There are a few good things to know before you travel to China that will prepare you for the unexpected and make your trip a lot easier. To avoid surprises, take a look at our China Travel Tips to make your trip more successful!
Updated Feb 24, 2017
Top 3 China Travel Tips to Prepare Before Traveling
If you do these things before you arrive, you’ll have a much smoother trip. Read more about each one below!
1. Download a VPN to access the internet without limitations
2. Get a translation app for your phone
3. Prepare all addresses and logistics in both English and Chinese
The Great Firewall & VPN
Insider Tip: Keep in mind that any website/app that uses Facebook or Google to login will cause problems for you to use in China without a VPN. This includes popular traveling sites like Airbnb.
Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, and Google (including gmail and google maps) are all blocked in China. This means that you will need to prepare a bit if you want to access these sites and apps during your trip. If you are a gmail and google map user, make sure you save important details somewhere else as a backup. Also, keep in mind that many general websites use Google and Facebook plugins that make them extremely slow or impossible to load in China.
There is a simple way to access these sites by forcing your computer or device to pretend like it is located somewhere else using what’s called a VPN. We prefer ExpressVPN due to its reliability in China and its user-friendly setup (including an app for your phone).
Money & Credit Cards
China is still largely a cash-based society. Major credit cards like Visa, Mastercard and American Express are not common or accepted anywhere other than hotels and major department stores in touristy areas (especially outside of Beijing and Shanghai). We suggest exchanging cash before you arrive or use the ATM just after you arrive. Most ATMs will accept foreign bank cards without a problem. If you don’t travel often, make sure your bank or credit card company know you’ll be visiting China to avoid problems.
Phones & SIM Cards
Insider Tip: Many wifi locations and services in China will require a working local phone number. For example, airport wifi often requires you to enter your mobile number in order to receive a SMS message with a code that activates the wifi.
Using your phone while traveling abroad can become costly very quick, so always check with your carrier to see what options they have for international travel. Most carriers offer decent packages that allow you to use data and make local phone calls.
In most cases, it is still cheaper to purchase a local SIM card when you arrive in China. However, SIM card sales in China are regulated and require a passport for registration which can be annoying. They can be purchased at a China Mobile or China Unicom shop. Don’t forget to bring your passport, and of course you will need to make sure you have an unblocked phone.
If your Chinese is a bit rough (or non-existent), you need to be prepared with some basics. Unlike many places in the world, English is not common in China and it is very rare to find it outside of foreign hotels and some major tourist attractions, especially outside of Beijing and Shanghai. Here are some good resources for you to use while traveling in China:
Insider Tip: Have everything prepared in both English and Chinese. For example, international hotels all have their own Chinese names that do not match the English name. For this reason, it is always good to keep both with you to avoid problems with taxis and directions.
Pleco is the most most popular (and our favorite) translation app. Its offline dictionary means it is available to use whether or not you have service, and it allows you to search in both English and Pinyin (the English equivalent of Chinese).
Google Translate is also a good tool to use because it offers a download features that allows you to access its translation dictionary while offline, which means you’ll still be able to use it in China. Just make sure you download the language before arriving!
Students are often your best chance for help as they grew up learning English in school. Just be aware that many of them were not taught by a native English speaker and are likely to communicate best by writing/reading.
There’s an App for That
There’s an app for everything, including ways to make your trip easier. Here are a few basics to get you started:
WeChat is absolutely essential for communicating with anyone in China. Whether they are local or a foreigner, everyone in China uses this instant messaging app that puts What’s App or Skype to shame. Using WeChat is also much more common than sending an email in China.
MetroMan keeps updated versions of every subway map in China, including point-to-point route planning and fare calculations.
DiDi Ride-sharing has gone through some changes in China after Uber’s Chinese business was sold to a Chinese company called Didi. This means your Uber app won’t work in China. Instead, you’ll need to download an app called DiDi, which works the same way and offers a limited English interface. Keep in mind that you’ll need a local phone number to make this work.
Microsoft’s Bing is widely unused in the Western world, but this little brother of Google is not blocked in China and offers an English search engine and a maps tool similar to Google (yet still inferior). Get familiar with the app if you don’t plan to use a VPN during your trip.
Western toilets are common in hotels, big-brand malls and 5-star tourist destinations, but everywhere else you should expect to squat. While public toilets are common in residential areas (like Beijing’s Hutongs and Xian’s Muslim Quarter), they will always have squat toilets and never have toilet paper. For this reason, make sure you always have a pack of tissues with you (which can also serve as napkins which are uncommon in local restaurants). Also, be aware that public toilets may not be very clean. In Xian, we recommend only using them in emergencies. Large malls and popular fast food places like McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks also make for good toilet stops while walking around town.
Almost all electrical outlets in China have two different styles. One is America’s two-pronged outlet which is most common for day to day use. Larger appliances sometimes use the Australian style three-pronged outlets. As long as you come prepared to use either style, you’ll be set.
China’s Tourist Destinations
One thing travelers often underestimate is the number of Chinese tourists that also travel. With a country of 1.3 billion people, even destinations like The Great Wall see far more domestic travelers than foreigners. This means that no matter how hard you try it will be nearly impossible to completely avoid crowds at popular destinations. Here are some general tips…
1. Visit during the off-season. This generally means November through February, while avoiding public holidays like Chinese New Year.
2. Get up early. Destinations located outside of the city (like Beijing’s Great Wall or Xian’s Terracotta Warriors) are best to visit early because the tour buses don’t leave the city early enough.
3. Close the place down. Attractions within the city are often empty just before closing. For example, our favorite time to visit Beijing’s Lama Temple is an hour before closing and then be the last one out.
4. Just take it all in. Like we mentioned, you aren’t going to be able to avoid crowds all the time. So when you can’t, just relax and observe the people and their culture. China is one of the most interesting places to people watch.
5. Get ready for attention. Even at some of the most popular attractions, there will be domestic travelers who live in areas where foreigners are rare. This means that pointing, staring and attempts at conversations may occur. Also, don’t be surprised to be featured in their photos.
2. Take a look at local expat magazines for local tips and events. Beijing and Shanghai both have multiple media outlets including The Beijinger, TimeOut, and That’s Mags. We also like Xianease for Xian.
3. Glutton Guides offer food-specific digital guidebooks all over the world including Shanghai and Beijing.
4. Read online articles and blogs. Of course ours is a good start, but there are many foreigners living all over China writing about their experiences. You can find some of our favorites here.
Finally, Join a Lost Plate food tour!
As a guest, we’ll help answer any questions you have about your trip to China. Our guests tell us that our customer service is incredible and that we provide one of the best experiences they’ve had while traveling. Book Today!