Phone & internet access in China

Phones: Calling in China

In China, local calls from landlines are free and long-distance calls china-wide are around Y0.3/minute (about US$0.05). Naturally, using your hotel phone will usually be much more expensive (and sometimes you need to inform reception to make an international call) so consider using the public phone in the lobby or on the street.

International calling rates on Chinese public phones (called “IC phones,” which stand for Integrated Circuit) are about Y3.50/min ($0.50)— cheaper if you use an IC phone card. Most public phones are operated by China Telecom and have a slot that you can insert your phone card. They’re the cheapest way to make a direct domestic long-distance call (DDD): about Y0.15/minute ($0.02). They can also be used for direct international calls (IDD): Y1/min ($0.15) to Hong Kong, Macau, U.S. and Canada; rates are usually higher to call other countries.

Or an even cheaper option is to buy an IP (internet phone) cards for domestic or international long-distance calls. They’re issued by different telecoms and have slightly different rates. Instead of inserting a card, you’ll dial an access number and input a PIN to connect. A hotel with a business center should also have an IP compatible phone.

You can buy both of these cards in convenience stores, newspaper stands, supermarkets, hotel lobbies, and other retail outlets throughout China. The Chinese word for “card” is “ka” (卡) so ask for an “IC or IP ka”. But note that they often only work in the region/province of purchase and also have an expiration date.

To make an international call from China, dial: 00+country code + area/region code + phone number

International country dialing codes:

  • US & Canada: 1
  • Australia: 61
  • China:86
  • Hong Kong: 852
  • Macau: 853
  • New Zealand: 64
  • UK: 44

Area/Region calling codes:

  • Beijing: 10
  • Chengdu: 28
  • Chongqing: 23
  • Guangzhou: 20
  • Guilin: 773
  • Hangzhou: 571
  • Huangshan: 559
  • Kunming: 871
  • Lhasa: 891
  • Nanjing: 25
  • Shanghai: 21
  • Shenyang: 24
  • Shenzhen: 755
  • Urumqi: 991
  • Xiamen: 592
  • Xi’an: 29

For other city dialing codes: [ ]

Other phone numbers that you’ll probably never need to use (you’re better off asking a local for help unless you speak Chinese):

  • Ambulance: 120 (you’re better off taking a taxi to a hospital!)
  • Police (Bureau of Public Security): 110
  • Directory assistance: 114
  • Direct dial operator: 108
  • Rail information: 2585

Internet Cafes & Wi-Fi

An even cheaper option for calling home in China is to find an internet café where you can make internet phone calls using the Skype [ ]. A free software program, Skype is free when calling other Skype users (including video calls), but will cost a little bit if you call to mobile or land lines.

Chinese cities are packed full of these internet cafes. But since most of their customers are local network-game-lovin’ teenagers, they often won’t have a sign in English (and are often tucked away in some random side street). So ask a local where you can find a “wang ba” (网吧), which are often open 24 hours/day and are dirt cheap.

Bring your passport–they’re technically supposed to track every customer’s ID card and, as a foreigner, they’ll need to see your passport number. Backpacker hostels will often have some computers set up and are also cheap (or free for guests).

The big trend that I’ve noticed in recent years is that more and more people traveling with their laptops, especially the more portable netbooks. Wi-Fi is common in Hong Kong but limited to the more developed cities in Mainland China (free for customers of more upscale hotels and Starbucks and other cafés). But I’d be wary about Wi-Fi security, especially if you’re conducting online banking or any other sensitive business.

Are there internet restrictions in China?

You’ve probably read about the so-called “Great Firewall of China” that the government uses to block access to certain websites. For example, you’ve probably read about their ongoing pissing match with Google China. For the average tourist, internet censorship in China shouldn’t be a problem. In addition to blocking sites with pornographic, obscene, and criminal content, it’s no secret that sites critical of the country, as well as certain sensitive political topics, are also censored.

The good news is that the vast majority of blocked sites are Chinese sites (such as Chinese bloggers who push the edge). Some notable English sites that have been blocked include BBC News and even Chinese Wikipedia. Unfortunately, starting in 2009, they also started blocking Facebook and YouTube (we wouldn’t want the masses organizing and sharing info now would we?). Hopefully, won’t join that list! With any luck, their propeller-head lackeys and translation software won’t be able to deduce the full import and context of my (usually) subtle jabs and wry commentary (I wonder how that sentence would be translated?). If they’re the same folks in charge of writing street signs, I should be in the clear…

Mobile phones

With the highest number of mobile phones in the world, it’s not surprising that China’s mobile coverage is excellent. But in order to use your mobile phone in China, it must (1) be unlocked and (2) be a GSM phone, the international standard used in over 200 countries.

If you meet these requirements, you can buy a local SIM card from China Mobile (uses GSM standard). You can find kiosks in international airports or in various retail outlets. Unfortunately for Americans, many U.S. phones operate on a different standard and won’t work.

But the more advanced phones, like the 3G iPhones, will work (turn off data/apps to avoid huge roaming charges). T-Mobile and AT&T both use GSM but you should look into an international roaming plan. Some travelers have told me that CDMA phones will also work in China (China Unicom uses CDMA).

When you buy a new SIM card, you’ll be issued a new number to use while in China. The cost of the SIM card varies, based on how “lucky” the number is (they’re very superstitious). “Lucky” numbers (e.g. ones with many “8”s) can be Y300/ US$45 or more. As a foreigner, you probably couldn’t care less so just ask for the cheapest one, which will cost about Y50/$7. Then, you’re good to go and just need to buy prepaid cards to charge up your minutes. And don’t forget to pack your charger!

I’ve heard good things about Boingo Wireless [ ], which has more than 125,000 hotspots worldwide including China. For only $8/month, you can get unlimited Wi-Fi in airports, hotels, cafes (and you can call home using Skype). I can’t vouch for their exact coverage in China but my search on their site for “Shanghai” pulled up over 3,000 Wi-Fi hotspots.

Renting a mobile phone

"The DL just sent another tweet...His Holiness is having a yummy meatball sub."

If you’re dead set on having a mobile phone in China, you can also rent on through companies such as Panda Phone [ ]. They’re not what you’d call a good deal so I wouldn’t recommend them unless you’re on an expense account. In fact, if you’re staying in China for more than a short visit and need one, you’re probably better off just buying a new phone (yes, bargaining is perfect acceptable and expected!). But if you’re just making the occasional call back home or to set up advance reservations, you can easily get by using just Skype or pay phones.

Return from Phone & Internet to Travel Practicalities

Return to China Mike’s travel guide Home Page