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Once you land in China, there are two things you’re going to want to make sure you have at all times – toilet paper and a cell phone (手机 – shǒu jī). If you’re heading to China and your phone isn’t unlocked, one of your first orders of business will surely be to buy yourself a new one. This can be a daunting task in a new language, but don’t worry – we’re here to help!
You’ve got plenty of choices when it comes to buying a cell phone. Rather than grunting and pointing at the phones in the display cases in your local electronics market, why not learn the Chinese names for some of the most popular companies? Let’s start with popular foreign brands first:
While Apple once reigned supreme in the smart phone game in China, they’ve recently dropped to 5th place. This is due in part to local brands becoming increasingly popular. Here are five of the biggest Chinese mobile phone brands:
While you may have never heard of some of these brands, you may want to consider them. For one, buying a local phone in China is substantially cheaper than buying one that’s imported. Also, Chinese smart phone manufacturers have been stepping up their game seriously in recent years. Just check out this video from the Wall Street Journal showcasing the Xiaomi Mi Note:
Once you’ve got your phone picked out, it’s time to choose your service provider.
There are three main providers of cell service in China. Here they are in English and Chinese:
Of the three, China Mobile is by far the largest and most prominent. China Unicom’s coverage is not quite as extensive, but it should work just fine for most places you’ll probably be in the country. I’ve used both Mobile and Unicom and found them both to work well, but I’ve never tried Telecom so I can’t say much about them.
Most people in China still do pay-as-you-go for their cell phones. It’s really easy to find recharge cards (充值卡 – chōng zhí kǎ) in convenience stores or newsstands, so you never have to go long without phone credit. You can buy a recharge card for 50 or 100 RMB and are charged per minute, SMS, or MB of data used. Alternatively, you can sign up for month-to-month plans with a set number of minutes, texts, and data. You just need to make sure you have enough money in your account each month when the bill comes due. Contracts aren’t big in China, so you don’t have to worry about getting sucked into a 2-year deal with a company like you do in the US.
Here’s a short sample conversation of someone buying a cell phone in China for you to practice and study. Try to translate the conversation yourself before opening the English text underneath.
I’d like to buy a cell phone.
OK, what kind of phone?
Do you have Apple?
Yes, have a look. We have the iPhone 6. This is new.
How much is it?
Let me see, it’s 5,500 RMB.
That’s a little expensive. Do you have a cheaper one?
We have a 2nd hand iPhone 5. This one is only 3,000 RMB.
Alright, I’ll take this one.
Do you have a Chinese mobile card?
No I don’t.
Do you want (China) Mobile or (China) Unicom?
I don’t know. Which one is the best?
I think Unicom is the best.
Then I want that one.
Ok, the total is 3,100 RMB.
Do you sell recharge cards?
Sorry we don’t sell those. The convenience store nearby should have them.
Ok, thank you!
Next up, we’ll have a post with some common phone call language so you can start putting your new phone to use!