You probably noticed that Chinese people spend more time on their cellphones than French people do. When you arrive in China you understand why QR codes are tagged everywhere in China (restaurants, supermarkets etc). Indeed, mobile phones are used for many more things than in France. You may think China is late concerning Internet connection, but it is not for mobile use. The mobile phone is used to open a bank account, to pay merchants, to charge your electricity card, to rent bikes, to receive tickets for parties etc. Convenient, right? However, getting a SIM card can be difficult if you do not know how it works beforehand, and you will quickly discover that acquiring one is essential to live the Chinese lifestyle at its fullest…as well as to pay your rent on campus!
“It is good to bring a Chinese buddy with you.”
First, you will need a photocopy of your passport and 200 yuan before going to the China Unicom shop on the campus. It is located next to the main canteen (see map). Many other telecom companies are available, but China Unicom is the best for us as they have special offers for students at the beginning of the year. For 200 yuan (that is less than 30 euros) you get 3 GB data in 4G, 1h call and 500 text messages every month during a year. Be careful however, the amount available depends on the location and on the time of the day during which you use it. You have 1GB from 7a.m to 6p.m and the rest during the night. Watch out for your consumption if you do not want to wait for the night to use your data!
The easiest way to get your phone number is to go with your class and Mrs. Bai (our wonderful Chinese teacher for the semester) or a member of the student union at the beginning of the year. This way you are sure to find the right subscription at the right price. But if you lose your cellphone in China like I did, you will have to go through the whole process again… this time by yourself. The vendors at China Unicom do not speak English. So, it is good to bring a Chinese buddy with you. Or you can find the offer on their prospectus to show them what you want.
As for the cellphones, the prices are very low in China. Especially the Chinese brands which are as powerful as the western brands. You might want to buy one, but be careful. As you probably know, Google is blocked in China. There is no Google Play App on Chinese phones, but a Chinese alternative that is not available in English. If however you have a few computing skills, you can still attempt to reboot your phone. But do not try that if you are a novice. Indeed, like other electronic goods in China, the warranty does not extend outside of China, and even in mainland China you will have a hard time going through the process with only the basics in Chinese. A simple and secure way to get your favorite apps is to download the APK and install it directly on your phone. It works very well but you will not be able to access your Google account. WeChat and QQ replaces the Google Account in China.
If you plan to keep the Chinese phone you buy outside China, I strongly advise you to go to an official retailer. Indeed, you will find many counterfeits with very good prices. But if you look at the forums on the Internet, you will see that this is definitely not a good idea. Moreover, try to beware of unofficial shops that may seem legitimate at first sight. This is the case in Zhonggancun, the tech mall of Beijing which is two subway stations away from our university. Never go there without a Chinese buddy or you can get severely ripped off: in fact without the presence of a Chinese speaker you will never get the actual prices (unlike in the Silk market, where you can actually bargain for clothes, glasses, casual electronics etc).
The best way to be sure to get an official product is online shopping. However, it can be tricky because everything is in Chinese and you should write down your address in Chinese too if you want your package to be delivered. Mrs. Bai can be of great help for this (if asked nicely) but you can also ask one of your Chinese friends. The cheapest website for electronic goods is JD.com. The delivery is fast and it provides extra-warranties. Every Chinese person will advise you to use this website if you ask where to buy a cellphone or a laptop as a foreigner in China.
On the other hand, if you lose your phone like me and you just want to buy a very cheap one to finish the year in China, go to a second-hand shop. You can find them everywhere. Ask to try the phone and bargain hard. I got my smartphone for less than 15euros, and it still works. One more thing when you buy a second-hand phone: it should connect to the 4G network. Indeed, in China you have the edge network everywhere, but they did not bother to install 3G in between. So, if your phone does not connect to 4G network, you will have a very slow connection and all the benefits from mobile phone in China will be lost.
(By Francois GUIBOURT & Lancelot FOUDA)