Traveling with a smartphone has been a revelation. I remember back in 2010 when I first got to Ireland, I didn’t even have a guidebook. (This was quickly rectified once I learned about Lonely Planet from a fellow traveler.) Back in 2014, I still traveled with only a guidebook and a camera. This year, I ditched the camera and went with a smartphone (a refurbished Samsung Galaxy S7 Active which I discovered is pretty indestructible, thus, perfect for traveling with) and a lightweight laptop. Without bringing a camera (and possibly an extra lens or two), I had one less expensive item to worry about and save myself a bit of weight in my backpack.
While traveling this year, my first goal when I arrive in each new foreign country is to get a data sim card. In Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and Japan, it was fairly headache-free; I would arrive at the airport and there would be kiosks from multiple vendors right outside selling cheap plans that were generous on data, usually $10-15 for anywhere between 5 to 10 GB of data (in Italy, I got 30 GB for 1 month, all for 20 Euros!), which was more than enough for a few weeks of use. In comparison, the one kiosk that sold travel sims at Los Angeles International was going for, if I remember correctly, $50 for 1 to 2 GB… it is utterly ridiculous how far behind the USA is with regards to connectivity in this modern age. Just look at internet speeds and prices here versus other modern countries.
<NOTE> So if you’re someone who has a phone plan in your home country where you can roam internationally on the cheap (or don’t mind paying for it) OR if you buy a prepaid sim in Hong Kong OR if you buy one in advance and have it shipped to your home address first, maybe my situation isn’t going to be your predicament. So do the above if you want to save yourself a headache. Also, if you do the above, you don’t need to get a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service. You should be able to access Google services (like Google Maps and GMail), Facebook, Instagram etc. I had to get VPN with my local Chinese sim.</NOTE>
However, a country like China, with its “Great Firewall” of censorship and control, actually wants to make the process for foreigners to get a sim card difficult. Firstly, China doesn’t actually have “travel sims”, and by that, I mean prepaid sim cards. One has to go to a local mobile phone plan provider office; China Mobile and Unicom (the recommended choice) are the two biggest players. You will need an unlocked GSM-band phone and your passport.
But wait, do you read Chinese or speak Mandarin fluently? Oh, you don’t? What about Cantonese or some other Chinese dialect that’s local to the region you are traveling in? Oh, you don’t? Well, guess what? The customer service reps in those stores don’t speak English (if you’re lucky, someone might, but just a tiny bit), German, Russian, Slovenian, Spanish, Klingon etc. So what is the work around? Obviously, bring a friend who can translate for you. Wait, you’re traveling solo and didn’t make any local Chinese friends? Haha, loser! (Wait, that’s me…)
Anyway, my story is that I struggled to get a local sim card in China when I arrived in Guangzhou. They speak Cantonese in these parts and my Cantonese was only on an elementary to basic conversational level. I went to the local Unicom store and tried to get a plan but I couldn’t understand what the guy was explaining to me nor could I read the plan options he presented. I saw some numbers and tried to put pieces of the puzzle together but in the end, I managed to get one. (“Wait, I need my passport? That’s back at the hostel… OK, let me go back in the heavy rain and walk 20 minutes to get it. I’ll be right back!”) The catch is, the data has to be reloaded on a weekly basis. Meaning I would need to navigate some Chinese app the guy put on my phone manually (the app isn’t on Google Apps since Google is banned in China) and hit some button that would refresh my data. Of course, everything in the app was in Chinese so remembering instructions was another challenge. I managed to do it once or twice… until it didn’t work anymore. Which brings me to another catch, which I later found out… the plan only works in Guangdong province. I wondered, isn’t a data sim purchased in a country supposed to work nationwide? Apparently, the plan I chose did not and I think that is common. I asked a local who was working the front desk at one of the hostels I stayed at and they had no clue WTF I signed up for and when and where the sim card would actually work within China. I decided I’d just keep using it until didn’t work. I’m glad it worked all the way in Chengdu, 1600 km away.
But it stopped working upon my arrival in Beijing. Guess I was “out of range” (or the sim card expired or the account didn’t have money anymore. I have no idea). So my quest to acquire another sim card began again. But this time, I had the help of a friend, a Chinese girl I met in Berlin 8 years ago, who lives in America. Coincidentally, she was in Beijing for a day after spending time with her family in Hebei province, and getting ready to leave the country. Anyway, this friend actually ended up having a conversation with a local man on a subway train. When this man found out my friend was going to be wandering Beijing for the day, he kindly asked his son who was sitting next to him to show her around for the day. This guy came along to meet us (me and my Malaysian friend, Peter) and I asked him if he could help me with figuring out sim card plans. He was kind enough to agree. And off we went, navigating the streets of Beijing in search of a local Unicom office. (Let me precede this by saying that I had done some legwork the day before, ended up in a local office, had a chicken + duck conversation with a salesperson there about possible plans, and leaving without anything.) We arrived back at the same Unicom office. Forunately, the same salesperson was there so she knew I wanted a sim card. I unleashed my new translator upon her. You’d be surprised how easy it is when someone can translate everything. Long story short, the salesperson managed to set me up with a plan that would last one month. Apparently, we cannot buy monthly prepaid plans so instead, she set it up so that the account would deactivate after a month. This is required because if the plan continued indefinitely under my name and I failed to provide payment for it, I would be blacklisted in the future if I come back to China. (Of course, if I went back to China, I’d follow my own advice in my <NOTE></NOTE>.) Also, I did verify that the plan worked in ALL of China, even Xinjiang province. (On a separate note, when applying for a Chinese visa, do not state that you are going to Xinjiang province or you might get your application rejected. Once you get your visa, you can travel there if you wish though. But good luck getting accommodation in many cities.)
That’s my story about acquiring data sim cards in China. I guess it could all have been avoided had I known what I would go through beforehand, while I was still in Hong Kong and could have purchased a prepaid sim card there instead.
p/s: Here’s a website with additional info about Chinese mobile plans, which you might find helpful as well.
For more pictures of China, click here.