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July 10, 2008

Calling with China Mobile

Be it ordering from a menu at lunch or buying a SIM card at a cell phone shop, the language barrier makes getting answers difficult. After a week of visiting multiple stores, I was finally able to find a salesperson that spoke some English to explain China Mobile’s prepaid phone plans. Like everything else in China -- cell phone service is very affordable. A prepaid SIM card (without talk time) should run you about 50 CNY ($7.30). A reseller will probably ask for as much as 300 CNY, so be sure to negotiate a lower price. Pricing is all about your appearance, so dress down and leave the cameras at home whenever making a purchase. Per minute rates (within Beijing) are 0.25 CNY ($0.04) during the day and 0.12 CNY at night (I was told 9PM-9AM). Incoming calls are free. Text messages (SMS) cost 10 CNY ($1.46) for 120, 15 CNY for 200, or 20 CNY for 300. While some SIM cards may include prepaid time, top off cards are likely required. My SIM included minutes so I haven’t needed to top off, but it’s safe to assume these can be purchased at far below face value as well I'm told these should be purchased at face value. Consider asking the shopkeeper to help you add value to your SIM to be sure the card is authentic.


There are literally thousands of GSM cell phones available in Beijing, ranging in price from 400 CNY ($60) to 10,000 CNY or higher. But buying a phone here can be pretty risky if you don't know what you’re doing, so consider picking up an unlocked phone before leaving your home country. If you’re on an AT&T cell phone contract in the States, customer care (611) can help you unlock your phone for use with another SIM card. As a last resort, your AT&T SIM (and phone) may work in China, but calls will cost $2.29 per minute regardless of whether you’re calling within Beijing or back to the States. The advantage here is that you’ll be able to receive calls to your AT&T phone number while in Beijing.

Besides helping with phone calls, your cell phone can also provide address information to your Cabbie in Chinese. Sending a text to Native Beijing’s SMS service (13466660777) can provide you with the address for virtually any business in the city -- simply type the business name followed by a ‘c’ (for the address in Chinese). This has proven to be a lifesaver on several occasions.

Updated 7/23/08 8:07PM: I spent two weeks without Internet access on my phone as I wasn't even sure it was available with a prepaid account. It turns out that adding GPRS is as simple as texting "gprs20" to 10086 -- that’ll add 50MB of wireless web access for 20 CNY a month (about $3). Sweet!


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