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!
If you do these things before you arrive, you’ll have a much smoother trip. Here’s a brief overview, we’ll get into the details 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. Your hotel website should have both listed.
4. Prepare some Chinese currency (CNY).
Any website/app that uses Facebook or Google to log in will cause problems for you to use in China without a VPN. This includes popular traveling sites like Airbnb. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Google (including Gmail and Google maps), and even Netflix 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 websites use Google and Facebook plugins that make them extremely slow or impossible to load in China.
The simple way to access these sites is by hiding the location of your computer or device using what’s called a Virtual Private Network or VPN. We use ExpressVPN due to its reliability in China and its user-friendly setup (including an app for your phone).
Chinese retailers in large cities rely almost entirely on mobile phone payment apps but in the likely event you don’t have a Mainland China bank account and a WeChat wallet or Alipay, cash is your best friend.
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 at the airport- generally, the ATM fee should be lower than the currency conversion fee if you’re withdrawing a decent amount. ATMs at the big banks will accept foreign bank cards without a problem- just make sure they have a Visa or MasterCard sign out front. Most banks will not accept American Express.
Note that not all ATMs in China will have an English language option- ask your hotel concierge for a recommendation or keep an eye out for bigger banks like Bank of China, China Merchant’s Bank, or ICBC.
Many wifi locations and services in China will require a local phone number. For example, many public wifi hotspots often require you to enter your mobile number in order to receive an SMS message with a code that activates the wifi.
Using your phone while traveling abroad and roaming can become costly very quickly, so always check with your carrier to see what options they have for international travel. Some 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. 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 unlocked phone that can accommodate a new sim.
Have all the addresses you need for your trip prepared in both English and Chinese. For example, hotels all have their own Chinese names that do not match the English name. For this reason, it is always good to keep names and addresses with you in both languages to avoid problems with taxis and directions.
If your Chinese is a rough or just non-existent, you need to be prepared with some basics. Unlike many other tourist destinations, English is not common in China and it is very rare to be able to use it with locals outside of foreign hotels and some major tourist attractions. It’s even rarer outside of Beijing and Shanghai. Here are some good resources for you to use while traveling in China:
Google Translate is 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 without an internet connection. Google Translate also allows you to enter and translate full sentences, unlike Pleco. It is also the only Google app that isn’t blocked in China.
Pleco is the most most popular 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 official romanization of the Chinese characters based on their pronunciation.).
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 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 an expat, everyone in China uses this instant messaging app that puts usage numbers of WhatsApp or Skype to shame. Using WeChat is 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 an English interface and accepts foreign credit cards. 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 McDonald’s, KFC and Starbucks also make good toilet stops while walking around town. Generally, the tissues go in the bin next to the toilet, not in the bowl. The pipes are smaller and not built for toilet paper, so they usually cannot flush it through.
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. If you need a three-pronged US outlet, you’ll need to bring a converter.
If you’re a regular traveler, you no doubt realize that customs, traditions and manners vary all over the world. Many places in China outside of big cities, people are not used to seeing foreigners. This means that pointing, staring and attempts at conversations or photo taking may occur. This is not out of hostility but out of genuinely innocent curiosity or surprise. Public displays of liquid removal are also common, so don’t be surprised if you see or hear spitting during your journeys. Finally, don’t be afraid to use your elbows a bit when waiting in line. Queueing in a Western fashion can be rare when waiting for things like the subway, train, or bus. We suggest diving in with the crowd just like everyone else and pushing ahead so you don’t get left behind.
One thing travelers often underestimate is the number of Chinese tourists that also travel. With a country of 1.3 billion people, 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 big 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.
From Peking duck to the humble dumpling, we have compiled a few of our favorite foreigner-friendly local restaurants in Beijing. Criteria for this list means they have menus with English and/or photos and serve authentic and stupid-delicious fare. This is your meal itinerary if you’re traveling through Beijing. Don’t just pick one, try them all.
Typically made from sorghum, Baijiu (pronounced bye-joe) is the number one selling alcohol in the world, and by a long shot. Around the world each year, more baijiu is sold than whiskey, vodka, gin, tequila, and rum, combined. And yet, it remains virtually unknown outside of Chinese drinking culture.
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