In China there are two ways to get a cellphone – the easy way and the bureaucratic way. The bureaucratic way involves taking yourself and your passport down to a China Mobile shop, filling out a ton of paperwork with someone who doesn’t speak English, and then finally getting your SIM card and/or new phone.
The easy way, the way I recommend? Instead of buying a cell phone in country, just buy a cheap unlocked GSM phone at home before you arrive. Even though every phone in the world is made here, it’s still probably just as cheap to buy a basic unlocked model at home – and there is WAY less paperwork.
Now for your SIM card. Instead of walking into China Mobile, were going to your friendly local grey market vendor. Now don’t worry – the SIM card and credit you’re going to buy are totally legit. The benefit for us is that there is no paperwork involved, there’s no “take a number and wait” system, and the whole process takes less than 5 minutes.
You’ll find these stalls at many different locations – bus stops, subway stops, outside official China mobile locations, restaurants, etc. etc. Even if you speak no Chinese, you can still get through this process. Here’s how it works.
1. Walk up to your vendor and present your cell phone. Show them it’s missing a SIM card. They’ll get what you need.
2. The vendor will next likely present you with a fan of envelopes. He’s asking you to pick a number for your phone. If you care to decipher the Chinese you can go through the available numbers. If you don’t care, just point at one.
3. I always present a 100 yuan note when buying a SIM. The SIM card itself costs 25-35 yuan, and the balance will be placed as credit on your card.
4. Pass your phone over to the vendor. Let him put the SIM card in, activate t
he card, and put the balance of your payment as credit on the phone.
5. After that, you’re done. You have a fully operational Chinese cell phone!
Please note that the above procedure is probably not encouraged by the government. They always want you to present your passport in an official establishment when you take a breath in China. I’ve never had a problem though, and vendors are willing to go out of their way to help you if you don’t speak the language.