Whenever I travel internationally, I try to buy a local prepaid SIM Card and it’s almost always less than $10 USD for the iPhone nano SIM card. I recently spent 38 hours in Beijing and wrote 10 Things I Learned From My Recent Trip to Beijing, China. My quest was to buy a working SIM Card in Beijing and this is a story on How I Got Scammed in Beijing from Buying a Prepaid SIM Card.
My first failed attempt to buy a SIM Card was right at Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) in Terminal 3 Arrivals and Departures Hall. I tried to buy a prepaid SIM Card from one of the many automated phone card kiosks, but I was unsuccessful with an error message asking me to call a number. I can’t read Chinese, but none of the options asked me to input cash.
Later, I found out there was a physical China Mobile store which closes at midnight at PEK Airport Terminal 2 but it was too late and I’d have to take a bus from Terminal 3 to Terminal 2 at Beijing International Airport.
I went to a few small local Brick and Mortar (B&M) stores in the city like China Unicom and China Mobile, and they were unable to sell me a SIM Card. They just said they don’t sell them which was weird for a shop that has their huge company logo plastered over the storefront. I suspect the small stores were only recharge stores or just to sell accessories and repair. Maybe they just didn’t want to deal with me since I didn’t speak Chinese and they didn’t speak a lick of English.
While walking around in Beijing, I found a newspaper kiosk vendor that had a SIM Card sign and I inquired about the price. She said it was 60RMB ~ $9.68 USD and it was from China Mobile. I inspected the package and it looked legit with the SIM Card still attached. I thought it was a deal, so I went ahead and bought it to see if it worked out of the box. The SIM Card was still in its standard size, so I went ahead and cut it with my own SIM cutter into the nano size (yes, I carry a SIM cutter everywhere, just in case).
I put it on my iPhone and it instantly displayed the China Mobile service with a local Chinese phone number, but when I went to test a call, it said this SIM card is not registered. I thought to myself I would have to pop into a corporate China Mobile store to inquire about it.
I went inside the Apple store to get Wi-Fi and entered in the local China Mobile number to send a passcode to my phone, but no cigar. Since the SIM was unregistered and not activated, I was unable to receive any kind of SMS message.
While walking around Wangfujing street, I found a China Unicom corporate store where I inquired about a SIM Card with 500MB of data and the lady quoted me 200RMB ~ $32.27 USD which I thought was too high. I said no thanks and walked away and she countered with an offer of 150RMB ~ $24.20 USD which was much better, but I thought to myself – what’s the point, I’m leaving tomorrow anyway. When I was walking away, she lowered her price again which was 120RMB ~ $19.36 USD which was more like the price I was looking for. At this point, I already wasted 60RMB on a China Mobile SIM card which I had hope to find a corporate store, so I declined her last offer.
I finally found a China Mobile corporate store on Wangfujing Street and inquired about my non-working SIM Card. I sat down with the representative and showed her my problem with the SIM Card and she asked where I bought it. I said that I bought it from a street vendor at a newspaper stand half an hour ago and she laughed with her co-workers around. She said, that number is unregistered and all China Mobile SIM cards for foreigners have to be bought with a passport. The representative showed me a book with a list of phone numbers with different prices. I saw that some numbers were as much as 400RMB ~ $64.54 USD! Apparently those were ‘lucky’ numbers and she said the basic numbers were 200RMB ~ $32.27 USD which I thought was absurd. Those prices were just for the SIM Card alone, so I didn’t inquire further about the data add on prices.
In my mind, I was already out $10 USD for the non-working China Mobile SIM Card, so there was no point going back to the China Unicom store and purchasing a prepaid nano SIM Card with data for $20.
After getting back to my hotel in the evening, I ran a Google search on ‘SIM Card scams in China’ and found an article on Want China Times, titled ‘Beijing pushes for SIM card registration in crime crackdown‘. I found out that it is illegal to be in possession of a SIM Card without registering it with a passport or Chinese national ID because of crime. Apparently, illegal China Mobile SIM Cards are being sold on the streets and the Chinese government has already banned all those numbers. I was definitely scammed and good thing it was only $10, but it was a lesson learned – Don’t ever buy a SIM Card off the streets in China.