You’re going to need one. You’re going to want a smartphone. And you’re going to want a data plan and GPS.
China, like the rest of the intelligent world, uses GSM for cell phones, and the cell and provider are separate. You get a phone at full price and you get a service. Most of the U.S. uses GSM, too, unless you are with Verizon, which uses CDMA. If you have a CDMA phone, leave it at home. If you have a GSM phone and can get at the SIM card, you need to SIM unlock it before you can bring it outside the country. Do it a few weeks before you leave because it can take a few days to get your provider to give you the unlock code. For instructions on SIM unlocking your phone, you’ll have to look it up elsewhere. Once you have unlocked your phone, you can then take it anywhere you want, slip a new SIM card in, turn it on, and you’re good to go. It just works.
Of course, you don’t have to bring your cell phone with you. Since you will likely be changing your number anyway when you get a new SIM card, it won’t do you a lot of good. Plus there’s the possibility of it getting stolen, so if you have a nice phone that you want to protect, it may be best to leave it at home.
If you decide to buy a phone in China and you are living or staying in Shenzhen, don’t do anything in Hong Kong. It won’t work when you come to the mainland. Well, it will work, but you will be roaming and it will cost an arm and a leg. Once you are on the mainland, there are plenty of places that sell cell phones. Suning is like the Best Buy of China. RenRenLe is like the Fred Meyer or Walmart (except China actually has Walmart, too). You can also go to Huaqaing Rd. (pronounced like Wa Chang Bay), which is the amazing electronics market. There you will find every phone made. Good luck and have fun.
Once you have a phone, get a SIM card. There are two main providers; China Unicom and China Mobile. It doesn’t matter who you choose. I ended up with China Unicom for absolutely no reason, but I am happy with it. Other people I know have China Mobile and have no complaints. You can get a SIM card in a lot of places. There are stores all over; I found mine at a little table manned by some guy right outside the RenRenLe. I looked through a book of phone numbers I could have and randomly chose one. It seemed to work. While I was there we put the SIM card in and turned on the phone. It had signal and immediately received some text messages.
I used the translate.google.com mobile page to copy the text of the messages and paste them in to the translator and get something that resembled English, though tech terms are awful at translating well. One of the messages indicated that I would be charged 25 RMB per month. $4 a month for a phone plan. That’s WAY better than the U.S. Another message told me that I could get 200MB of data a month for only $15 RMB. $2.50 for data? Sweet! I texted the number to indicate I wanted it.
Recharging the cell phone is easy, too. I can text a number to see what the balance on my account is, and it lets me know when it’s getting low. You can purchase cards to add to the account, and it’s easy to find stands where you can purchase 100 RMB cards that are wrapped in plastic and have a scratch sticker to protect the code. Just call the number, enter the English option, and then type in the code. The balance gets updated.
I have service all over Shenzhen, including inside the subways while they are moving. It’s amazing. And I use my phone constantly. Here are the reasons why you want a smartphone with GPS and a data plan:
- I’m always on Skype. This means I can communicate over IM with my girlfriend in the U.S. all the time. I still only do voice and video on my laptop because I have a data limit (though it would just charge me by the KB if I went over), but for IM only I don’t even get close to my cap and it’s handy to catch up with her while I’m taking the subway.
- I get my email at all times. When all your contacts are offset by 12 hours, mornings and evenings are when a lot of work gets done, so it’s nice to be able to be in real time contact with people during those times.
- I don’t get lost and I don’t have problems with taxis or buses. I can direct taxis anywhere I want to go, and I can watch them to make sure they aren’t taking me on a circuitous route to gouge me. I have the confidence to go anywhere and explore knowing that I’ll be fine. One day I ran out of batter and took a bus the wrong direction and didn’t know for half an hour, then got dumped in the middle of nowhere without a stop nearby that had another bus going the opposite direction. Fortunately I had a business card for my office, but the phone has saved my butt a few times and prevents me from doing stupid things.
- It’s awesome for translating. Don’t bother with full sentences; it’s awful at long and complicated things. But for a few important words, it works well. Use only present tense, do just Subject Verb Object, or even just object, and keep it as simple as possible.
- It’s nice to have a camera to take pictures of all the completely bizarre things you will happen to see.
Getting a phone and service is possibly less difficult in China than it is in the U.S. It is far cheaper, too. I really like the security of having a phone that can get me out of a lot of problems I might run into. Of course, I’m also very careful not to leave it out, as phones get nicked frequently if the opportunity is there.