Landline phone service is provided by Beijing Telecom ( Landlords usually have phone service set up before tenants move in. Make sure that they do this for you. If for some reason you must apply for phone service yourself (very rare), go with a Chinese friend as there will be no English speakers at the telecom offices. Check the website for addresses of the nearest branch. Beijing Telecom does not have an English website so have a Chinese friend help you navigate. You will have to apply in person and will need a mobile phone number where they can reach you. A Chinese-speaking technician will then call and make an appointment with you to come by for the installation. Installation fees are typically 200- 250 RMB for a regular landline. If you’d like to use long distance on your landline, apply for international and long distance service as well. The rates are approximately 22 RMB per month for a landline or 32 RMB for an ISDN line. A domestic long-distance call costs 0.70 RMB per minute (or 0.40 RMB during evening off-peak hours). International long-distance is 8 RMB per minute (4.80 RMB off-peak), though Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan are much cheaper (2 RMB per minute).

Instead of signing up for long distance service through the phone company, many foreigners tend to use online services like Skype to call home. Others prefer using prepaid IP (Internet Phone) calling cards which can also save money on calls home. IP cards are available at most supermarkets and sidewalk newspaper stands. Each card will have a face value (usually of 100 RMB) but are often sold at a discount of 40% to 60% so make sure to bargain and don’t pay face value for an IP card! Long-distance rates through these cards vary by country and provider, but are around 2 RMB – 4RMB per minute. The cards are simple to use, and often have instructions in English. Dial the IP phone number on the back, enter your card’s pin, and then dial the number you wish to call. These typically expire one year after first use.

Mobile Phones

Some new arrivals with GSM phones that use a SIM card are likely to be able to use their existing handset, as long as it is unlocked. North American dual-band phones sold in the US and Canada are not compatible with local networks, so you need a tri or quad-band phone. A quick search online for your model or call to your provider should tell you. Mobile phone sales are big business in China and are sold at specialty phone stores, department stores, and even some larger supermarkets like Walmart and Carrefour. Phone stores are scattered throughout the city, though larger shops, like in the CBD area, are more likely to have staff that speak English. Phones are not tied to carriers (like in North America), so users can upgrade and change phones as often as they wish. Prices for new phones range from 300 RMB to upwards of 3,000 RMB.

Foreign phones need to be unlocked to work with a Chinese carrier. Contact your home carrier to ask about unlocking phones. Many small phone stores in Beijing can also unlock the phones for a small fee.

Once you’ve procured a working handset, you will need a SIM card. The SIM card is a small plastic card that you will need to place inside your handset in order to receive service. These can be bought at any mobile phone shop, even at the airport. However, many expats will choose to go into a China Mobile or China Unicom outlet for peace of mind. You can choose your own phone number and prices for numbers vary (60 RMB and up), depending on how memorable or “lucky” the number. For example, phone numbers with lots of 8’s are pricier because the number 8 is considered a lucky number in China. When you go into a China Mobile or China Unicom outlet to sign up for a phone number and/or service, bring your passport with you as they will require identification. Registering with them will allow you to continue using your phone number with a different SIM card in case you lose your phone. Keep the outer card that comes with your SIM card since that will also come in handy if you ever lose your phone.

The main providers for cellular service is China Mobile ( China Unicom ( China Mobile is the provider of choice for most expats. It offers three broad plans on different kinds of SIM cards. See below for a basic description of each plan.

  • Easy-own (Shenzhouxin) – The overall cheapest, basic “pay-as-you-go” offering by China Mobile. For making/receiving calls and sending/receiving SMS, Easy-own is easy to use and reliable. Users can buy prepaid charge cards throughout China to top off their minutes whenever they’re running low.
  • M-Zone – The monthly fee can range from 10-50 RMB and includes minutes and the sending of up to 1,000 SMS – an ideal plan for prolific text messengers. Per minute charges vary from 0.12 RMB-0.25 RMB depending on your monthly fee plan.
  • GoTone – This is the most comprehensive mobile service with monthly billing. Rates range from 100RMB-300RMB per month. It offers all the additional services you would expect from international service providers including international roaming, voicemail, and direct debit.

China Unicom also offers a wide array of network service plans with different price structures for each city. One pitfall of China Unicom’s localized companies is not being able to purchase charge cards outside of your calling area, which is highly problematic if you are traveling. The upside is that each plan is specifically tailored to its target market and quite flexible. Visit the website or call 10010 for more information.