Perhaps you’re traveling to China, either for business or pleasure, and you need to rent a phone for China. Sure, it would be great to use your own phone, but what if you phone isn’t unlocked? What if you have trouble getting a Chinese SIM card? What if you’re worried about security on the Chinese network? Whatever the case may be, deciding to rent a phone in China can be an attractive option.
Why should you rent a phone for China when you could easily bring your own phone or simply find and use WiFi in China? There are a couple good reasons:
- Eliminating Hassle: Perhaps you want a phone that is already set up and working the moment you land.
- Security Concerns: Connecting your phone to Chinese networks has security implications. It’s better to use a temporary phone.
- You Need a Chinese Phone Number: Using Wi-Fi in China requires a phone number so they can text you a pass code (this is true at airports, coffee shops, hotels, etc.). Local Chinese can’t call an international number. Both are reasons why you would want a local Chinese phone number to use.
- Save Time: You don’t want to take the time to apply for a SIM card using your passport (although if you’re a glutton for punishment, here’s how to get a SIM card in China).
Below I’d like to share with you a quick guide on how to rent a phone in China. If you already know this is the way you want to go, the recommendation I’m using as an example here is Cellular Abroad.
This type of phone rental service is specifically for travelers from the US and Canada, so if you know of any services for Europe or Australia, please let me know in the comments below!
Note: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links, which means that at no extra cost to you, I may be compensated if you choose to use the services listed.
How to Rent a Mobile Phone in China
As mentioned above, there are a number of ways to rent a phone in China, but I’m going to cover the one that has historically been the most convenient.
In short, you rent a phone that is sent to your home prior to your departure date so that the moment you land in China, you’re able to connect.
You can also rent a SIM card for China but as I mentioned above, if you’re concerned about security, I highly discourage using your own hardware within the country (this includes your computer!).
Some people think this is being paranoid, but I’ve seen the lengths to which China will go to gather intel on foreigners.
Step 1: Choose Your Cell Phone for China
Cellular Abroad is a company that offers several different cell phones for hire, including, a very basic phone (i.e. “dumb phone”), an Android smart phone, an iPhone 6 and an iPhone X.
Obviously your choice of phone will depend heavily on what kind of phone you’re used to back at home. It will also depend on what you need to do.
Consider these questions as you choose the best phone for you:
- Do I really need a smart phone or can I get by with one that only does calls and text messaging? If so, perhaps you can save money with a “dumb phone”.
- Do I need a more updated phone to run complex apps or can I get away with an older version?
- Would it be convenient to use iMessage or FaceTime to stay in touch with friends and family back home? If so, maybe renting an Apple phone is worth the extra cost.
Once you’ve determined what kind of phone you want to use, you can begin to ask what kind of service you’ll need.
Step 2: Choose Your Phone Usage Plan for China
In addition to getting a choice of phone, you also choose what kind of service you’ll need when you arrive in China.
For example, if you are only concerned about making and receiving phone calls and maybe text messages, you’ll just want their “Standard Plan” that covers basic phone and text. You won’t have data access to the internet with this type of basic plan, so using an Android or Apple smart phone probably doesn’t make sense.
Of course, you can always bring your own phone from home to take pictures, but plugging in a SIM card on this Standard plan won’t do much good.
If, on the other hand, you do need to access data on your phone so that you can get emails, browse the web and access apps, you will need to rent a smartphone.
Cellular Abroad (use promo code TravelChina10 to save $10!) offers many plans that offer different levels of data consumption. You’ll want to ask yourself:
- Do I just need to check email and use the maps app?
- Do I need to make video calls or stream any type of video on the phone?
Step 3: Choose Your China Network Carrier
While the actual choice of the handset is important when you rent a phone in China, of equal importance is the actual service provider.
In terms of the “cellular service,” I’m referring to the coverage, reliability and the rates.
Cellular Abroad uses Unicom, one of the two major cellular service providers in China (the other is China Mobile).
While coverage is excellent, there is no such thing as 100%, complete coverage. As a rule of thumb, wherever there are people and roads that people travel on, there is service.
What Does it Cost to Rent a Phone for China?
In terms of actual call and data rates, the better services like Cellular Abroad use a non-contractual, pay as you go concept that will allow you to easily rent a phone in China.
The advantage of this approach is that you will always know how much you are spending.
As of this writing, on top of the rental fee for the handset, customers pay $29 for either 250 minutes of calls within China or 125 minutes back to the US and Canada, unlimited incoming calls from anywhere and 1GB of 4G LTE mobile data.
While this is enough for most travelers, you have the option of adding more talk time or more data when ordering your China phone rental or at any point during your trip.
There are also a few important features to consider when renting, including if you need to keep your usual phone number and what’s the best way to use the device and how to get the best value out of your rental.
Any China phone rental comes with a Chinese-based cell phone number (it starts with +86 as you see above).
While this is convenient for when the locals want to reach you, it is less convenient – and more expensive – for callers from the United States and Canada to call you.
If you anticipate on getting many calls from US or Canada, you can add a US cell phone number to your rental for $19. Your rental will have two phone numbers:
- A Chinese number;
- Plus the US phone number.
In addition, if you would like to retain your usual phone number, you can do so by forwarding your number to the new US cell phone number provided with your rental.
NOTE: Please note that while forwarding your usual phone number has its advantages, you may not want everyone to be able to reach you – especially considering that you will possibly get calls in the middle of the night.
Typically, while most travelers do opt to add on a US cell phone number to their rental, only business travelers activate the call forwarding.
Can I Use All Apps on my China Phone Rental?
Using voice translation apps for Chinese, location and map apps, researching restaurants, stores and locations is a great way to use your phone not just as a phone but as a travel tool
(Please note that you do need to rent a smartphone in order to use any app..a “dumb phone” won’t work here).
If you use a calling and texting app such as WeChat or iMessage, you can speak for hours at a time and send hundreds if not thousands of texts.
One Important App!
Keep in mind that other apps such as Skype, WhatsApp or Viber are blocked in China and will require what is known as a VPN in order to use.
Final Thoughts on Renting a Phone in China
If you’re thinking about renting a phone in China, head on over to the Cellular Abroad website to see what plans they have to offer.
Once you’ve made your decision, you can get $10 off your China SIM card or phone rental through Cellular Abroad when you enter promo code “TravelChina10” online during checkout.
Likewise, mention the promo code if you order over the phone at 800.287.5072.
Renting a cell phone in China is a fast, convenient way to stay connected without having to worry about registering for a SIM card once you arrive or wandering around trying to find Wi-Fi that doesn’t require text verification. Trust me…it’s a pain!
Have you rented a phone in China before? How was it for you?