Nearly everybody in China has a mobile phone (you may be judged on your model). Landlines and calling cards are rare. Some hotels will give you unlimited local or national calls.
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A mobile phone should be the first choice for calls, but ensure your mobile is unlocked for use in China if taking your own. SIM cards can be bought at the arrivals area at major airports.
Many international messaging apps, including Whatsapp and Viber, are inaccessible in China, though some people are able to access Skype (www.skype.com). Communication through Chinese app WeChat (微信; Wēixìn; www.wechat.com), which boasts half a billion users, is standard practice between both friends and small businesses and is not considered unprofessional. (Note that although Chinese also use the word 'app', they spell it out as 'a-p-p'.)
Data SIM card plans start at under ¥70 for 500MB of data and 200 minutes of China calls per month. You will be warned about cancelling this service before leaving the country to avoid a hefty bill should you return. For this reason and the language barrier, it can be more convenient (if more expensive) to pick up a SIM card on arrival at an airport in the major cities. Though more expensive, 3G Solutions (www.3gsolutions.com.cn) offers a range of mobile data and voice packages with pre-booking online, and will have the SIM card delivered to your accommodation on the day you arrive in China.
If you want to get a SIM card independently, China Unicom offers the most reliable service with the greatest coverage. China Mobile or China Unicom outlets can sell you a standard prepaid SIM card, which cost from ¥60 to ¥100 and include ¥50 of credit. (You'll be given a choice of phone numbers. Choose a number without the unlucky number 4, if you don't want to irk Chinese colleagues.)
When your prepaid credit runs out, top up by buying a credit-charging card (充值卡; chōngzhí kǎ) from outlets. Cards are also available from newspaper kiosks and shops displaying the China Mobile sign.
Buying a mobile phone in China is also an option as they are generally inexpensive. Make sure the phone uses W-CDMA, which works on China Unicom and most carriers around the world, and not TD-SCDMA, which works only on China Mobile and not international carriers.
If making a domestic call, look out for very cheap public phones at newspaper stands (报刊亭; bàokāntíng) and hole-in-the-wall shops (小卖部; xiǎomàibù); you make your call and then pay the owner. Domestic and international long-distance phone calls can also be made from main telecommunications offices and ‘phone bars’ (话吧; huàbā). Cardless international calls are expensive and it’s far cheaper to use an internet phone (IP) card.
Public telephone booths are rarely used now in China but may serve as wi-fi hot spots (as in Shànghǎi).
Beyond Skype or Viber, using an internet phone card on your mobile or a landline phone is much cheaper than calling direct, but they can be hard to find outside the big cities. To use one you simply dial a local number, punch in your account number followed by a PIN number, and finally the number you wish to call. English-language service is usually available.
Some IP cards can only be used locally, while others can be used nationwide, and some can't be used for international calls – make sure you buy the right card (and don't forget to check the expiry date).