tourist SIM card for China:
1. Buying online before departure
How: Purchase from prestigious websites before traveling.
Requirements: Compatible device, receipt for verification.
Cost: Around $10-$30 depending on data quantity.
Convenience: Sim reaches before trip, no registration hassle.
Pros: Internet access right upon arrival, English support, be well-prepared.
Cons: May not work if device is incompatible.
2. Buying at airports
How: Purchase at China Mobile/Unicom counters at Beijing, Shanghai airports etc.
Requirements: Passport copy, visa page copy, unlocked phone.
Cost: Expensive than online prices and in-city prices.
Convenience: Can activate immediately but only 50% airports have stores.
Pros: Internet access right instant upon arrival, English support, SIM setup support
Cons: Kiosk at airports may not open if arriving late at night, higher price, limited plan options, need to queue at stands.
3. Buying in cities – NOT APPLIED FOR TOURISTS
How: Purchase from shops displaying China Mobile/Unicom signboards, convenience stores, phone shops.
Requirements: Chinese ID, address in China, unlocked phone, Chinese skills needed.
Cost: cheaper than buying at airports.
Convenience: Avoid airport rush but need local navigation help.
Pros: Immediate activation, can get local assistance, affordable price, often get discounts, many plan options to choose
Cons: Limited opening hours, language and location challenges, NOT APPLIED for travelers to China (without Chinese ID and Chinese address).
▶ Our conclusion + recommendation: Overall, 80% of tourists find online purchase before travel most convenient due to assured delivery and English interfaces. Airports are alternatives but involve hassles in 50% cases. City purchases is not possible for travelers to China.
Therefore, it is highly recommended to research the prepaid SIM card plan in advance at home and buy it online before departing to get the best deal for your China trip.
If your phone is eSIM-compatible, there is no reason not to buy a prepaid tourist eSIM China with data before departure. However, it is better to set up the eSIM just one day before the departure date so as to remain the maximum days of validity.
V. What to Prepare to Buy a China SIM card?
To get a local SIM card from Chinese mobile network companies, you need to present your Chinese ID and a Chinese address. This is not suitable for travelers. So in this guide, we do not mention international / tourist SIM cards.
VI. How Much Data is Enough for a Prepaid Tourist SIM Card for China?
Here is a table showing an estimate of how much data different types of users would consume in China:
|Approx. Daily Data Usage
|Light User – e.g. checking emails, maps, photos
|Medium User – e.g. social media, streaming music, navigation
|Heavy User – e.g. streaming videos, online gaming, video calls
1GB of data will likely be sufficient for a light user for checking emails, using maps or uploading photos each day. It allows basic internet activities without heavy use of videos or games.
A medium user who uses social media, navigations and streaming music would consume their data faster. 1GB may only last a few days for such usage.
Heavy users consuming lots of videos, gaming or video calls will burn through 1GB of data very quickly, possibly in just 1-2 days.
▶ Our recommendation: For the average users, I would suggest getting a 5-7GB plan to be on the safe side so you don’t run out of data mid-trip. This amount generally caters to light-medium usage for 5-7 days. If your usage is heavy, get a 10-15GB plan.
- Consider your travel duration. Long stays suit 120GB annual SIMs while short trips pair well with 1-2 week smaller data bundles.
- It's also a good idea to select a plan that gives you a few extra days beyond your trip in case you need some buffer data. Be sure to select a plan from a reputed seller like Gigago that offers 24/7 support in case you need to purchase more data. Getting sufficient data upfront will ensure you have an enjoyable trip without worries of drained data packs.
VII. China eSIM – Alternative to Physical SIM Cards to Get Internet in China
There you see that eSIM is more convenient compared to a physical SIM due to:
- No waiting or hunting for SIM cards on arrival.
- Hassle-free installation by scanning a QR code.
- Dual SIM functionality
- Better security
So where to buy prepaid China eSIM for your trip?
As a trusted eSIM provider for China that offers excellent value and seamless connectivity, Gigago offers multiple data plan options for China, starting from a 3-day plan with 500MB of data per day for $4.90 as their most minimal plan. They also have 5-day, 7-day, 10-day, 15-day, and 30-day plans ranging from 500MB to 50GB of data, or 1GB to 3GB per day, with prices from $4.90 up to $103.
Gigago plans offer reliability on China’s 4G/5G networks with 24/7 support assistance. So it is highly recommended to buy Gigago China eSIM for a hassle-free digital experience during your China trip.
VIII. Which China Mobile Networks Are The Best for Tourists?
In the past, there are 3 major mobile network operators in China, which are owned by the Chinese government. Three major mobile network operators in China all have plans targeted to tourists. But, choosing which operator requires some insights that only experienced travelers can share you:
1. China Mobile
It is the largest operator in China with over 900 million subscribers. China Mobile has excellent coverage even in remote areas. A SIM card using China Mobile network offers coverage for both mainland China, Macau and Hong Kong. China Mobile offers a wide range of SIM cards for your travel needs, such as Call Forwarding Service, Hong Kong Connecting Tone, Mobile Data service, etc.
They offer tourist SIM cards with data packages starting from 150MB for 1 day at RMB10.
Where to buy: from CMH shops, convenience stores, phone shops or dealers.
2. China Unicom
Another big state-owned operator with over 400 million subscribers. China Unicom is available in major cities and towns. It is highly flexible and does not require contracts and hidden fees for those who want a SIM card for short stays.
Their tourist SIM packages provide 1GB data valid for 7 days at RMB38.
3. China Telecom
A counterpart of the above two with a subscriber base of over 300 million. China Telecom network covers key populated regions. This operator offers both tourist and local plans.
Their data-only SIM gives 1GB valid 30 days for RMB30, suitable for long stays.
For short stays, you have a 14-day plan which offers:
2G of data with 4G LTE speeds and unlimited afterward, unlimited nationwide talk, unlimited international calls to 10 countries, and unlimited international text, with just $28.
- China Mobile will have the widest coverage for reliable connectivity even in remote areas.
- China Unicom and Telecom focus on major economic zones. Smaller operators charge slightly higher but offer convenience.
► Our recommendation: get a SIM card from China Mobile when considering a SIM card for China.
IX. How to Use China Prepaid SIM Cards and eSIM
1. Using prepaid China tourist SIM Cards
Here are the quick steps to use a China tourist SIM card:
- Check if your phone is unlocked by other carriers in your home country. Chinese SIMs only work on unlocked phones.
- Purchase a China SIM card from China Mobile, China Unicom or China Telecom stores at airports or in cities.
- Switch off your current SIM by removing the tray. Keep your home SIM safely aside.
- Insert the China SIM card into your phone. Switch on and allow it to activate (1-2 minutes).
- Go to Settings > Mobile Network and select the correct operator (usually default option).
- Check if APN settings are needed for data access. Details provided with SIM.
- Turn on mobile data/roaming in Settings after APN configuration.
- Check purchased data package details for usage limits and expiry date.
- Monitor data usage against packages in Settings. Top-up as required.
- When leaving China, switch to home SIM. Keep China SIM for future trips.
2. Setting up and activating China eSIM
Here are quick steps to use a China tourist eSIM:
- Check if your phone supports eSIM profiles. eSIM only works on compatible devices.
- Purchase a China eSIM plan online from a provider like Gigago.
- A QR code will be emailed upon payment. Installation guide also provided.
- Open mail and scan the QR code with your phone’s camera app.
- Select “Install” to download the eSIM profile when prompted.
- Go to Settings > Cellular and pick the operator plan from available options.
- Mobile data will automatically switch on with eSIM activation.
- Check data package details for limits and expiry date sent via email.
- Usage can be monitored in Settings. Top-up online before expiry if needed.
- No need to switch SIMs when leaving China. eSIM remains installed.
- eSIM eliminates hassles of carrying physical cards. Ideal for short trips.
Do I need to buy a separate SIM for data in China?
No, a single SIM card from any of the major Chinese networks like China Mobile will provide both voice and data connectivity. Just ensure you purchase a plan that includes an adequate data allowance for your travel needs.
Can I use my China SIM card outside of China?
No, SIM cards purchased in China are meant for use within the country only. Once you leave China, the SIM will not work for calls, texts or data in other countries. You need a roaming plan from your home carrier or a local SIM for international use.
In conclusion, an international/travel China SIM card is essential for travelers to China to stay connected conveniently during their visit. By buying SIMs from China’s travel SIM providers, users can benefit from affordable data plans, seamless coverage across the country and of course, avoid roaming charges. Compared to roaming with international plans, China SIM options provide much better value at a fraction of cost.