If you’re travelling to China or Hong Kong, having the right SIM card can save you lots of money. We review the best value SIM cards.

Each year, about 600,000 Brits visit Mainland China and another 530,000 visit Hong Kong. Whether you’re there for a bit of business or tourism, and whether it’s for the sights and scenery, or just to enjoy the food on a brief stop-over, it’s likely you’ll want to use your mobile phone whilst abroad in China and Hong Kong.

The good news is it’s now really easy to stay connected on your mobile phone in China and Hong Kong. It’s possible for you to either roam on your UK SIM card, or you can buy a local SIM card upon your arrival at the destination.

In this article, we’ll look at how you can use a UK smartphone on the Chinese mobile networks. We’ll also look at roaming and local SIM card options in more detail so you can find the most convenient and best value way to stay connected on your smartphone.

Using a UK Smartphone on Chinese Mobile Networks

Your options for using a UK smartphone in China depend on whether you’re travelling to the Mainland or Hong Kong.

Mainland China

You can use a UK smartphone on China Mobile and China Unicom.

If you’d like to use your UK smartphone in Mainland China, you can choose from either the China Mobile or China Unicom networks.

From the two options, China Mobile has a far larger network. With over 900 million customers, it also has the widest nationwide coverage. All UK-purchased smartphones will give you 2G coverage on China Mobile (with EDGE download speeds of up to 384kbps), with many newer devices supporting 4G speeds as well.

China Unicom has a smaller mobile network, but benefits from having slightly wider support for UK-purchased smartphones including on 3G.

  • For China Mobile (中国移动), your handset will need to support one of the following:
    • For 2G: GSM 900 or 1800MHz
    • For 4G: LTE bands 38, 39, 40 or 41 (plus LTE bands 3 & 8 in some areas)
  • For China Unicom (中国联通), your handset will need to support one of the following:
    • For 2G: GSM 900 or 1800MHz
    • For 3G: WCDMA/HSPA 900 or 2100MHz
    • For 4G: LTE band 3, (plus LTE bands 1, 8 & 41 in some areas)

You should check your smartphone manufacturer’s spec sheet to see a list of frequencies and bands supported by your handset.

It isn’t possible to use your UK smartphone on China Telecom (中国电信), as they use a totally different technology for their mobile network (CDMA/EVDO). This is not accessible on UK smartphones, either through international roaming or through a locally purchased SIM card.

Hong Kong

You can use a UK smartphone on China Mobile Hong Kong, CSL, Three Hong Kong and SmarTone.

If you’d like to use your UK smartphone in Hong Kong, it should be compatible with all four of the local mobile networks (CMHK, CSL, 3 Hong Kong and SmarTone). Given Hong Kong is a very densely populated urban area, all four mobile networks should give you pretty good coverage.

  • For CMHK (AND/China Mobile Hong Kong), your handset will need to support one of the following:
    • For 2G: GSM 900 or 1800MHz
    • For 3G: WCDMA/HSPA 2100MHz
    • For 4G: LTE bands 3, 7 or 40
  • For CSL, your handset will need to support one of the following:
    • For 2G: GSM 900 or 1800MHz
    • For 3G: WCDMA/HSPA 900 or 2100MHz
    • For 4G: LTE bands 1, 3 or 7
  • For 3 Hong Kong, your handset will need to support one of the following:
    • For 2G: GSM 900 or 1800MHz
    • For 3G: WCDMA/HSPA 900 or 2100MHz
    • For 4G: LTE bands 1, 3, 7, 8 or 40
  • For SmarTone, your handset will need to support one of the following:
    • For 2G: GSM 900 or 1800MHz
    • For 3G: WCDMA/HSPA 850 or 2100MHz
    • For 4G: LTE bands 1, 3, 7 or 40

Almost all UK smartphones will work in Hong Kong without any issue including on 2G, 3G and 4G.

Roaming VS Local SIM Card

There are two ways of using your mobile phone in Mainland China or Hong Kong. The easiest way is to use international roaming on your UK-based SIM card. However, you can also buy a local SIM card upon arrival.

  • Roaming on a UK-based SIM card. This is the simplest and easiest way to use your UK smartphone when travelling in Mainland China or Hong Kong. Through international roaming, you’ll be able to use your UK-based phone number and you’ll be charged for your usage through your UK mobile network. It’s the easiest way to stay connected whilst you travel, but will sometimes be more expensive depending on your UK network provider. With our recommended SIM card from CMLink UK, you can buy a bundle from just £5/month and will receive inclusive roaming in China and Hong Kong at no extra cost.
  • Buy a new SIM card on arrival in China or Hong Kong. If you’d like a local phone number, or are travelling for an extended amount of time, it may be possible to buy a local SIM card upon arrival in China or Hong Kong. This is a fairly complex process in Mainland China (requiring a store visit, your passport for registration and knowledge of Mandarin) but is a little simpler if you’re visiting Hong Kong (even if you only know English).

Through the rest of this article, we’ll discuss the two options in more depth.

Roaming On Your UK SIM Card

International Roaming Fees By Network

The easiest and simplest way to use your smartphone in Mainland China or Hong Kong is through international roaming on your UK SIM card. The cost of using your phone in China or Hong Kong will vary depending on your home UK mobile network as follows:

Network Making a Phone Call Receiving a Phone Call Sending a Text Accessing the Internet
BT Mobile £1.40/minute £1.25/minute 40p/text £5/MB
CMLink Inclusive* Inclusive Inclusive Inclusive
EE £1.80/minute £1.80/minute 60p/text £6/day for 500MB
giffgaff £1.00/minute £1.00/minute 30p/text 20p/MB
O2 £2.00/minute £2.00/minute 50p/text £7.20/MB
Plusnet Mobile £1.30/minute (CN)
£1.50/minute (HK)
70p/minute (CN)
90p/minute (HK)
40p/text (CN)
50p/text (HK)
£8/MB
Sky Mobile £1.80/minute (CN)
96p/minute (HK)
£1.50/minute (CN)
96p/minute (HK)
42p/text £1.80/MB (CN)
£5/day to use UK allowance (HK)
Tesco Mobile 79p/minute (CN)
£1.49/minute (HK)
69p/minute (CN)
£1.49/minute (HK)
40p/text £5/MB
Three UK £2.00/minute (CN)
Inclusive (HK)
£2.00/minute (CN)
Inclusive (HK)
35p/text (CN)
Inclusive (HK)
£6/MB (CN)
Inclusive (HK)
Virgin Mobile £2.60/minute £1.50/minute 50p/text £5/MB
Vodafone £6/day to use your UK allowance of minutes, texts & internet

Comparison of roaming charges when using your UK-based SIM card in China (CN) or Hong Kong (HK). It’s always free to receive a text message wherever you are in the world. * CMLink offers inclusive local phone calls whilst travelling in Mainland China and Hong Kong. Calls to the UK are charged at 30p/minute.

Whilst in China or Hong Kong, you’ll have access to the same mobile networks and coverage that are available to residents with a local SIM card. You may also be able to access multiple networks, giving you better coverage compared to the local SIM cards.

If you’ve applied a spend cap to your contract, you may need to contact your mobile network to review this before your trip.

Best Network For Roaming in China & Hong Kong

At present, CMLink is the best UK mobile network for roaming in Mainland China and Hong Kong. The UK mobile network offers one-month bundles on a Pay As You Go basis, starting from £5/month with 4G coverage from EE.

One of the major advantages of using CMLink is you’re able to roam at no additional cost when travelling in Mainland China and Hong Kong. The allowances in your Data Growth Pack bundle can be used in the UK, Mainland China, Hong Kong and other EU destinations:

NetworkMinutesTextsInternetMonthly
Cost
CMLink150Unlimited500MB£5.00
CMLink500Unlimited3GB£10.00
CMLink2,000Unlimited9GB£18.00

For most new customers, we’d probably recommend either the £10 bundle with 3GB of data or the £18 bundle with 9GB of data. Customers remaining on CMLink will see their data allowance boosted by an extra 5% per month. You’ll also get free phone calls to more than 900 million China Mobile customers (subject to a fair usage policy of 1,000 minutes per month).

For more information, please read our in-depth review of CMLink UK.

Buying a SIM Card On Arrival

Mainland China

If you’re visiting Mainland China, having a locally purchased SIM card will give you a Chinese phone number beginning with +86.

Unfortunately, it is fairly difficult purchasing a local SIM card in China. To do so, you’ll initially need to find a retail store to buy and activate your new SIM card. Activation means registering the SIM card with your identification documents. While it should be possible to use a foreign passport to do this, many stores will only accept a local Chinese ID card for registration. In many stores, it may also be difficult performing registration without knowledge of Mandarin, though some larger stores in major cities may offer an English-speaking service.

You’ll typically need to top-up your SIM card with at least 100 RMB (£11.50) of credit to get started. This can then be converted into a one-month bundle. International credit cards are not widely accepted in China, so it’s best to make sure you have cash available for the top-up.

On China Mobile, you can choose one of the 4G Global Plans (4G飞享套餐). At the time of writing, you can get 1GB of data for 138RMB (~£16), 2GB of data for 158RMB (~£18) and 3GB of data for 268RMB (~£30). These plans also include an allowance of local minutes.

On China Unicom, you can purchase a 4G Value Pack (4G 套餐). At the time of writing, you can get 1GB of data for 106RMB (~£12), 2GB of data for 166RMB (~£19) and 3GB of data for 196RMB (~£23). There is also an inclusive allowance of local minutes.

It’s worth noting that a locally purchased SIM card will not allow you to access some Western websites and services like Google and Facebook. This restriction does not typically apply if you’re roaming on a UK-based SIM card.

Given the complexity and relatively high costs of buying a SIM card in China, it may be easier and cheaper to use a UK-based SIM card like the one from CMLink. CMLink UK offers a £10 bundle on Pay As You Go with 500 minutes, unlimited texts and 3GB of data. The bundle allowances can be used in the UK, other EU destinations, Mainland China and Hong Kong.

Hong Kong

If you’re visiting Hong Kong, a locally purchased SIM card will give you a local phone number beginning with +852. Unlike in Mainland China, it’s relatively easy to get a SIM card in Hong Kong and there’s no registration required. SIM cards are available to buy in most phone shops, supermarkets and convenience stores.

For information on available tariffs, please see the China Mobile Hong Kong, CSL, 3 Hong Kong and SmarTone websites. You should expect to pay around 80HKD (~£8) for a SIM card with some preloaded credit. This can be used to purchase a bundle or an allowance of data. You should expect to pay around 150HKD (~£15) for a one-month bundle with local minutes, texts and around 1GB of 4G data. This will typically be valid for use in Hong Kong only (though some Hong Kong mobile networks have a package allowing you to use your data in Mainland China and Macau).

Our Recommended Deal

For the majority of visitors to Mainland China and Hong Kong, we’d recommend roaming on a UK-based SIM card. CMLink UK is the best mobile network for this purpose, as they offer a free Pay As You Go SIM card and bundles from just £5 for one month. CMLink’s £10 bundle will give you 500 minutes, unlimited texts and 3GB of data (available to be used in the UK, Europe, Mainland China and Hong Kong).

The following table gives a quick summary of the two options we’ve discussed in this article:

Roaming on your UK SIM card Buying a local SIM card on arrival
Best option for the majority of users (e.g. holidaymakers and business travellers). Best option for frequent travellers to Mainland China or Hong Kong, who require a local number.
You’ll have a UK-based number (beginning with +44). You’ll have a local phone number (beginning with +86 for China or +852 for Hong Kong).
We recommend the Pay As You Go SIM card from CMLink UK. There is no registration required. SIM cards are available from local mobile networks. Mainland China SIM cards require ID registration.
Starts from £5 for one month of usage. The £10 bundle comes with 3GB of data. Starts from approx 100RMB (~£11.50) or 80HKD (~£8). Bundles and data allowances typically more expensive.
Inclusive calls to local phone numbers when travelling. 30p/minute to call UK-based numbers. Inclusive calls to local phone numbers. Extra charges will apply for calling UK-based numbers.
You can continue to use your SIM card in the UK after the end of your trip. In the UK, CMLink offers 4G coverage from the EE network. Your Mainland China or Hong Kong SIM card may expire or may be subject to an administration fee. Check with your network for details.

On CMLink, you can currently choose from the following three bundles:

NetworkMinutesTextsInternetMonthly
Cost
CMLink150Unlimited500MB£5.00
CMLink500Unlimited3GB£10.00
CMLink2,000Unlimited9GB£18.00

The SIM card will be sent to your UK address, giving you one less thing to worry about when you arrive in China or Hong Kong. You’ll be able to top it up online using your UK card details, and will have a UK-based phone number for ease of staying in touch with friends and family.

Order CMLink SIM Card (Free) →

There is a fair usage policy for the international roaming service on CMLink. It cannot be used for permanent roaming, and you should ensure that total usage in China does not exceed total usage in the UK. If you’re relocating to China or Hong Kong for an extended amount of time, you should buy a local SIM card on arrival rather than roaming on a UK-based SIM card.

Other Top Tips For Travel

When travelling to Mainland China or Hong Kong, it’s also worth bearing the following things in mind:

  1. You’ll need to apply for a visa to enter Mainland China. If you’re visiting Mainland China using a British passport, you’ll need to apply for a visa to enter the country. For more information, see the Chinese Embassy website or apply on the Chinese Visa Application Service Centre (CVASC) website. It isn’t necessary to apply for a visa if you’re visiting Hong Kong on a British passport. However, you should refer to the Hong Kong Immigration Department website for more information.
  2. You may not be able to use Western websites & applications in Mainland China. For instance, services provided by Facebook and Google are blocked when using a locally purchased SIM card or wi-fi network in Mainland China (but not in Hong Kong). You should try to plan for this in advance (e.g. have a printed copy of all boarding passes, itineraries and confirmation e-mails rather than relying on accessing these through a live internet connection).
  3. You’ll need an adapter to charge your devices in Mainland China. If you’re visiting Mainland China, you’ll need an adapter to charge UK devices like your laptop or smartphone. The easiest thing to do is to use a UK-to-European plug adapter as two-pronged European plugs are widely accepted in Mainland China. You can also use a triangular three-pronged adapter, but this will typically be more expensive and is less useful for travel to other countries. Meanwhile, if you’re visiting Hong Kong, it should be possible to charge your UK devices with the need for an adapter.
  4. It might be worth investing in a portable battery pack. For trips away to China and Hong Kong, it can be worthwhile investing in a portable battery pack for your smartphone. This can provide you with an extra boost of power so you won’t run out of battery whilst you’re out and about.
  5. Check GOV.UK for the latest travel advice. Before departing on your trip, check the GOV.UK web pages for travel to Mainland China and Hong Kong. The pages will contain the latest Government-issued travel advice.

You may also find it of interest to read our general guide to using your smartphone abroad.

Your Comments 1 so far

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 1 comment from readers. You can add your own comment here.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will never be published. By default, I'll use it to send you an update when there are replies to your comment. However, if you don't want to receive this, you can disable it using the dropdown menu below: