Are you going to visit China? Apart from preparing other essential items and information for your trip, you need to know some basics about using a China SIM card for tourists, including which mobile network operators in China are the best for tourists.
In this guide, we will introduce what key players in the Chinese mobile telecommunication industry are and give advice on which operators suit tourists the most.
Table of Contents
I. Do I need to buy a SIM card when traveling China?
Before reading further, you may wonder whether or not you need to buy a SIM card when traveling in China, right?
In fact, if you want to have Internet access occasionally, you will likely look for free/public WiFi in shopping malls, cafes, hotels and restaurants.
But, if you want to have Internet access all the time to call a cab or simply translate Chinese, you may want to get a SIM card for your travel in China.
Note: the Internet is restricted in China. Some websites may be censored or blocked. The speed of connection is sometimes slow as well.
That said, to stay connected in China, it is recommended to buy a SIM card or eSIM and use a reliable VPN to browse the web easily.
► See more details about Internet restrictions in China.
II. How many mobile operators are there in China?
- China Mobile is the most important telecommunication company in China and also one of the largest companies in the world.
- China Unicom is the 2nd network carrier in China and very popular among travelers
- China Telecom is the 3rd most important network carrier in The Asian country.
Home to the largest population in the world, China is also home to the largest telecoms markets of the world, at least in terms of the whole number of subscribers.
When it comes to China mobile network operators, we divide into 02 main categories: mobile network operators and mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs).
1. Traditional Mobile Network Operators in China
China has 03 major mobile network operators, which are China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom. All of them are state owned and controlled. China Mobile is the largest mobile operator in the world with about 920 million clients and about 60% market share, China Unicom 20% and China Telecom 20%.
In addition to the telecom market leaders, there are also cheap Internet carriers in China, such as Dragon Telecom, which uses the infrastructure of China Telecom. With this provider, the Internet speed in non-Chinese sites is slower.
2. Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNO) in China
Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) in China are companies that provide mobile services to customers without having their own physical infrastructure or spectrum licenses.
They lease the network capacity from major mobile operators (China Unicom, China Telecom, China Mobile) and offer their own services under their brand name. MVNOs typically target particular market segments or offer particularized services.
In China, MVNOs are classified into 3 categories on their business models: full MVNOs, light-MVNOs, and service provider-MVNOs.
It is important to note that while MVNOs can offer competitive pricing and unique services, there are still limitations in their offers in comparison with the major operators, be it coverage restrictions, reduced priority during network congestion, or limited customer support options. Thus, when choosing an MVNO in China, it is recommended to research and compare the available options to find the one that best meets your specific needs and preferences.
There are many MVNOs in China, some are active and some now are inactive. The table below describes the actives in details:
|263 Mobile||China Unicom||post paid||http://m.263.net/263/cloudCard/|
|Ali Telecom||China MObile, China Unicom, China Telecom||prepaid||http://www.aliqin.cn/|
|HNA Mobile||China Unicom, China Telecom||prepaid||http://10044.cn/feeIntro.html|
|Lenovo Connect||China Telecom, China Unicom||Prepaid + postpaid||N/A|
|Mi Mobile||China Telecom, China Unicom||prepaid||http://mi.com/mimobile|
|Minsheng Communications||China Telecom, China Unicom||prepaid||http://ms170.cn/|
|Snail Mobile||China Telecom, China Unicom||prepaid||http://mobile.snail.com/en/about/|
|SoShare Mobile||China Telecom||unknown||http://www.soshare.com|
|Suning Mobile||China Mobile||prepaid||http://suning.com/pinpai/V689-326003-0.html|
|Telling Mobile||China Telecom||unknown||http://www.170.com/|
|UYou||China Unicom||Prepaid + postpaid||http://uyou.com/|
|Youku Tudou||China Unicom||unknown||N/A|
|Yuantel||China Unicom||prepaid + postpaid||http://www.yuantel.com/|
Now, we delve into the details:
III. Top 3 Best Mobile Network Operators in China for Tourists
1. China Mobile (中国电视) (WCDMA or GSM)
This is the largest mobile operator in China which dominates the telecommunication market with about 60% market share (despite this rate declining gradually over the years as China Telecom develops more).
China Mobile’s network coverage is super good from 2G – 4G LTE. But, its bands are rather different from the USA and other countries. It means you may not be able to use 3G or 4G in the whole territory of China, but in particular areas only.
The 3G service of China Mobile is based on the strange Chinese TD-SCDMA standard, which is not compatible with many mobile phones from outside China. But, luckily, 4G still works with most international versions.
What is China Mobile Internet speed?
According to Speedtest Intelligence, China Mobile was the fastest mobile network operator in China in Q1 2023 with the median download speed of 138.95 Mbps.
Does China Mobile work outside China?
China Mobile Hong Kong allows customers to enjoy quality communication services, including voice calls, SMS and data in more than 300 countries and territories in the world right after registration or deposit required.
How to buy a prepaid China Mobile SIM card in China?
China Mobile SIM cards are available at China Mobile online shops, convenience stores, telecom product shops/dealers. Besides, you can refill prepaid SIM cards via a number of convenient methods to enjoy services continually.
What are China Mobile SIM card plans?
China Mobile has 07 travel data plans for inbound tourists:
- 2 GB data, valid for 30 days for USD 48
- 3 GB data, valid for 30 days for USD 80
- 18 GB data, valid for 30 days for USD 198
2. China Unicom (中国联通) (WCDMA or GSM) (AT&T and T-Mobil in the U.S. run on GSM, Europe uses GSM)
China Unicom is the 2nd largest mobile network carrier in China and the only provider with 3G compatible with phones outside of the country. 4G service still works with almost unlocked GSM phones.
Though coverage is not as large as China Mobile, it is still good.
What is China Unicom Internet Speed?
According to Speedtest Intelligence, China Unicom was the fastest fixed broadband provider among 3 major providers in China in Q1 2023 with the median download speed of 221.07 Mbps.
Does China Unicom work outside China?
You can use your China Unicom SIM card outside China with international roaming features. However, the roaming tariff is rather expensive.
How to buy a prepaid China Unicom SIM card in China?
You can buy a China Unicom SIM card either in person in international airports, stores, convenience stores or online.
If you buy at airports, you may expect higher prices, limited options, and lower data offers. So do not buy a SIM card at the airport. However, this also means you will not get data right after arrival. So if you prefer to stay connected all the time, think of using an eSIM or buying the prepaid SIM card online before departure.
What are China Unicom SIM card plans?
China Unicom provides a wide range of prepaid SIM card plans for tourists, which are:
- 10 GB data, valid for 30 days, for CNY 20 ($80)
- 20 GB data, valid for 30 days, for CNY 40 ($100)
- 30 GB data, valid for 30 days, for CNY 60 ($120)
3. China Telecom (中国自画) (CDMA) (Sprint and Verizon in the U.S. run on CDMA)
This mobile operator uses CDMA network, which is not compatible with most phones bought outside in China.
What is China Telecom Internet speed?
China Telecom has a median download speed of 106,20 Mbps, according to Speedtest Intelligence.
Does China Telecom work outside China?
China Telecom offers services in China, Europe and the Americas.
Below we give a review table on top 3 mobile network operators in China:
|Rank||Operator||Subscribers (in millions)|
|1||China Mobile||945.50 (June 2021)|
|2||China Telecom||362.49 (June 2021)|
|3||China Unicom||310.45 (June 2021)|
IV. How to Choose the Best Mobile Operators in China for tourists?
To choose the best mobile operators in China for tourists, you should consider these following issues:
- Research coverage, network quality, and services: offered of major mobile operators in China.
- Check the coverage map of different operators: to make sure that they have good coverage in the areas you are going to visit. Main cities often have good coverage while rural or remote areas may not, so you should check carefully.
- Network compatibility: check if your mobile is compatible with the network bands used in China to ensure you have reliable connection. Refer to our article on Will my phone work in China for more details.
- Compare plans and prices: look into the plans offered by different mobile operators. Compare the data allowances, prices, calls and text rates, and validity periods of the plans. Consider your usage habits and choose the plan that fits your needs and budget.
- Consider add-on services: some operators may offer additional services which may be beneficial for tourists, like international roaming, English-language customer service, data packages customized for tourists. Take these services into consideration when making decisions.
- Check for English language support: If you are not good at Chinese, consider whether or not the operator offers customer support and guidelines in English. This can be useful if you have trouble during your stay.
- Purchase and activation process: Consider the procedure of buying and activating a SIM card. Some operators have official stores at airports or main tourist attractions, which is convenient for tourists.
By following these steps and considering your specific needs as a tourist, you will be able to choose the best mobile operator in China for your stay.
V. Conclusion: Which is the best mobile internet provider in China (for tourists)?
China Telecom, Unicom and Mobile are 3 big operators with the best speed and coverage in China. So, when buying a SIM card/eSIM from any company rather than these operators themselves, bear in mind that you will probably be using the network of one of these three.
You should check if your phone has frequencies similar to those that these companies use.
Most tourists and travelers to China use China Unicom, which works without any problem with common smartphones, and covers approximately 90% of the country area with a relatively good connection.
Discover chinaesim.com for more useful information about top eSIM plans in China.