Travel notes: How to find a SIM card in Kunming

Tl;dr 

  1. Bring your passport 
  2. Show them this piece of paper. 
Not sure what it says. Probably something like, "give them the power of mobile internet"

Not sure what it says. Probably something like, "give them the power of mobile internet"

Since we were foreigners travelling in China without any knowledge of any Chinese languages, we knew we needed internet access on our mobile phones to overcome the language barrier. 

We walked around for ages trying to find a SIM card in different telecom shops. Everyone kept telling us "no", even in the airport shops. We didn't know if it was "no – you can't have one" (because we thought maybe some rules apply to foreigners" or "no – out of stock". 

Eventually we walked into a China Mobile shop where one assistant spoke some English. Using Google Translate, he told us we had to go to a different China Mobile shop (map), and to show them the piece of paper pictured above.

So we went to the China Mobile shop and showed the paper to the staff, who pointed upstairs. There, a gruff lady took our paper, issued a queue number, and took us to a section where we picked a phone number. Then we waited for our number to be called.

At the counter, we struggled to communicate with the woman. She was clearly put out, probably by having to deal with these foreigners who couldn't communicate. We didn't yet have internet access to use Google Translate. An assistant who was leaving for the day kindly stopped by the counter to help us out.

Some details you need to figure out:

  • How long you need a SIM card for (e.g. 30 days)  
  • Which prepaid plan you want (there are different data/minutes packages, look at the price sheet)
  • Will you be travelling outside the province where you buy the SIM card (i.e. Yunnan)? I think they asked because the rates will be different  

We settled for a 2GB plan with 1000 call mins – we didn't need the minutes but it was part of the SIM prepaid plan we chose. 2GB was sufficient for 1-2 weeks, assuming you're not on social media much or streaming content. Later, we noticed that the SIM card didn't work for making international calls/SMS.

When you register for a SIM card, it's one SIM card for one person. There were some animated cartoons on the screen which, even without sound, we understood to mean: it's illegal to buy multiple SIM cards for someone, especially when that someone is a shady figure offering you money. As a foreigner, you also need to present your passport when registering for your SIM card.

So there you have it, that's how we found a SIM card in Kunming.