After four days in Beijing I am extremely impressed by China Unicom, both on service and keen pricing. I would entirely recommend CU for visitors to the main cities, although I have been told that the opposition, China Telecom, can sometimes be better in rural areas.
The strong signal and constant 3G on CU is in stark contrast to the patchy network of Vodafone, for instance, in London. Frequently, even in the centre of London, I am booted off 3G. Not so in Beijing where I have never lost 3G except when in the depths of the efficient metro.
On price, too, the pay-as-you-go service—ideal for visitors—is highly attractive. I bought 150MB, sufficient for my week-long visit, for a ridiculously cheap £3.75 (¥36). The SIM card itself cost ¥18 (£2). I put ¥80 (£8.50) on the card, including the data package. So, for a total of just over £10 I get a week’s good internet, calls within China and texts. It’s a bargain and should be on the list for all visitors.
The level of communication and monitoring is also high. Every morning I am awoken by the ping of a China Unicom message telling me how much data I’ve used. It’s in Mandarin, which is a bit of a problem (I asked they could change to English texts but apparently this isn’t possible). However, it is easy enough to spot the data usage figure. This morning, after four full days, I had used 60MB, which, incidentally, tallies exactly with the usage recorded on the iPhone.
This is less than I would expect, about 15MB a day. It includes fairly heavy emailing and browsing, but I always lock down any data-hungry apps and avoid downloading pictures, audio and video or updating of apps. All this can be done later on the hotel’s wifi. It is also a good idea to turn off non-essential location services and definitely turn off iAd location monitoring.
USA, Europe take note
In Europe I now use Vodafone’s £2 per day roaming package which gives an allowance of 25MB. This is also good value, but not a patch on China Unicom’s deal.
All in all, roaming around Beijing with an iPhone is a painless experience. It contrasts very favourably with the expensive offerings from carriers in the USA. AT&T, in particular, is totally unresponsive and indifferent to the needs of short-term visitors to the country. The US giant, and the European carriers, could do well to take a leaf out of China Unicom’s book.