We've bought way too many mobile phones during our time in China, having either broken them or lost them in the back of taxis (or simply just lusting for the newest and latest tech toy), it seems one of our writers is always changing their phone. The process of buying a mobile phone in China is far different from that of what we're used to being from the US and UK, where phone choices are limited to 5-10 and you only get them from a carrier. In China, Nokia, alone, offers more than 10 choices, and its true of almost any major phone maker. This means you're left with 100s of choices, and those are only the main phone makers, through in smaller Chinese brands and other options and its easy to be overwhelmed. In some cases, there are malls that sell nothing but mobile phones. We don't do many of these "welcome to China" style posts, but after recent experiences, we thought this one is in order.
It seems that everywhere you go sells mobile phones, the company's have their own stores, there are the larger mobile phone shops, the electronics stores, big box retailers like Carrefour, department stores, Silk Alley and the like, and of course taobao is in on the action. Making things harder nowadays is that all phones that legally enter China (ie that taxes have been paid on, the type you'll find in above the board places) all must have wifi disabled.
For many people, no wifi is a major deal breaker, leading them to the grey market. This is the equivalent of a friendly person telling you about a shortcut and leading you into a dark alleyway, it could prove to be quicker, but you're not liking your odds as you could also end up beaten up and with your wallet gone. Grey market products are themselves divided into two categories, "shuihuo" (水货) and "ganghang" (港行). When buying shuihuo, you usually don't know what you're getting and there is no guarantee, you might get lucky and well, you might not. Ganghang is a bit safer because the product will include a Hong Kong receipt and in many cases means that, if for example you buy a Nokia, Nokia will honor their warranty (typically 1 year) and service the phone for you on the mainland. This is not always the case and if say, you buy an iPhone, you're SOL (for the time being) and the phone has to be sent to HK to be fixed. Ganghang phones are usually RMB300-600 more than the same shuihuo version, but still cheaper (and often times considerably so) than the phones that legally enter China.
Of course I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the other option, the "shanzhai" (山寨) mobile phone. These phones often look a lot like popular models and may even come packed with features like the ability to use multiple SIM cards or watch tv, all for low low prices typically under US$100. These phones, like shuihuo models, are unpredictable as to how long they'll last, but unlike the shuihuo variety these won't make you cry if they suddenly stop working or are lost/broken as it will only be RMB200-500 down the drain.