Cultural & Business Guide

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Phone calls in China

Just like in the rest of the world, Chinese telecommunication industry serves as a typical example of oligopoly situation. The system is well-developed, and the global trend that sees landline telephone service overtaken with mobile services is manifested in China as well. Additionally, Chinese domestic market represents the biggest phone market in the world when it comes to the number of subscribers. They are shared among the largest three giants: China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom.

As a result, mobile communication services in China are readily accessible to everyone, and cell phones can be easily obtained.

The phone operators in China

China’s most popular mobile phone providers are China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, each offering various combinations of services, rates and phones. When you call your Chinese mobile phone providers’ customer service, it is standard to press 2 on your phone keypad to access the service in English.

China Mobile holds the largest share of the Chinese market with the most reliable and widespread coverage. It offers great prepaid packages and its services are often described as easy-to-use. However, its data speed may not be the best.

China Unicom is the second major cell phone provider in China with coverage comparable to that of the China Mobile in major cities. Some advantages of Unicom include faster data speeds, data billing and iPhone packages. However, if you exceed the limit of your contract with China Unicom, it is likely that you will find your monthly bill quite expensive.

China Telecom is relatively new to the market. However they do offer affordable international rates, and provide more up-to-date services. Keep in mind that you may still face a limited coverage and some difficulties in refilling your credit. Moreover, Telecom has pricier prepaid rates and your cell phone must be CDMA compatible.

China Telecom and China Unicom both provide landline, internet and mobile services as opposed to China Mobile that is focused solely on being a mobile provider.

The specificity of Chinese telecommunication

As shown above, if you choose the option of a landline telephone in China, the service is provided via China Telecom and China Unicom. Most apartments and houses have a landline installed, which will be either activated under your name upon arrival or included in the rental package.

If a line installation is required under your name, you should call beforehand to enquire what documents are requested by the phone company. Normally it is a proof of identification and proof of address, together with an initial deposit. Many new apartments and houses with landline also have internet connection already installed. Depending on your provider, if you are required to register yo open your own connection, a local Chinese person is needed to open the account on your behalf as guarantee.

Another specificity of Chinese telecommunication is related with the SIM card number. In China, prices of SIM cards vary based on the number due to Chinese superstitious way of thinking, for example number 4 is avoided while 8 is coveted.

Where to get an IP card or a SIM card

Generally speaking, if you are confident enough in your Chinese, you can purchase an IP card or a SIM card at the closest newspaper kiosk or find the closest official shop (mobile provider) and ask for what you need.

More insights on a Chinese SIM

Like many other countries in the world, most China mobile service providers use the GSM or CDMA system to provide mobile phone users with cellular compatibility. In other words, you can travel to China and continue to be able to use your current European cell phone. It is more cost effective and more convenient to purchase a Chinese SIM card (prepaid or post-paid) with a mobile provider of your choice. In fact, purchasing a local phone serves to avoid high roaming rates which you may incur from using your home number while you are in China. Keep in mind that your mobile might be locked to your network back home (SIM lock), but it may be rectified in China for a marginal fee.

For temporary visitors to China, such as business travellers, there is an interesting option called 3G value pack offered by China Unicom. This package offers an option to switch the account to dormant mode when you leave China. Once enabled this service, your account is required to stay dormant for a minimum of three billing months. Dormant mode gives you the option to preserve your Chinese mobile number while you are away from China and reactivate your SIM immediately upon return. When your account is dormant, a small monthly service fee of 5 RMB is deducted to your credit.

Do not forget that if you do not use your SIM card or you do not recharge it even with a few yuan, the SIM card will be disactivated automatically after few months (normally 1 year) and the number will be available to new customers.

Last but not least, do not forget that generally speaking SIM card numbers are linked to the roaming of the city where you buy it, so it is better to buy a SIM card which can be used nationwide.

What can help you to make an international call from China?

First of all, we should keep in mind that “the Chinese often let themselves be interrupted, fearing that otherwise they could miss a business opportunity.” So do embrace and take full advantage of phone services for your business, such as arranging a business meeting with your Chinese partner on the phone!

In the past, making an international call from China relied heavily on the use of an international phone card (Chinese IP card), and some of the IP cards require being “bound” to one phone number. Now a lot has changed, one just needs to get a card, then simply call the IP card number, press 2 for English, give the ID number and password, and dial the number you want to call (with country code first).

Talking about communication nowadays, with new 3G and 4G mobile technology, it is always more and more difficult to clearly define the difference between phone users and internet users. Therefore, in China you should find that VOIP services, such as Skype, are just as reliable and clear as most IP cards and are generally cheaper, sometimes even free of charge.

Make sure to download the international version of Skype, since the Chinese version is more reliable to use for domestic calls, and bear in mind that with the Skype international version you should expect inconsistent quality of services and frequent call drops.


Fryer, James (December 2009). “Mobile-phone culture: The apparatgeist calls”.

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Project 2014-1-PL01-KA200-003591