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3G vs 4G for Mobile Phones in China: Does it Make a Difference?

Nov 12, 2014 By Benji Yang , Comments (5)     Add your comment Newsletter

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In most instances, analyzing mobile network technology is reserved for technology geeks who are looking to squeeze the absolute most performance out of their phones regardless of whether this performance makes a difference in actual usage. However, in the case of mobile service providers in China, it can affect what phone you can use with your carrier of choice.

Of the three major mobile carriers (China Unicom, China Mobile and China Telecom), China Telecom and China Unicom use technology that is compatible with most international mobile telecommunications carriers as they use an internationally used standard (W-CDMA for 3G and FDD-LTE for 4G). In other words, phones you bring from your home countries will most likely work on the networks of these two carriers.

China Mobile on the other hand, uses a network standard unique to China and can be somewhat tricky in finding compatible hardware for (TD-SCDMA for 3G, TD-LTE for 4G). Phones you buy overseas will probably not work unless it is specifically built for the “TD” standard that China Mobile uses.

See the table below for the mobile network standard nomenclature.

 Major telecommunications carriers network technology for 3G and 4G:

China Unicom

China Mobile

China Telecom

Network Technology (3G)




Network Technology (4G)




In addition to phone compatibility, all of the major carriers have been marketing and advertising their 4G service as a substantial improvement over 3G services, but is it really?

3G vs 4G – In theory

Setting aside any issues pertaining to the quality of network coverage, we can see in the table below that on paper at least, there are large differences in network speed between 3G and 4G.

Network speeds of various mobile telecommunications standards:



TD-SCDMA (China Mobile 3G+)


TD-LTE (China Mobile 4G)


Downstream Speed






Upstream Speed






China Unicom and China Telecom’s 3G technology is the fastest of the 3G technologies at approximately six times the downstream speed of competing China Mobile’s 3G technology. 4G network technology handily beats even the fastest WCDMA network, clocking in at a whopping theoretical 100Mbps for China Mobile’s TD-LTE and 150Mbps for China Unicom and Telecom’s FDD. On paper the difference is clear – 4G is a significant upgrade when compared to 3G technologies, but what about in practice?

3G vs 4G – In practice

To determine the practical difference between 3G and 4G service, one has to look at three factors:

1) Usage patterns

Every user needs to determine if being on a faster network will really make a difference to them or benefit them. Users who use their smartphones on the go for streaming music/videos/lots of picture sharing/frequent web browsing would benefit more from being on a faster mobile network.

Users who browse occasionally, send messages via WeChat or send emails from time to time will likely not benefit much from having a faster network.

2) 4G network coverage

All three carriers claim that they have 100 cities in their 4G coverage area. While there is no real way to reliably test this claim we can infer network coverage from past behavior. China Mobile tended to have a larger network overall, but a slower and older network. China Unicom and Telecom tended to have smaller coverage areas but newer technologies. In all tier 1 cities, and most provincial capitals/tier 2 cities, 4G service is offered.

3) Actual vs. advertised network speeds

Many people or websites have done their own small tests to see which network can offer the best speeds. The results of most of these tests are twofold:

- China Unicom and China Telecom 3G and 4G networks are more reliable and faster than China Mobile 3G and 4G networks.

- 4G is significantly faster than 3G service regardless of service provider (see image below, where even China Mobile’s 4G outshines Unicom 3G) 

3G vs 4G
Sony Xperia Z1 L39’s – the one on the left is on China Mobile 4G, the one on the right Unicom 4G. Photo:

3G vs 4G
China Mobile 4G vs Unicom 3G. Photo:

The two screens taken from review sites represents only a couple of reviews, but a simple search on Baidu or Bing will yield many other review sites that have done similar tests and arrived at similar results.

To the point of whether the carriers are able to deliver on their advertised speeds, the answer is a flat out no. All three carriers tout the 100Mbps speed when they advertise 4G service. The fact is that in most if not all tests, the actual speeds fall short of 100Mbps. The 63Mbps for Unicom 4G in the image above is one of the better results for 4G service.

The bottom line

- Unicom and Telecom offer faster and more reliable 4G service than China Mobile
- People who use their phones more for entertainment and are heavy social media consumers will likely notice a difference between 3G and 4G
- Advertised speeds do not match up with actual usage speeds
- 4G regardless of network provider is faster than 3G

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Keywords: mobile phones in China internet in China 3G vs 4G China

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5 Comments ( Add your comment )


But not a problem if one has a decent VPN app...

Nov 12, 2014 09:49

Money for freedom

Nov 12, 2014 14:20

I'm always so surprised when 4G is mentioned in articles, advertisements, or on the news, because my 3G barely works - why are we upgrading when the older version isn't even working properly?

Nov 13, 2014 10:18

It should be called the Microsoft business model. That's what we all did in the 90's with operating systems (Those of us using Windows at least). At least in the 90's you had a choice. In China you're stuck with the various anti-competitive practices of the Telecos here. 3G is only used by anyone because 2G is practically unusable for any serious kind of web browsing. And 3G still only has a 50:50 chance of loading a website even when not dealing with a site that is blocked in China.

Nov 14, 2014 16:32


Nov 15, 2014 05:03

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