How to Recover Your Phone Number When You Lose a SIM Card in China

SIM CardOn March 20 I wrote a positive review of my cheap new smartphone, the Hongmi 1s: From iPhone to China’s Best Budget Smartphone: Hongmi 1S Review.

On March 27, I lost that phone. It was my fault and I feel stupid, but I’m not heartbroken because the phone was cheap and easy to replace. I just bought a Hongmi 2 that arrived one day after ordering it on Jingdong.

Less easy to replace was my phone number, tied to the SIM card that was in that phone when I lost it. I could have easily bought a new SIM with a new number, but I had since connected this phone number to my bank account, my WeChat, and other services. I also really liked that phone number and had gotten comfortable telling it to people.

I was determined to get my number back.

To a China Unicom Branch

China Unicom

I marched over to the China Unicom branch on Kehua Beilu to sort this out. Upon arrival, you will have to take a number from a machine near the door. There are two buttons you can press, so you have two choices… or so you would think. Allow me to offer some pointers:

Pro-tip #1: Wait in two lines at once

I pressed both buttons. With two numbers in hand, I waited for either B054 or A153 to be called. B054 was called first. I explained the problem and they told me they couldn’t help foreigners with that. Unperturbed, I marched right over to the window where A153 was being called and sat down with the Unicom worker there.

Again, I explained the issue: I lost my phone with the SIM card and wanted to replace it with the same number. This is doable. But there are lots of hoops they’ll make you jump through to prove that this was in fact your number.

The first challenge was that I purchased my original SIM from a small shop instead of an authorized seller. I assume many reading this have bought theirs at similar shops, and if so this means there is already a Chinese person and name associated with your SIM.

Pro-tip #2: Don’t pretend to be that person

It won’t make things easier.

Tell them you bought your SIM at a small store, because there’s nothing wrong or illegal about this practice. It’s possible for them to change the ID on the SIM card to yours, but you will need your passport. If you have another form of identification, it’s a good idea to bring that as well since that may expedite the process of proving your identity.

Now that I had proven my identity with my passport, it was time to prove that the number was mine. They’ll ask for some recent phone numbers that you’ve made or received calls from. Of course this is a kind of ridiculous thing to ask because few people actually use their phone to call people in the WeChat era, and people definitely no longer dedicate friends’ phone numbers to memory. And so:

Pro-tip #3: Collect friends’ phone numbers before you go

NotesThe super helpful (no sarcasm) post-adolescent male attendant at the China Unicom branch I went to told me I needed the phone numbers of at least five people who had called my phone. I was lucky to have a friend there with me who put the word out and got me some phone numbers, but I still didn’t have enough.

In the end, the attendant – god bless his heart – turned his computer monitor around and just showed me all the numbers that had called me and told me I could copy them down from there. It took me a second to realize he was doing me a serious solid. The only reasons he was doing this was he was either getting sick of dealing with me or he realized how ridiculous this whole rigmarole was and wanted to help me out.

Pro-tip #4: Appeal to their good side

Altruistic handThe bureaucracy is ridiculous and many of the employees know it. Appeal to their good side and they may help you out big time.

The attendant asked me many other questions while I was waiting for friends to reply with their numbers. I was asked:

  1. When was the last time you refilled your balance?
  2. How much money was left on the balance when you lost it?
  3. Have you ever gone over your limit?

I knew the answer to all of these questions, but I don’t think they had any bearing on the end result. I can’t say that for certain, but do try to be prepared with as much information as possible.

Up to this point I was in the main room dealing with what I imagine are the lowest level attendants at the China Unicom branch. There is a typical surplus of workers in this area, with nearly as many people sitting up front at the windows as there are people milling about in the background on their cell phones, looking up only to see why the laowai is getting louder.

You may be able to forgo this level and go straight to the more upper-level assistant area I was taken to next. What is different between this area and the other is unclear to me. It’s quieter. The attendants wear orange vests and the main area folks defer to them. Anyways, even if you go straight here, you’ll probably have to satisfy the same ridiculous forms of proof, just with people higher up the ladder rather than high school students. I don’t know. But after dealing with the lower level folks, I was taken to that slightly cozier backroom and listened to a new, peppier employee with a boyish haircut filibuster unsuccessfully on my behalf.

She was being asked by whoever was on the other end of the phone for my Chinese national identification card, called a shēnfèn zhèng. Foreigners don’t have these, and a passport will almost always suffice, whether you’re renting an apartment, opening a Taobao or Alipay account.

Eventually, after being put on hold one too many times, my attendant hung up and said to me, “This is pretty excessive isn’t it?” then walked me back to the first desk, asked me to sign a few papers and I was finally given my precious SIM card with very little ceremony. Apparently, her orange vest bestowed her with the ability to cut through a lot of red tape.

Pro-tip #5: Seek the orange-vested attendants

I learned a lot going through this process. I never did learn, despite repeated asking, exactly what the final hang-ups were with getting this done, but I do know my success relied on some goodwill and willingness to ignore bureaucratic guidelines. Interestingly, I don’t think I would have gotten the benefit of such uncharacteristic behavior if I had completely lost my temper, but I also feel an equally big factor in succeeding here was the fact that I slightly lost my temper and didn’t let their absurd conditions for letting me reclaim my number go uncriticized. In the past, I would either not be stubborn enough to get these things done, or actually mistake their excuses for actual barriers to fulfilling my request .

Taking care of these chores in China is a hassle. Often having everything you need is not enough and you have to appeal to the gatekeepers’ sense of good will and reason while simultaneously laying bare the inefficiencies of the system they’re being asked to uphold. It’s a curious balance that I’ve rarely succeeded in managing, but it’s applicable in many scenarios aside from this one.

One last tip:

Pro-tip #6: Make sure your new SIM card fits

I had to return the next day to get my trimmed because it was too big.

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Dan

About Dan

Dan is an American writer and human being trying to find the balance between local and expat culture in Chengdu. You may find him playing frisbee, video games, dancing, or looking up words on Pleco.

12 Responses to “How to Recover Your Phone Number When You Lose a SIM Card in China”

  1. Zak

    I have sadly gone through this hellish process. It can be very easy, it can also be VERY hard, especially if you’re traveling. I have lost a phone while out of province, and then it is more or less impossible to get a duplicate of your initial phone number without them mailing it from the province/city from which your sim card was originally bought. I was in yunnan and was moving around quick, had to get my number back from Sichuan, and, despite many different attempts, it just didn’t happen. Language wasn’t the issue–I did it in mandarin, brought friends in to do it in dialect–it just didn’t fly.

    The passport is crucial. Most smaller branches won’t have passport scanning machines, as 99% of the customers are not foreigners. Bigger branches in Chengdu all seem to have them.

    I would also add there are a couple of pre-emptive measures that everyone should do. If you are wechat dependent like me, create password protection/email backup with your account so that you don’t need your phone number to sign back in. This is one major advantage of wechat over whatsapp or line or something anyways, an account that is not phone number dependent. Also, like the article points out, take your passport in and clear up the discrepancy in identities (yours versus small shop owner’s cousin/friend/dog) while you have your phone with you rather than before it is lost.

    This process sucks, and hopefully this article will make it suck much less for a bunch of people!

  2. Charlie

    I wish I had this article a few years ago when I lost a SIM card. I ended up getting a new phone number and losing a bunch of contacts, but I’ll never really know how many.

    It’s a good idea to register your passport with your SIM card though, I think. It is something of a privacy concern, but honestly, I think that we don’t really have much to hide and everything is already being surveilled anyway. Knowing that my passport is registered to my SIM card gives me some piece of mind.

    I’m in Hong Kong now and bought a local SIM card here yesterday. I popped the super tiny SIM out of my phone (iPhone 6) and didn’t know where to put this tiny without losing it (it’s about the size of my pinky fingernail). Real easy to lose these.

    • Dan

      Yeah, I was reluctant at first, but at this point I feel like you gain more than you sacrifice by connecting your passport with your SIM. I avoided it before based on some vague notions of privacy.

      On the topic of being ever-surveilled: getting my visa for my most recent entry into the country, I had to go through the embassy in NYC. I had been working at ChinaFile.com and since you need 2 years of work to get into the country now, I needed ChinaFile to confirm on their letterhead that I had been working there. They do journalistic stuff, and I wrote that they were a news org on my initial application.

      Upon submitting that employment verification, they said I needed to go back to ChinaFile and have my boss write a letter that I wouldn’t conduct any journalism while I was in China. Besides this being an absurd nominal gesture that would in no way constrain me, my boss was out of town and time was tight, so I just re-printed my application and wrote ChinaFile was a media company rather than a news org and everything went swimmingly.

      What did I learn from this: every time you go to your embassy is NOT necessarily logged, so leaving the embassy and returning is kind of like hitting a reset button. I was afraid that they would say “Well you were here yesterday and yesterday you said ChinaFile was this kind of company” but that didn’t happen. I know it may seem naive, but I also learned from this that you don’t necessarily need to take the measures they ask you to; there’s always more than one way to satisfy them, and sometimes that means obscuring info that will create hurdles for you. In that sense, it was unlike the SIM card situation, where telling them all my info was most expedient.

  3. Deven

    Cool article Dan! Honestly, dealing with this kind of thing (phone, internet, banking related) is usually incredibly frustrating. One thing I’ve learned (and you touched on it) is that when you have issues like this, always get to the boss or management as soon as you can. Chinese systems are set up so that the basic employees usually can’t go out of their way at all to help solve your problems, but the higher-ups usually can. I got 300 yuan put back on my phone at the beginning of this year by insisting to talk to the 老板 after the standard China Mobile employee told me repeatedly there was nothing he could do

    • Eli

      I agree with this approach. There is a way to deal with bureaucracy that amounts to very polite but insistent pestering, that seems to work very well. Calm escalation. Once you break through to the management level, the chance of your problem being resolved quickly and favorably seems to go up a lot.

  4. Ray

    Yeah, especially with banks. Often the girl at the help desk is anything but helpful. When they say “no we can’t do it” I usually just take a number anyway and try the tellers, who are generally much more in-the-know

    • Charlie

      Persistence is key. If Dan had given up on the first person to help him, he wouldn’t have found a resolution here. It’s frustrating dealing with bureaucrats within sprawling Chinese enterprises but you can often find a way if you push. Only if you push, in many cases.

  5. Nice informative article Dan. I bought my sim card in china and travelled back home for a few months buh i hv lost the card here at home. Is there any possibility at all to retrieve it when i go back next in a few weeks time? I am really worried

    • Charlie

      Hi,

      The only way to recover a SIM card lost in this way is if you registered your identity when purchasing the card. So if there is a record of your name and passport on the SIM card you can go to a China Unicom or China Mobile office to have them restore the SIM card after verifying your identity, which is described in this article. Good luck.

    • Hii Joshun ,
      Did you find a way to replace your sim?
      I’ve been a way for a year .
      My alipay has some cash on it I recently put some money forgetting that it was linked to my simcard.
      Now everytime it asks for a confirmation text.
      Did you recover your lost card?

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