Chinese Language Blog

Buying a Cell Phone in Chinese Posted by on Aug 11, 2016 in Uncategorized

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!


Xiaomi phones. Image by gyroscopio from

Xiaomi phones.
Image by gyroscopio from

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:

  • Apple (苹果 – píng guǒ)

  • Samsung (三星 – sān xīng)

  • Nokia (诺基亚 – nuò jī yà)

  • Sony (索尼 – suǒ ní)

  • Motorola (摩托罗拉 – mó tuō luō lā)

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:

  • Huawei (华为 – huá wèi)

  • Vivo (维沃 – wéi wò)

  • Oppo (欧珀 – Ōu pò)

  • Xiaomi (小米 – xiǎo mǐ)

  • Lenovo (联想 – lián xiǎng)

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.


Even monks are on their cell phones!

Even monks are on their cell phones!

There are three main providers of cell service in China. Here they are in English and Chinese:

  • China Mobile (中国移动 – zhōng guó yí dòng)

  • China Unicom (中国联通 – zhōng guó lián tōng)

  • China Telecom (中国电信 – zhōng guó diàn xìn)

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.


Buy your recharge card here. Image by Ernie from

Buy your recharge card here.
Image by Ernie from

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.

Sample Conversation

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.

huān yíng guāng lín! yǒu shén me kě yǐ bāng nín de

nǐ hǎo, wǒ yāo mǎi shǒu jī

hǎo de, shén me yàng de shǒu jī

yǒu méi yǒu píng guǒ de

有的,看一下,我们有iPhone 6. 这个是新的.
yǒu de, kàn yī xià, wǒ men yǒu iPhone 6. zhè ge shì xīn de

duō shǎo qián

wǒ kàn, zhè ge 5500 kuài qián

有点贵. 有便宜点的吗?
yǒu diǎn guì. yǒu pián yí diǎn de ma

我们有二手的iPhone 5. 这个只有3000块钱.
wǒ men yǒu èr shǒu de iPhone 5. zhè ge zhǐ yǒu 3000 kuài qián

hǎo, wǒ yào zhè ge

nǐ yǒu zhòng guó de shǒu jī kǎ ma

méi yǒu

nǐ yào yí dòng hái shì lián tōng de

我不知道. 哪个最好的?
wǒ bù zhī dào. nǎ ge zuì hǎo de

wǒ jué dé lián tōng zuì hǎo

nà wǒ yào nà gè ba

hǎo de, yī gòng 3100 kuài

nǐ men mǎi chōng zhí kǎ ma

不好意思,我们不卖充值卡. 旁边的便利店应该有.
bù hǎo yì si, wǒ men bù mài chōng zhí kǎ. páng biān de biàn lì diàn yīng gāi yǒu

Hǎo, xiè xiè nǐ

bù kè qì

Open Me

Welcome! How can I help you?

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!

You’re welcome!


Next up, we’ll have a post with some common phone call language so you can start putting your new phone to use!

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About the Author: sasha

Sasha is an English teacher, writer, photographer, and videographer from the great state of Michigan. Upon graduating from Michigan State University, he moved to China and spent 5+ years living, working, studying, and traveling there. He also studied Indonesian Language & Culture in Bali for a year. He and his wife run the travel blog Grateful Gypsies, and they're currently trying the digital nomad lifestyle across Latin America.

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