So now that we know the players and the rules of the games in China it’s time to talk options. In this part of FOODragon’s comprehensive guide to cellphones in China we’ll introduce some of the choices you’ll have to make when you arrive in China and the deals which are on the table. By the way, the Chinese phrase for cellphone package deal literally means set meal (套餐 – tào cān), so bon appétit.
The first big decision you are gonna have to make what type of services you are going to require.
Basic means you chose to go back to the stone age and get a cellphone which is highly durable and as hard as a rock, but can only be used for calls and texts. This option is good for backpackers, people who often lose or misplace their cellphone, people who don’t feel the need to be online constantly or use another device to surf the net. You can buy this kind of old cellphone in China for about 200 yuan and even less if you get a second hand one. If you have a smartphone than you got the option to take it up a notch to full 2G and get also a basic internet connection.
Both of the basic options are based on the prepaid system. You buy a SIM card and you charge it with credit. Usually there’s a monthly deduction of a fix amount of credit. It’s about 5-10 yuan for a basic calls and texts package, and around 5 – 10 yuan more for 30-70MB data package. If you exceed the limits of your package further credit will be deducted. When you run low on credit you will be notified by SMS.
Delux means you indulge yourself a little and get full 3G package deal with calls, text messaging and fast internet. Naturally, 3G is more expensive. Monthly fees are higher but you can get them down if you are willing to commit for a significant amount of time. When you buy the 3G SIM card you might be required to pay a down payment for the package you chose, and you pay the rest by the charging credit into your phone every month. If you exceed the limits of the package it will be deducted from the credit you charge.
What to Choose
There are many factors you need to take into account when you choose between basic services and advanced services. Some of the question you might wanna ask yourself are:
- What type of phone you have? Do you plan to buy one in China?
- What’s the purpose of visit in China? Work, school, business, travel…
- How long are you gonna stay? Weeks, months, years?
- Are you going to do much travelling or stay in one place?
- Do you have other means to connect to the internet? WiFi access?
In any case, I personally think it’s better to go with one of the two extremes. Either you go basic and use your phone for text and calls only, or you go all the way and get a 3G package, even if you are going to stay in China less than a year. The reason is 3G is surprisingly cheap in China and it the price you’ll pay for a regular package deal will eventually be an insignificant expenditure out of your total trip budget. Plus, you can always find someone to give or sell your SIM card at the end of your trip.
Since China Unicom is the provider which is 3G compatible with most countries we are gonna take a closer look at the deals they offer. China Unicom offers three types of deals: A type which data oriented, B type which is calls oriented and C which is only for local calls. Each type has several different packages with different monthly fees. Here is the scanned brochure (click on thumbnail to see the full size image) :
A couple of comments:
- I translated only the A programs table but it applies also for B programs table. C table is different and only for local calls and not really of interest to us.
- Most packages don’t include text messages in the bundle. The price of a text message is 0.1 yuan.
- The right side of the table which is not translated is about free ringtones and text files.
Now, you can choose a program and pay month by month, or you can sign a one year or two years contract and get more for your money with China Unicom’s ‘reserve credit – get free credit’ plans. The way it works is you make a down-payment upon joining but you get part of it back each month, and you also get free credit as a reward for your commitment. Here’s the full table:
Let’s say you go for the 96 yuan monthly fee plan for one year (doesn’t matter if it’s type A for data or type B for calls). Instead of just paying 96 yuan each month, you pay 168 yuan upon joining and each month you get back 14 yuan (14×12=168) and you get 28 yuan free credit each month, so each month actually costs you 68 yuan (96-28=68). Yup, it’s going from point A to point B through point F but you’d better get used to that because that’s how many things work in China.
Generally speaking China Mobile’s 3G plans are cheaper and they include more services in the bundle (like texts and free WLAN), but the catch is you have to buy a China Mobile smartphone to be able to enjoy them. If you relocate to China it’s definitely an option you should consider. I recently had the opportunity to help a friend who is a China Mobile user to select a new plan and this is what he went for:
- 10 yuan monthly fee for which he gets:
- 60 minutes of calls (0.2 yuan per minute if you exceed that)
- Free incoming calls
- 0.2 yuan/min rate for long distances call in China
- Roaming – 0.6 yuan/min outgoing calls, 0.4 yuan/min for incoming calls.
- SMS – 0.15 yuan per text
- Additional 30 yuan monthly fee for data:
- 15 hours per month on CMCC WLAN (wireless hot spots)
- 1 yuan per MB if you exceed the 280MB limit
- 1 yuan per month to define Shanghai as a sister city with lower rates.
As you can see now he pays only 41 yuan per month but he gets more than what China Unicom’s 46 yuan/month plan offers.
I don’t know anyone who uses China Telecom and since my cellphone isn’t compatible with their network I have never pursued that direction. For the sake of completing the comparison I paid a little trip to their website and checked some 3G deals. Here’s what you get for 89 yuan per month:
- 400 MB (0.0003 yuan/KB after exceeding the limit)
- 240 minutes regular outgoing calls (0.15 yuan/min after exceeding the limit)
- WiFi within China – 30 hours
- 30 text messages
- 6 multimedia messages
- Free incoming calls
All in all, it pays off better then China Unicom’s 96 yuan A plan (240 minutes and 300MB), but if you do the 1 year plan with China Unicom it pretty much evens out.
For 2G join China mobile which offers best signal and most flexible plans. For 3G China Mobile is still cheapest (but no iPhones and you have to buy a cellphone from them too). China Unicom is the most expensive one out of the three providers in China but it is compatible with most countries, and still relatively cheaper than the rest of the world.
If you know a better deal, please leave a comment below and tell me about it.