Navigating the complexities of mobile internet in China can be daunting, especially for first-time visitors. From public Wi-Fi hotspots to portable Wi-Fi devices, prepaid SIM cards, and international roaming, each option has its own set of pros and cons. Understanding these nuances is crucial for ensuring a seamless and connected travel experience in this vast and dynamic country.

mobile internet in china

I. Mobile Network Landscape in China

As one of the largest and most developed mobile markets in the world, China has its own unique network structure that visitors need to be aware of.

1. Mobile Internet in China: Coverage

All three carriers have extensive nationwide coverage in China, with China Mobile having the broadest reach.

All three carriers have extensive nationwide coverage in China, with China Mobile having the broadest reach.

  • China Mobile’s 2G network covers almost all of China, providing basic voice and text services across the country. However, data speeds on 2G are quite slow, maxing out at 320kbps.
  • In terms of high-speed data, China Unicom has the most widespread 3G coverage in China through its 2100MHz UMTS/HSPA network. This network is compatible with most global smartphones.
  • The largest cities and provinces now have near-universal 4G LTE coverage from all three carriers. China Mobile is rolling out TDD-LTE on uncommon frequency bands, while China Unicom and China Telecom use more globally compatible FDD-LTE bands.
  • 5G networks are also expanding rapidly in major cities and developing regions. China Broadnet has partnered with China Mobile to introduce 5G using uncommon spectrum bands.

2. Mobile Internet in China: Network Performance

Based on data from Speedtest Global Index, Chinese mobile networks continue to deliver some of the fastest speeds in the world:

Based on data from Speedtest Global Index, Chinese mobile networks continue to deliver some of the fastest speeds in the world:

  • Median nationwide 4G download speeds exceeded 195Mbps on China Mobile and 143Mbps on China Unicom as of March 2024.
  • China Broadnet has rolled out extremely high-capacity 5G, delivering median 5G download speeds over 300Mbps.
  • Major cities like Beijing and Shanghai have median 4G speeds up to 230Mbps, with 5G capable of surpassing 300Mbps on the latest devices.
  • Faster flagship devices and modem chipsets consistently achieve speeds anywhere from 250-300Mbps on the best cellular connections across China.

In summary, while frequency and standard inconsistencies remain challenges for global compatibility, domestic network coverage and speeds in China have consolidated it as a global leader in overall mobile internet performance and deployment. Continuous expansion of 5G promises even greater mobile connectivity nationwide.

II. Options for Mobile Internet Access in China

OptionCoverageSpeedValidityRequires VPN?Price range (USD)
China Mobile prepaid SIMNationwide 2G coverage, expanding 4G coverage but uses non-standard TDD-LTE2G speeds for data, faster 4G in cities but congested networkMonthly plans (valid 30 days)No, but some sites may be blocked$13-88
China Unicom prepaid SIMWide 3G/4G coverage on standard frequenciesFast 3G/4G speedsMonthly plans (valid 30 days)No, but some sites may be blocked$13-86
China Telecom prepaid SIMLimited to areas with 4G coverage, uses non-standard CDMA networkFast 4G where availableMonthly plans (valid 30 days)No, but some sites may be blocked$13-60
China eSIM plansUsage-based plans covering mainland ChinaFast speeds on 3G/4G networksValid for 5, 7, 10, 15 or 30 daysNo for 5-15 day plans, yes for 30 day plan$1-15
Hong Kong SIM with China roamingUsage-based plans covering Hong Kong and mainland ChinaFast speeds on HK and China networksValid for 5, 7, 10, 15 or 30 daysNo$1.30-23
eSIM from Chinaesim.comUsage-based plans covering multiple countriesFast speeds on local and China networksValid for 7, 10, 15 or 30 daysNo$1.80-19

China Unicom generally provides the best coverage within mainland China through its prepaid SIM cards. However, eSIM plans offer more flexible usage periods without requiring purchase of a physical SIM.

III. Budgeting for Mobile Data Costs in China

Estimating your data needs and budgeting accordingly is crucial when planning your trip to China. Here’s a general guide to help you anticipate costs based on different trip lengths and data requirements.

1. Estimating Data Needs

Before exploring pricing options, it’s essential to estimate your anticipated data usage during your trip. Consider the following factors:

  • Trip duration: Longer trips generally require more data allowance.
  • Travel style: Heavy use of maps, social media, and streaming will consume more data.
  • Number of devices: If you plan to connect multiple devices, you’ll need a larger data allowance.

2. Comparing Prices of Chinaesim.com Plans

Chinaesim.com is a popular provider of prepaid SIM cards and data plans specifically tailored for travelers in China. Here’s a comparison of our pricing for different data allowances:

  • All Plans
  • Local
  • Multi Countries
Operator
Plan Name
Plan Validity
Data
Price

China eSIM 3GB total - 5 days

3GB
5 days
$7.00
China eSIM 3GB total - 5 days

China eSIM 3GB total - 5 days

5 days

3GB

$7.00

China eSIM 10GB total - 5 days

10GB
5 days
$15.50
China eSIM 10GB total - 5 days

China eSIM 10GB total - 5 days

5 days

10GB

$15.50

China eSIM 5GB total - 7 days

5GB
7 days
$11.00
China eSIM 5GB total - 7 days

China eSIM 5GB total - 7 days

7 days

5GB

$11.00

China eSIM 1GB/day - 7 days

1GB/day
7 days
$13.00
China eSIM 1GB/day - 7 days

China eSIM 1GB/day - 7 days

7 days

1GB/day

$13.00

China eSIM 10GB total - 10 days

10GB
10 days
$11.90
China eSIM 10GB total - 10 days

China eSIM 10GB total - 10 days

10 days

10GB

$11.90

China eSIM 3GB/days - 15 days

3GB/day
15 days
$52.00
Top Selling
China eSIM 3GB/days - 15 days

China eSIM 3GB/days - 15 days

Top Selling
15 days

3GB/day

$52.00

China eSIM 20GB total - 30 days

20GB
30 days
$36.90
China eSIM 20GB total - 30 days

China eSIM 20GB total - 30 days

30 days

20GB

$36.90

Greater China eSIM 10GB total - 10 days

10GB
10 days
$30.50
Greater China eSIM 10GB total - 10 days

Greater China eSIM 10GB total - 10 days

10 days

10GB

$30.50

Greater China eSIM 4GB/day - 15 days

4GB/day
15 days
$61.50
Greater China eSIM 4GB/day - 15 days

Greater China eSIM 4GB/day - 15 days

15 days

4GB/day

$61.50

China Vietnam eSIM 8GB total - 7 days

8GB
7 days
$45.00
China Vietnam eSIM 8GB total - 7 days

China Vietnam eSIM 8GB total - 7 days

7 days

8GB

$45.00

These plans offer competitive rates and can be a cost-effective option for those planning longer stays or requiring substantial data usage.

3. Estimating Costs for Different Trip Lengths

Based on the data allowances and pricing from Chinaesim.com, here’s an estimate of costs for different trip lengths:

  • 1-week trip: 1GB data plan ($15.99) may suffice for light usage.
  • 2-week trip: Consider a 3GB data plan ($29.99) for moderate usage.
  • 1-month trip: A 6GB data plan ($39.99) or 10GB data plan ($59.99) could be suitable, depending on your data needs.
  • Longer trips: For extended stays, consider purchasing multiple data top-ups or a higher data allowance plan to avoid running out of data mid-trip.

IV. Best Mobile Operators in China

There are three main mobile network operators in China – China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom. Together they provide nationwide 2G, 3G and 4G coverage. China Mobile is the largest, with over 900 million subscribers, while China Unicom and China Telecom have around 20% market share each.

  • China Mobile – As the largest operator in China with the most extensive coverage nationwide, China Mobile is a reliable choice. They have the fastest growing 4G/LTE network and offer competitive international plans. However, their network uses the less common TD-LTE standard that many foreign phones may not support. Speeds can also vary in busy areas.
  • China Unicom – China Unicom has better compatibility with most phones since they use common 3G and 4G standards. Their coverage is very good in major cities and developing well in other areas. Plans provide good value and speed is generally more consistent than China Mobile. It’s easy for tourists to choose a cost-effective data plan here.
  • China Telecom – While China Telecom has a larger LTE network than in the past, their main CDMA network is not compatible with foreign phones. Best to avoid them unless you have a globally compatible CDMA device. However, where available, their LTE network performs well.

V. FAQs about Mobile Internet in China

What are the main mobile networks in China?

The three main mobile networks in China are China Mobile, China Unicom, and China Telecom. China Mobile is the largest network with around 60% market share.

What technology standards do the networks use?

China Mobile uses TD-SCDMA for 3G which is not compatible with most foreign phones. It uses TDD-LTE for 4G which is also less compatible. China Unicom uses standard UMTS for 3G and FDD-LTE for 4G which is more compatible. China Telecom uses CDMA for voice and EVDO for 3G which are also less compatible.

How can I get a SIM card in China?

You need to go to an official carrier store with your passport. Real name registration and facial recognition is required. Data-only eSIM plans are also available from foreign providers.

What kinds of mobile plans are available?

The main types are monthly plans bundled with data and minutes, daily data plans, and monthly data-only add-on packs. Unlimited plans include full speed data caps then throttling. Rates vary by province.

How fast is the mobile internet in China?

According to speedtest data, China ranks 63rd in the world for average mobile internet speeds at around 25 Mbps. Speeds are generally fastest in large cities and on China Unicom and China Mobile’s 4G networks.

Is the internet censored in China?

Yes, there is widespread internet censorship in China blocking many foreign websites and filtering search results and social media. A VPN is generally required to access unfiltered content.
Learn more about: How to Bypass Internet Censorship in China

Final Words

By considering factors such as coverage, speed, cost, and ease of use, visitors to China can make informed decisions on selecting the most suitable mobile internet option for their trip. Whether opting for a pocket Wi-Fi device for shareable connectivity, a local SIM card for long-term stays, or international roaming for short trips, planning ahead and budgeting for mobile data costs can enhance the overall travel experience in China.