I just spent two weeks in China visiting Beijing, Xi’an, and Shanghai. It was a great trip, but not speaking any Chinese made it rather difficult to get around at times. English is not widely spoken, and even in Shanghai, finding English speakers was difficult. Also, even writing things down was not effective because most Chinese only know the spelling of tourist sites in Chinese characters. I knew this before I left, and figured having my cell phone working in China would be very useful for translation and maps. This proved to be true, and there were a few times where it was really invaluable (for example, showing the Chinese taxi driver my destination on Google Maps, which has English and Chinese names, was often the only way to convey where I wanted to go).
Here’s how I got my phone, the Google Nexus S, to work in China. This should work with any other unlocked T-Mobile phone, too. First, there are two major cell phone carriers in China: China Mobile, and China Unicom. You’ll want to use China Unicom because they have 3G on the 2100 MHz band, which is the same as T-Mobile uses in the US. You can buy a SIM card from many convenience stores in China, or you can order one from 3GSolutions</a>. I got package 3S96 from them, which is a SIM card with CNY 50 of credit on it. If you order it from them, they will mail it to your hotel for you to pick up upon arrival. This was helpful, but China Unicom stores are ubiquitous in big cities and many convenience stores had SIM cards too.
After you get your SIM card, you’ll want to activate a monthly plan on it. If you don’t use a plan, 3G data charges are astronomical. China Unicom only bills by calendar-month, which is a pain if you are arriving at the end a month like I was. However, you can also buy a half-month plan with half the data and call time allowance for half the price for your first calendar month there. 3GSolutions has a good list of the available plans here</a>. If you get your SIM card from 3GSolutions, they will activate a plan for you, or a least they say they will. Unfortunately, for some reason my monthly plan was not activated when I got my SIM card, and I quickly blew through the credits on it using Google Maps.
To activate a monthly plan yourself, just call 10010. If you are not in the city where you bought the SIM card when you want to activate a plan, you will need to dial the city code first. For example, my SIM card was purchased in Shanghai, which is city code 021. So, to activate a plan while I was in Beijing, I called 021-10010. There are operators who speak English well, at least on the Shanghai hotline.
So, how much does this all cost? If you go at the end of a month (I arrived on July 24 and was staying until August 4), it will be more expensive since you will need to pay for two months of service. That being said, overall it is not too expensive: CNY 100 for the SIM card with CNY 50 in credits. Then I added CNY 50 by buying a recharge card. I got the CNY 66 monthly plan with 300 MB of data and 50 minutes of calling. For my first week there (in July), I took advantage of the half-price first month deal from China Unicom (CNY 33 for 150 MB and 25 minutes of calling). Then for the few days in August I was there, I was charged CNY 66 for that month. In total, it would have come to CNY 150, and I’d be left with a SIM card with CNY 1 on it when I left.
That’s about $23.30, which given the number of times I needed Google Maps/Translator, was definitely worth it. I ended up actually paying a bit more since 3GSolutions charges a commission to get the SIM card and send it to you, and also because somehow my plan wasn’t activated at first and I quickly blew through the included credits.
Getting around the Great Firewall</h1>
China blocks a lot of websites that websites that we take for granted, and if you really need to access Facebook and Twitter from China, you’ll need a VPN. The Nexus S has a built-in VPN client, but it was very flaky for me. If you loose a network connection for any reason (going out or range for wifi or loosing cell service briefly), you’ll loose your connection to the VPN. Also, I’ve heard reports that PPTP VPNs have been blocked in China, but I couldn’t confirm this.