Telephone services in China are not always pleasant. Calls outside the country are often very difficult, and often impossible without a calling card, which can often only be purchased locally. However, these cards are cheap, and the connection is surprisingly good, with no interruptions, interference or delays. Look for IP phone cards, which are usually worth ¥100, but sometimes can be obtained for ¥25. Cards are printed with instructions in Chinese, but after dialing the number indicated, instructions in English are available. For example, a call from China to Europe takes about 20 minutes with a ¥100 card. Calls to the United States and Canada are normally 20% cheaper.
The prefix for international calls within China is 00; to make an overseas call, dial: 00 + (country code) + (area code) + (phone number). Note that calls from the mainland to Hong Kong and Macau are considered international calls. Check the rates before calling.
Conversely, to call you in China, your caller will need to dial the prefix 86.
Mobile phones in China
Cell phone offers are often very good in China. The typical expatriate spends a few hundred RMB on the purchase of a phone and then about ¥100 per month for services; the traveler might spend less.
If you already have a GSM 900/1800 mobile phone, you can use Chinese networks, but calls will be very expensive (up to ¥35/minute is common). UMTS / HSDPA international roaming is not available with all operators, but you can buy a local prepaid SIM card to access 3G. Chinese CDMA networks require a R-UIM card (equivalent to the prepaid SIM card).
If you have a Smartphone and plan to use 3G, China Unicom is your only option, as China Mobile uses a different technology, unique to China. Calls and messages will still work but not data downloads.
It is sometimes difficult to get a Chinese prepaid SIM card, less so if you speak Chinese or have an interpreter. Some companies can get one for you before you leave for China. But, still you can get them easily online via specifis websites like simoptions.com/ for instance. You can find more about prepaid SIM cards in China.
For a short stay, you can rent a Chinese mobile phone from a company such as Pandaphone. Rates are around ¥7 per day. The company is based in the United States, but has staff in China. You can call 400-820-0293 toll free from China to access their services. The phone can be delivered to your hotel in China before your arrival and handed over at the end of your trip. When you rent the phone, you get an access code to call in your country, which is cheaper than buying a prepaid SIM card from a local provider and dialing direct.
If you stay for more than a few days, it will usually be cheaper to buy a prepaid Chinese SIM card that will give you the right to a Chinese phone number with a certain amount of pre-loaded credit. The Chinese tend to avoid phone numbers with the number 4, considered to be a harmful number, and sellers will often be happy to get rid of these “unsaleable” SIM cards to foreigners, at a lower price. Also, if you need a phone, prices usually start in the 200 ¥ range. Chinese phones, unlike those sold in many Western countries, are never blocked and work with any SIM card. In China, the two major operators are China Mobile and China Unicom. Most of the SIM cards sold work throughout the country and those from China Unicom can be used in Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. There is usually an extra charge of about ¥1/min when roaming outside the province in which you purchased the SIM card, and some cards only work in one province. You may also need to manually activate national roaming, which may incur a small daily surcharge while it is active. Avoid cheaper wireless phones called PHS (小灵通xiǎolíngtōng): They only work in one city. At China Mobile, you can check your balance by calling “1008611”; you will then receive an SMS with the information you need in return.
International calls must be activated separately by dialing “12593” for China Mobile or “17911” for China Unicom; China Mobile requires a deposit of ¥1000 to activate this service, while China Unicom works by default. China Mobile is the cheaper of the two. You can also use prepaid cards on a traditional phone for calls outside the country. However, if you are staying for a longer period of time, it is more advantageous to buy a SIM card that allows international calls at China Mobile.
To top up your account, visit the local office of your mobile service provider, give them your personal number and pay in cash. You can also top up at any post office or buy a top-up card in many shops. These cards are sold at ¥30, ¥50 and ¥100.