Buying a new mobile phone in Suzhou

Dec 29, 2015

Well it’s Christmas and New Year again and lots of us have some gift cash burning holes in our pockets. Probably the most popular thing to renew at this time of year is our mobile phones. The problem is that this can be a rather daunting undertaking here in China with lots of unknown phones to choose from, complex deals and only a limited number of staff that can explain in English. So, I decided I might try and help. Armed with a good Chinese speaking friend I thought up some of the key questions and we headed off to the shops.

Before I get into the details of the phones and deals, some broad observations. There are three key companies competing in the mobile market in China: China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom. All of them have official branches and franchise shops scattered around Suzhou. We visited a range of them and I can honestly state that you should be very wary of the franchise stores. Firstly, because the levels of service were appallingly low, bordering on – and actually crossing the border sometimes into - rude indifference. The staff at the franchises were not interested in helping in any way and if I was the franchise holder, I would have been appalled. In contrast, the official stores were staffed by polite and helpful well-trained staff who restored my faith in shopping in China. How can you tell which type of store is which from you outside? The honest answer is that I don’t know and I couldn’t tell. But once inside you could tell within seconds. So, onto the current deals available.

First up is China Unicom. They say that their key strength is that their handsets can be used all over the world. They have two main deals. The first is 36 RMB per month and comes with 60 minutes of free calls and 750 MB of Internet data. The second costs 66 RMB per month and for that you get 80 minutes of call time and 1 GB of data. Unicom has a special data deal on each contract and that is night time data which can be used between 11pm and 8am. The cheaper deal gives you an extra 2GB of night-time data and the costlier one 3GB. China Unicom offer a smallish range of handsets but the only one they had in stock this week was the iPhone 6S 16 GB at 5188RMB.

Next up is China Telecom. This company runs an English language website which you can use to pay your monthly fee or top up your credit ( and you can even buy handsets from it- but only a limited range are available. They have 12 different monthly contract deals that range from 59 RMB all the way up to 999 RMB per month. The cheapest deal offers 500 MB of data and 100 minutes of calls. 99 RMB per month will get you 1 GB of data coupled with 300 minutes of talking. Their flagships handsets are the iPhone 6S for 5288 RMB and the rather beautiful Samsung S6 Edge for 5888 RMB.

Last but not least is China’s largest mobile phone provider, China Mobile. Actually, it is the world’s largest mobile company with over 800 million subscribers. Serving 70% of Chinese mobile phone users, it has the most extensive coverage in China extending widely across the rural and mountainous areas which are not served by the other carriers. China Mobile even provides a phone signal to climbers on Mount Everest. Assistance is available in English 24 hours a day by dialling 10086 from your handset.

China Mobile’s contracts are a little complicated. Their 58 RMB tariff offers 500 MB and 100 minutes but you also get 1 GB of data across China plus 2 GB of data within Jiangsu province for the first two months. For 68 RMB you get 200 minutes and the same data. Extra data can be purchased for 0.29 RMB per MB and once you have bought 200 MB you don’t pay more until you use over 1 GB. That means that between 200 MB and 1 GB of extra data costs 58 RMB. At China Telecom, an iPhone 6S costs 5288 RMB and a Samsung S6 (not the Edge edition) costs a reasonable 3888 RMB.

I also asked about Chinese made handsets and had some recommendations. The consensus seemed to be that the best Chinese phone is the Huawei Mate S, which costs around 3600 RMB. This is a very beautifully made metal phone with a 13-megapixel camera. Three cheaper local options are by Coolpad, Honor and Mi. The Red Mi 2 costs 1099 RMB in China Mobile and Coolpad phones begin from 399 RMB. Thy are both rather basic but the common sense rule from thumb holds true: you get what you pay for.

So if you are starting a new phone contract this new year, good luck getting the deal which is just right for you. Let’s hope your new phone rings in a very Happy New Year.


About the Column

Markus Davis

Markus is from the Isle of Wight in the UK and had been living in Suzhou since 2013. It is his first time living in China and before this he was in London. He has been teaching English all of his adult life and in HE since 2000. He is lucky to have his wife with him in Suzhou and together they are making a new life. His interests include eating out (a lot) and exploring local areas on his ebike. And recently, walking a doggie.

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