Published July 14, 2017

How to: Get Cell Phone Service in Shanghai

Because how else are you gonna keep connected when you're on the go?

By Tom Miller


If you've just landed in China and plan to stay here any longer than a few weeks you're going to need a cell phone. Luckily, picking up a Chinese SIM card or cell phone is surprisingly easy, you'll just need to make a few decisions and bring a few things to the store with you.


Cell Phone or SIM Card?


Really, there are two options when it comes to phones in China. Either you buy a new phone here, or you bring your phone from home and just use a Chinese SIM card with it.


Often, expats will bring their phone from home and just use it with a compatible SIM. This is a relatively easy solution to your communication problems. However, if this is the route you want to go down, remember the golden rule…DO NOT forget to unlock your phone BEFORE you leave your home country. It's a nightmare trying to unlock your phone from China, just do it before you get here.


When it comes to network providers, there are three to choose from: China Unicom, China Mobile and China Telecom. There really isn’t a huge amount of difference between the Unicom and Mobile. They both offer fairly good 4G LTE coverage, which means that your phone’s internet will often be faster than Wi-Fi around the city. China Mobile is considered to have better coverage, especially in the more rural areas, but China Unicom is regarded as faster and is usually a little cheaper depending on the plan you decide to go for.


China Telecom usually offers good deals on phone/internet combo packages, but they have unique hardware requirements for their network. This means if you buy an iPhone or similar android phone with them in China you probably won't be able to use it back home. It's a big problem that the company if reportedly working hard to resolve.


Where do I get a SIM Card From?



While there are small booths all over the place that cell sim cards we recommend you head into a proper Unicom/Telecom/Mobile store. Make sure you remember to bring your passport as well. Chinese law requires all SIM cards be linked to the owner's passport/Chinese identity card. In the bigger stores you'll often find at least one staff member who speaks English and will be able to help you get the service you need.


When you chat with the assistants you'll need to be very clear about what you want from your cell plan. Remember that you will rarely (if ever) use calls and texts, and most of your chatting will be done via WeChat. This makes internet usage something to focus on when choosing a plan. The major providers usually offer decent data plans for around ¥100 per month.


What About a Cell Phone?



If you want to pick up a nice new Chinese-made cell phone while you're here it's also pretty easy. While you can buy mobile phones pretty much anywhere in Shanghai, we’d suggest steering clear from the fake market, or random street sellers…unless you want third degree burns every time you check WeChat. There's a huge amount of choice here so we'd recommend figuring out which brand you want before you step out the door. If you want a popular international phone brand like iPhone or Samsung, they're quite easy to find, with several major cities in China having their very own Apple stores. If you want something more local, Xiaomi (MI), Huawei and Oppo are all hugely popular brands that are usually cheaper here than they are internationally.


Huawei and MI phones are generally speaking between ¥2000 - ¥4000. Oppo phones are usually around the ¥2000 mark, making them one of the least expensive smart phones on the market. Apple and Samsung are popular with the Western consumer and are usually priced usually between ¥4000 - ¥8000 depending on the particular model.


If you want to do the whole thing in one go, you can go to a China Unicom or China Mobile store and purchase phones directly from there and they'll get you set up on a cell plan at the same time.



Where Should I buy my Phone Then?



There are plenty of stores you can visit, but some of the more phone savvy malls are:


Global Harbor mall at Jinshajiang Station, exit 6 (lines 13, 3 and 4), is one of the biggest malls in Shanghai and holds many phone stores like Samsung and Apple.


The Pacific Digital Plaza at Xujiahui is one of the oldest and largest electronics hubs in Shanghai. PDP can be found at Xujiahui station (lines 1, 9 and 11) exit 10. There's a huge amount of mobile phone assistance here, ranging from the sale of new sets, to repairing old ones. It’s a good place to start and gauge prices.


The final place to check out is Da’ao Communications Mall. It's located at Shanghai Railway Station (Lines 1, 3 and 4). It has over 1000 stalls and is widely regarded as one of the best places to go for all your phone needs.