All About the iPhone in China

Although the iPhone was officially released in China very recently, it’s been available here in it’s various incarnations for years. For those who don’t know, the iPhone is one of the best phones on the market and there have only been incremental updates in the two years since it’s original release. Aside from being an outstanding phone, it’s one of the best aids available if you study Chinese. Whether you’re interested in buying an iPhone in China or just want to learn about the options and differences between them, read on.

Unauthorized Access

The iPhones that you’ve been seeing people with over the last few years are classified as “Shui huo” devices. That is, they’re not licensed for use in China and they’ve arrived from another country, often as near as Taiwan and Hong Kong. Since ordinary iPhones are locked to the territory that they’re purchased in, you’re required to circumvent security features in order to make and receive calls on an unauthorized network like China Mobile. This process (commonly referred to as unlocking or Jailbreaking) requires no equipment and little software because it’s a firmware hack that doesn’t require any physical modification. What this means is that the process is completely reversible if you decide to return to your home country that you purchased the phone in. You can change the firmware yourself (the most popular tool Quickpwn has a forum with thousands of posts if you need help), or you can save yourself the hassle and take it to a computer market where it won’t be difficult to find someone to unlock your iPhone for less than 100 yuan.

An iPhone with after-market case
iPhone with after-market case

Should I go with China Unicom or settle for the “unlicensed version”?

Considering the two years that China spent waiting and wondering if the iPhone would be released, this weeks legitimate release is underwhelming. The phone arrives in only its latest variation (the 3GS) which offers a speedier processor among a handful of other ho-hum additions like a digital compass, but the real downside is that this iPhone is missing one of it’s most versatile features: Wi-fi. Yes, China has waited two years for an iPhone only to have it arrive without one of it’s most critical features. If you check your weather, e-mail, or news on this iPhone it will transmitting data through China Unicom at all times, even if you’re in your living room or Starbucks and Wi-fi is available. This is a major omission and alone warrants skipping the China Unicom bundle (phone plus service provider since an annual contract is required), but there’s more: going the “official” route means you’ll also be paying a stiff premium. The iPhone 3GS in its largest 32gb configuration costs over 7,000 yuan. With Shui huo phones that offer the same functionality (albeit at lower 8 and 16gb capacities), it doesn’t make a lot of sense to be switching to a China Unicom iPhone if you, like most of us, are on China Mobile and already have a SIM card and contacts. The downside to Shui huo is that you won’t be getting the latest 3GS model and you won’t have access to a few proprietary features like the 3G network and visual voicemail. But you’ll be paying half as much, still have access to everything in the App Store, and all other iPhone functions like iPod and Safari browser work as you’d expect.

Which model to get, where to buy

Should you choose to not step into a China Unicom office, you can get Shui huo iPhone locally or online. A good tactic is to check Taobao to familiarize yourself with the price for the model you want, and then negotiate locally with that price in mind. In Chengdu, you can buy iPhones at Digital Square ?????? or at the cell phone district on Tai Sheng Nan Lu ??????. Currently the price for a new condition first generation iPhone is about 1,700 yuan and the price goes up to 3,000 for the 3G model although that seems like a poor choice when a 3G network isn’t available. Getting the cheapest model you find isn’t a bad idea as long as you check the condition of the phone, especially the screen. Examine the surface under a light to detect scratches in the glass – although the iPhone doesn’t scratch particularly easily, if it does get a scratch you’re stuck with it for good since the glass surface isn’t replaceable.

What about the 3G cellular network in China?

If having the fastest internet connection on your phone is important to you, then you’ll have to sign up for China Unicoms 3G service. But with Youtube, Facebook, and so many other big mobile sites blocked, a high speed connection on your phone doesn’t seem nearly as fun. And you won’t be streaming Youku or Tudou either, since the iPhone is natively tied to Youtube for streaming video content. For checking e-mail or reading news the slower EDGE network used by imported iPhones is sufficient for most, loading full websites in about 7 seconds.

iPhone supports Chinese input
iPhone supports Chinese input

Closing thoughts

For anyone who hasn’t used one, the iPhone is an incredible device (and platform) and it’s great that it’s here no matter what form it takes. Unlike other smart phones it effortlessly transcends the phone landscape and with the insane number of Apps available it becomes one of the best aids available for learning Chinese, among many other things. When you discover the capabilities of the device along with what’s available in the App Store, you’ll be priviledged to enjoy the best mobile computing experience available on a phone.

Unless you absolutely need a 3G connection, save yourself $500 and get an imported iPhone locally or online. You won’t be bound by contract to China Unicom, you can keep your current phone number, and you still have access to everything in the App Store.

note: Check out on an iPhone or iPod Touch with Safari

Leave a comment if you have an iPhone experience to share or question to ask

23 thoughts on “All About the iPhone in China”

  1. That’s good to know! I always thought I’d have to buy one in Hong Kong, and then hire a guy in the Mainland to break it open, before I could use it.

  2. I know not everyone’s into Apple’s methods but I like my iPhone. If your looking for the best dictionary on iPhone or WM, Palm device Pleco is it.

    If your an iPhone owner, its free in the app store with the option to buy add on dictionaries.

  3. Thanks for the article – informative. A few questions though…
    – you mention that the Shui huo phones are not 3GS, but I think I’ve seen grey market 3GS phones in my local e-markets. Will these not operate in China
    – assuming the 3GS phones I see in my local emarkets do work in China, can I use them on either the China Mobile (2G) or China Unicom (3G) networks depending on what Sim I plug into it, or is the 3GS variant only China Unicom compatible? (I assume China Mobile is GSM, but am not sure about China Unicom)
    – if I buy an unlocked 3GS phone legitimately via the HK Apple Store sight, will that work on China Mobile and/or ChinaUnicom networks here?

    Apologies for all the Questions!! Hopefully they’re understandable.


    • Hi Sean-

      To answer your questions:

      – the 3GS is available as 水货 now – some of this information has changed over 4 months and I will edit the post to reflect those changes!

      – China Mobile and Unicom should both work, I have no reason to believe that 3G or normal GRPS service would be adversely affected.

      – Yes, it will work. Unlocked phones work in virtually any country, including China.

      Hope this helps,


  4. Flashcards will be added to Pleco’s iPhone version in 3 or so weeks. I recently bought the NWP dictionary on Pleco as well as the document reader which is really useful for translating websites directly word for word and for translating text messages via copy/paste.

    In the this next update they’ve also included the ability to import dictionary’s if I remember correctly, but those need to be in Pleco’s dictionary format.

    • That sounds so tempting, but the price of Pleco is really holding me back! I expect the Pleco flashcards to be really nice, though. I still use KTdict+ everyday and it does the job, although the flashcards aren’t the fanciest.

      Do you think Pleco is really worth $80+? What really sets it apart?

  5. Although its pricey, you have the option to get it at a discount if your a teacher or student with a simple button click.

    I never bought KTdict+ so I cant comment on the flashcards but so far I’m very happy with Pleco for several reasons. I’m on a first generation iPhone and it runs faster than KTdict (at least at the time I was using it) It also has many more options, like full screen hand writing, multiple dictionaries some of which hold good examples of word usage which is key because I’m using this to speak to people on the street.

    The document reader is another good reason, it lets you tap on an arrow that moves from character to the next popping up a little window with the translation like Powerword does on your PC which is very handy for text messages or reading a web page.

    It has a lot of features KTdict has and more, with the ability to expand your dictionary database by buying well known useful dictionary’s within the app its a program I know is going to stay on my phone for a long time, that and the license you get from Pleco is transferable so if you buy a dictionary and later get an android you should be able to move the dictionary’s over.

    • I don’t have an iPhone but on my 3rd generation iPod Touch Pleco and KTdict+ are about the same speed. The full screen handwriting feature on Pleco looks really outstanding though, that’s a great exclusive feature.

      What kind of documents does the document reader open? Does it open web pages or Chinese eBooks and then allow you to skim over the translation for words and characters? If so, that also sounds great. The license transfer ability is an additional bonus.

      I think I might hold out to see what happens with the iPad, though. I see upgrading to Pleco as an incremental upgrade but the iPad can really change the way it’s done. I hope that Pleco adopts that platform, I’m excited to see what language tools become available for that since it has the same abilities as most computers with a superior interface (touch) for language learning. A character writing app on that would be incredible. If I hadn’t paid for 5-6 Chinese learning apps (flashcards, dictionaries, etc) I would have probably bought Pleco by now. Something tells me though that if I made that purchase now, all of my previous purchases would be in vain going forward since they all mostly do the same things.

  6. Note that iPhones bought in Hong Kong (whether by you directly or imported by someone) come officially unlocked, so no jailbreaking is necessary and you never have to worry about a future software update breaking your unofficial unlock.

    They aren’t cheap, however, starting at HK$4088 right now for an 8 GB 3GS.

    • Right! I ordered an unlocked iPhone4 from HK recently. The price for the new iPhones is 5,000 HKD (1,000 more than the 3GS) but when you convert it to RMB it’s about 4,000. Which is actually not bad at all, considering 6 months ago a 3GS cost you 5,000+ RMB in Chengdu.

      For some reason though, many people buy locally for inflated prices without even realizing that if you have it shipped from HK you can save a lot of money.

  7. Charlie,

    Were you able to deliver directly from the HK Apple store to you in Chengdu? My understanding was that they would only ship the unlocked iPhone within HK. I may need to get my card out…

    • Hi Sean,

      You’re correct, Apple HK won’t ship outside of HK. What you have to do is have it shipped to someone who’s there and have them get it to you in Chengdu. The challenge, though, is that neither the national post service nor DHL will want to ship li-ion batteries (in or out of devices) via air which means you either ship it ground (which takes weeks) or you find a way to get it to Shenzhen and have it shipped from there. This caused me a few weeks delay in getting my device. What I did though was have a friend in HK ship it to Shenzhen via ground and then from SZ – Chengdu via air.

      Pain in the ass, I know. Even if I had flown out there to pick it up and take it back it would’ve still been cheaper than buying it here.

      Hope this helps-

  8. Hi Charlie,

    I am from Singapore and will be moving to Chengdu to work after Chinese New Year. I currently have a iPhone 4 purchased in Singapore. How does it work if I want to get a local line in Chengdu to use on my iPhone 4. Will it work?

    Appreciate your advice.

    Thank you.

    • Xiaoxin,

      It looks like Jim has already provided all the info that you need. If you want 3G service, you’ll have to get it from China Unicom, otherwise you can get a SIM card from China Mobile. iPhone 4 doesn’t take a normal SIM card (it uses a micro SIM), but fortunately China Mobile has recently started to sell these, to compete with Unicom.

      Also, if your phone is carrier locked, you can have that fixed for cheap. It’s similar to a jailbreak.

      One day soon I’ll update this post with information on iPhone 4. Take care,


  9. Xiaoxin,

    Assuming your iPhone is not carrier locked, just bring it in to any 中国联通 (WO) office and sign up for a pre-paid plan. They are quite reasonable and start at 96元 per month for 240 outgoing minutes and 300 MB of data. You can see all the alternatives at . Scroll down a bit to see the table of the various plans and what they include.

    They’ll give you a number (you can choose better numbers for an additional charge) and a SIM and you’ll be on your way. It was pretty painless. Another nice aspect to these plans is that they are nation-wide. You won’t pay any roaming charges anywhere in China, for either voice or data.

  10. Note that you can see the latest 套餐 at

    The A plans are for those who do more surfing than talking. The B and C plans are those who yap more than tap.

    I went into one of their offices to today to change my plan. I switched from the ¥96/month plan to the ¥46/month plan. That drops me from 300MB to 150MB, 240 outgoing minutes to 50 outgoing minutes, and my minutes can now only be used in Chengdu. Outside Chengdu I pay ¥0.25 per minute. But I still expect to end up paying much less after this switch, based on my usage.

    Also, I will be away for several months (waiting out the cold weather in SE Asia and Taiwan) and wanted to pay as little as possible for the months I won’t be using the service at all.

  11. Hi Jim,

    I have not look at the url you provided yet. Just a quick question, if it is 套餐 does it mean that I have to sign a contract with them?

    Charlie mentioned that China Mobile recently started selling micro sim to compete with China Unicom. Any idea which is better?

    • Hey Xiaoxin,

      You don’t have to sign a contract with China Mobile to get a mini SIM, either. Between the two, I’d stick with China Mobile. Even though I’m using China Unicom now, I think China Mobile is better. The only downside is that they don’t offer 3G service.

  12. The great thing about the China Unicom plans is that they are pre-pay and no contract is required. You just pay month-to-month and can cancel at any time. If you have insufficient funds, they will 欠費停機 you until you make a deposit.

    Most other countries I’ve visited, including the Hong Kong SAR, do not allow you to subscribe to such plans unless you sign a lengthy contract. But it’s different here. The fact that I can get a plan that suits my needs on my iPhone for only ¥46 (about USD$7) a month with no contract is amazing. Meanwhile I’m still paying $65 a month to AT&T at home at least until my contract is up in June. 🙁

    China Mobile may offer similar plans, but I haven’t looked into it. China Mobile uses an incompatible homegrown 3G technology that is not compatible with the current iPhones (there are rumors Apple may produce one in the future to gain access to the world’s largest mobile operator) so you’re stuck at Edge and GPRS speeds. They may have better coverage, and if so you’ll have to decide if this is worth the slower data speeds.

    China Unicom’s coverage in Chengdu is not great. It’s not uncommon to see 1 bar or “No Service”, especially when indoors. At the house I just moved from, the other family members were on 移動 and their service was no better than mine, with everyone else leaving their 手機 on the windowsills at all times. I didn’t have that luxury, as I’m constantly using my phone, which meant I sometimes missed calls when downstairs (the signal was fine on the second floor).

    I see some China Mobile data plans at but any further research is left as an exercise for the reader :-).


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