Getting GSM + Internet while visiting Taiwan

I have a Palm Centro phone, not SIM-locked, so I can obtain local phone numbers when I travel. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to try to sign up for a contract if you’re only in the country for two weeks, so a pre-paid phone card is really the best choice.

I recently made one of my frequent trips to Taiwan to visit family there. While there, I wanted a local phone number so people could reach me, and I also wanted to be able to use my phone’s web browser and Google Earth, meaning I needed Internet access.

This may not be the only way to do that, and may not be the cheapest, it just happens to be the way I did it. I went to a few cell-phone company shop fronts. FarEasTone had not yet opened for the day, so I went to Aurora. The Aurora staff told me they could give me a pre-paid account, but not with Internet access. So the third stop in my quest was Chunghwa Telecom (中華電信). It’s one of the larger companies. Here, I was able to get everything that I was looking for.

You will need:

  1. An unlocked GSM (or G3) cell phone.
  2. Two pieces of photo ID. I used my Canadian passport and my Ontario driver’s license.
  3. A local address in Taiwan. A hotel address is fine.
  4. The ability to communicate with the staff.

I can speak Mandarin, and could carry out the transaction in that language. Don’t assume that the employees can speak English – if you cannot carry on conversations in Mandarin you should bring somebody to interpret for you.

I signed up for a pre-paid G3 card. While my phone is GSM, the G3 cards are backward compatible to the older format. I paid NT$300 (about C$10) up front, and got the full amount in credit on my account, there are no setting-up fees, all the money goes toward pre-paid airtime minutes. The transaction took only a few minutes, and I was able to make test calls from my phone before getting up from my chair. The SIM card comes with a 4-digit unlock code, you have to enter this every time you turn on the cell phone. You can set up voice mail, but I didn’t bother.

I was actually a bit surprised that I could set up a new phone number for only C$10. I would have expected that the administration costs would make it impractical to offer such a low-price entry. In the end, I used only about C$23 in air time charges in the almost three weeks I was there.

Calls are billed by the second. After each outgoing call, a text message is sent to your phone telling you the number you called, the time spent on the call, the amount charged against your account for the call, and the expiry date of your account. The account expiration timer is 180 days, reset every time you add funds to your account. To add funds to your account, you simply walk into any 7-11 and tell them you want to buy a recharge for your Chunghwa Telecom (zhong1 hua2 dian4 xin4) phone. Recharges cost NT$300, and again, all of the money you pay goes into pre-paid airtime minutes, without anything held back for “access fees” etc. To use the recharge, follow the directions printed on the card. Basically, you call 928, go through a couple of menu options, then type in the PIN revealed by scratching the back of the recharge.

The employee who set up my account warned me that Internet use was expensive, but I didn’t find it so. Of course, I wasn’t watching television shows on my cell phone, just visiting a few websites in the morning to read the news from home. The price quoted for GPRS is NT$0.005 per “packet”. A GPRS packet is about 1 kB, so that would make the price about NT$5 per megabyte.

You should probably ask that your service be set for English. If you don’t do it at the counter, you can change your language preference at any time by calling the number 928. While I can read Chinese, my phone, bought in North America, doesn’t have Chinese fonts, so the text messages sent after every outgoing call are unreadable unless you’ve set your language preference to English.

EDIT: returning to Taiwan this year, the same SIM card in the same cell phone couldn’t log onto the Internet.  After a bit of discussion between their customer service staff and their IT support, it was determined that we had to edit the network settings on my cell phone, specifically assigning an APN string of “emome”.

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