Beijing Travel Tip: Buying or Using Your Cell Phone, SIM Card, and Prepaid Recharge Cards

One thing about traveling in China is the language barrier--even signs are incomprehensible. It's an interesting experience to be absolutely, totally illiterate. True, the business traveler is often sheltered from the major difficulties, but still there are the little things that drive you crazy. For example, I brought my cell phone to Beijing, where it's supposed to work. I was looking forward to trying it.

Between deplaning and claiming my luggage I stopped at the little China Mobile table and bought a SIM card and 100RMB worth of time. The vendors put it in my phone and I showed them Teresa's number. They dialed it for me (some of the digits didn't need to be dialed because I was now local, but I didn't know how many of the leading numbers to leave off). My friend Teresa, who was waiting for me outside, got the call, and that was the first and the last time it worked. Was it the SIM card or the telephone? I didn't know.

A couple of days Teresa and I were shopping and happened by a Nokia shop. Since we thought maybe it was my telephone that had stopped working (I had dropped it a few times and it was almost a year old), I picked out a $28 very basic cell phone for Asia only. The girl behind the counter put the SIM card from my old phone into it and it worked fine.

A week later I ran out of time so I needed a "recharge card" to add more minutes onto that SIM card I had purchased at the airport. You get a recharge card from those funny little shops that seem to sell everything, or from the post office. How do you know you're almost out of time? Because when you dial a number a woman speaking Manadarin tells you so, and then she speaks English to tell you so. This is handy because you can "ask" where to by a recharge card by handing your phone--while it's speaking Manadarin, that is--to a local, who can point you to the store that sells one. Otherwise you can just ask your concierge.


A helpful storekeeper adds minutes to my phone.

I bought one China Mobile recharge card in a shopping center, and another one in a tiny shop underground in the subway station in Shanghai. By the way, once you've bought a card, keep it in your wallet. That way you can show it to people if you need to buy another one.

They're about the size of a playing card, with rounded edges, and come in different RMB amounts. You rub the metallic coating off a zone on the back, like a lottery ticket, to find your code. Then you dial your phone number, enter in the code, and it's done. You press "2" to hear the instructions in English. Or more likely, because you're a foreigner, the counterperson will do it all for you. Helpfully, she will probably show you that it's been recharged after she's finished, information printed in Chinese characters. Just nod and smile, and say "shea shea," which is "thank you" in Mandarin.

Carla King reporting for Sun Tech Days in Beijing.

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