Our staff buy mobile sim cards in China, when traveling on business.  It saves us a lot of money on roaming fees.  This was much easier before the 1st of September 2010 but since then the Chinese government has been imposing regulations on sim card providers. The new regulation stipulates that you need to present a Chinese Identity card in order to register and purchase the sim card.  Before anybody could walk up to a news kiosk (pictured below) and purchase a sim card anonymously.

sim card in china

Kiosk’s selling sim card in china

Nowadays Chinese nationals need to go to China Mobile business hall or any other provider office and register with an agent. This allows the telecom provider to know exactly what phone number is associated to which citizen. Each Chinese citizen will have there ID name and number associated to there cell phone digits. Before hand there was no way in knowing who owned which phone number.

Sim Card in China for Foreigners

This makes it slightly more difficult for foreigners to have access to a cheap Chinese telecom service.  Before we just went downstairs in our office in Shanghai to a market for lucky phone numbers (sadly closed now).

This time we had to travel 200 meters to an unregistered small shop selling SIM cards  – we tried to buy using staff ID cards but the China Mobile official dealer was unable to issue new cards since their computer system was down.

Sim card in China

Sim card in China with ID and China Mobile Office

Of course when dealing with China there are ways around most regulations. One of our sales employee who recently traveled to China via Shenzhen was able to purchase a sim card without having a Chinese ID card at a 7-11 franchise store in the Domestic branch of the Shenzhen Airport.   This means that maybe the regulations are just imposed in certain cities like Shanghai to begin with.

As time goes by it is possible that regulations will be more broadly adopted by all of the telecom services, making it more difficult for foreigners to get a cell phone number. China is not alone – Brazil adopted the same policy not too long ago and even countries like Canada can be a pain.

For the time being it is still possible to find some telecoms that grant the service without a Chinese ID card so you can shop around till you find the right one.  Please check out our other blogs that deal with travel and doing business in China: