After living in China for four years, I found myself answering the same questions from people who were planning a trip to China. So I wrote this post as your practical guide to prepare for a trip to China to send to guests who were coming to visit me and who wanted to travel in China. I‘ve also provided links to my other related posts from my www.travelworldnotes.blog, which provides even more information, if needed.
I hope this post will be useful to you as well. If you need more information about hotels, restaurants, attractions, etc., have a look at my book “Practical Tips to Live or Travel in China”.
So – you’ve decided to travel to China. Great. I will answer your most pertinent questions.
When to go?
This depends on which province you want to visit, as China is vast and has a range of temperatures and seasons. But for most of the popular destinations, the best seasons are March to May, and September to October. In summer, Beijing might be sweltering, for example. To avoid large crowds, by all means avoid Chinese national holidays. For example, during Golden week in October in 2018, 750 million Chinese traveled around the country and abroad!
Getting a Chinese visa
If in Transit
If you want to visit China for just a couple of days, you can use the 144-hour visa-free transit option. Just keep in mind that you have to be IN TRANSIT, and you have to prove it with your ticket to another destination, not a return to the destination you came from.
Other than that, if you are from a country that requires a Chinese visa, your passport must be valid for at least six months. You can apply for the visa at the Chinese Embassy in your state. It might take some time, so do not wait until the last minute before applying for it. For example, if you plan to visit Hong Kong or Macau and then return to mainland China, this is regarded as another entry. So, you need to apply for a double or multi-entry visa at the embassy. With a regular single-entry tourist visa, you can stay in the country for 30 days.
No special vaccine is needed to visit China. However, people arriving from countries where yellow fever is prevalent must have yellow fever vaccination certificates. This applies to residents and visitors of those countries.
What to pack for China?
China is a country where you can buy a lot of clothes – unless you are very tall or a large person. So, pack light. Shoes for bigger feet can be difficult to find, so keep that in mind.
Take more medicine than usual, as it will be challenging to find what you’re looking for in a pharmacy. Pharmacists won’t be able to help, as they do not speak English, and the labels on the pharmaceuticals are only in Chinese. So, to avoid frustration, take your own supplies.
Take a lot of wet wipes or hand sanitizer, as soap is not common in Chinese toilets. Also, carry some toilet paper wherever you go – there is no toilet paper in the majority of Chinese toilets!
Do not pack cigarette lighters or a power bank in your checked-in luggage, because, if you do, your luggage will be opened and checked again. The power bank has to be in your carry-on luggage and you need to show it, together with your iPad or laptop. Leave your lighters at home. Usually in Chinese airports, you will find boxes where you leave your lighter at the security, and where you find someone else’s lighter upon arrival…
If you are only used to eating a regular diet, pack some familiar snacks, as food in China is very different.
If you are like me, and you crave good coffee, pack some ground coffee, which you can prepare in your hotel room or even in the restaurant for breakfast. China is a tea country, so you’ll need to survive until you find a decent coffee shop!
Please keep in mind that your luggage will be checked with X-rays upon arrival, and if you’ve packed certain foods, such as sausages or cheese, customs officers are likely to confiscate it. Please check the internet for the latest list of forbidden goods, and pack wisely.
Power sockets in China
In Mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, the voltage is 220V, but in Taiwan it is mostly 110V. The majority of hotels above three stars will have sockets that will accept European plugs. Some hotels have adapters, if needed. If you have a travel adapter, it might be useful to pack it.
Please remember that you cannot use Facebook, Google, Hotmail, etc. in China, unless you have a VPN app. You need to install it outside China. Here is my post on the five main applications I use in China.
At the airport, you will need to pass a temperature check. So, if you have a fever, you might be stopped and questioned.
They might take your fingerprints at the airport as well.
Before you reach border control, you will need to fill in an arrival card. Usually, flight attendants distribute these on the plane before landing.
Please note, even if you checked your luggage through to the final destination in China, you still need to collect it at the first Chinese airport, and then check it in again!
You can usually buy a local SIM card or change your currency at the airport, sometimes even at the luggage pick-up area.
Getting to the city
This depends on the city, but usually you can take a subway, shuttle bus, taxi or a Didi – the local Chinese Uber. You can read how to use Chinese Uber here.
WiFi in China
You can use WiFi in many places in China, but you will need to submit your telephone number to get a code before being allowed to sign in to a WiFi.
Things that will surprise you on your first visit to China
Read my separate post on it here.
Traveling in China
Bullet trains are great and always on time, so my advice would be to use them as much as possible.
Planes are often delayed, so keep this in mind while traveling. Prices are very similar, it just depends on which ticket class you choose on the train.
Get to the airport or railway station early; they are huge and crowded, so it takes time to navigate through them. You will need your passport to book your train and bus tickets as well. Read about traveling by train in China here.
Traveling by bus in China
Buses in China can be seated or a sleeper.
A seated bus, as you would expect, has seats that recline slightly. Buses usually have air conditioning, but not always, and an entertainment system, but with movies that are in Chinese.
A sleeper bus has beds instead of seats, but if you are taller than 174 cm, you might have difficulty fitting in. The coaches usually have air conditioning, heating and entertainment systems.
I would recommend choosing a bus only if trains are not available. You cannot compare the comfort of a bullet train with that of a coach. Moreover, you have to keep an eye on your belongings, as theft happens. It’s not uncommon to see the bus driver using his smartphone while driving and happily honking the horn. On the other hand, tickets for a bus are cheaper, and you do not need to buy them in advance.
Please keep in mind that a city can have several bus stations, so make sure that your taxi driver is taking you to the right one.
The bus schedule can be tricky; the best idea is to make sure you have the latest English version, or to watch the monitor closely for the price and departure and arrival times.
Driving in China
You need a Chinese driving license to drive in China. You can get a provisional driving license quite easily without a test, even at the Beijing Capital airport. Getting a regular license might be quite difficult, depending on the city.
Driving in China is very hectic and can be quite stressful at first, but the majority of foreigners get used to it.
Money in China
Very few Chinese use cash. Instead, they pay using their smart phone. Even elderly people in the markets do so. The WeChat application has a wallet, which allows you to pay, send and receive money. The locals also use AliPay.
Foreigners usually pay in cash, as Visa and other Western credit and debit cards are not widely accepted. You can withdraw cash from ATMs easier than converting foreign currency to RMB, especially in the provinces. Look for HSBC or Bank of China ATMs. For currency exchange, have your passport with you.
Inform your bank that you intend to travel to China.
Walking in Chinese cities
Be very careful while crossing the street. Chinese pedestrians have to be very careful, as drivers never stop for them. The best tip for those who have just arrived – cross a street with a group of locals to be on the safe side. You may be forced to walk on the street, as pavements are often full of parked cars. Be very careful to also avoid bicycles, motorbikes and all other strange Chinese means of transport.
In a Chinese restaurant
The two most useful words in restaurants are Cidan (a menu) and midan (the bill). Waiters in restaurants usually do not speak English. If there is a menu in English, just point to the dishes you want to order. If not, try to look around at what other diners are eating, and point to the dishes you like. Or try to use charades to order the meat or vegetables you like. This usually works. You have to be proactive in Chinese restaurants, do not wait to be noticed, summon a waiter: FuYAn.
Tipping in China
You do not need to tip in China.
The Chinese mostly use squat toilets, so be prepared for that. And always carry your own toilet paper, as the majority of toilets will not have any. Sometimes a toilet paper dispenser is at the entrance to the toilet, not in the cubicle. So look around first. I advise knocking on the doors of the toilet cubicle before entering, as the Chinese do not like to lock the door from the inside.
Public transport in Chinese cities is quite well-developed and inexpensive. Try to avoid metro transport during rush hour, as these periods can be very crowded.
Public buses are cheap and easy to use. A ticket for the first 6 km costs up to 2 RMB, then it depends on the distance. It is advisable to have coins for the coin box at the entrance to the bus, or to pay the conductor for a ticket. Look carefully at the information board to make sure you have a right bus. It is a good idea to have a piece of paper with your stop name in Chinese in case you have to ask locals for directions.
Subway tickets cost 3 RMB to start with. There are not many lines available, but the subway is being expanded. The stations are announced in Chinese and English.
Never drink tap water in China! Bottled water is available in all supermarkets, large and small. If you do not like the taste of the water you’ve bought, do not drink it. Buy from another shop.
The Chinese believe that you need to drink warm water for good health. So if you order water, you will get warm water. If you want cold water, ask for ice water – ping shir
Emergency numbers for your guide to China
Police (calling) 110
Police (text message) 12110
Traffic accident 122
Medical assistance in China
Local hospitals are usually very crowded. Big cities have international clinics, where the doctors speak English. Pharmacists usually do not speak English, so it is a good idea to take your medicine supplies with you.
International hospitals are quite expensive, so you need to have reliable health insurance. One visit to the doctor might cost around 100 euros. (700-800 RMB).
Peking Union Medical College Hospital
Shopping in China
China is a shopping paradise for foreigners. Apart from the main supermarkets and famous brands, it is best to bargain, because the first price they give you will be very high.
Some tips for shopping:
Bear in mind that most of the brands you look at in the market are fake, so do not even consider paying the full retail price.
Decide on the price you want pay, and then offer half as a starting point. Then you can agree on the final price by bargaining.
While bargaining, use a calculator to show the price you are willing to pay.
Try the tactic of walking away; if your price is acceptable, they will stop you.
What to buy in China?
The most popular places to shop in Beijing are the Hongqiao Pearl and Silk Markets.
Depending on the province, the most popular gifts from China are:
Silk and items produced from silk. You can buy rugs, bed sheets, dresses, blouses, scarfs, ties, etc. Quality silk is not cheap – 200 RMB or more for a meter.
Jade. It is advisable to buy jade only in reputable shops, as there are plenty of fake jade products and it is very difficult to tell the difference.
Pearls. Freshwater pearls are widely available in China. You can buy cultivated or natural ones. A pearl can be verified as genuine by scraping it carefully with a knife.
Chinese tea. Green, white, black, oolong, pu-erh and other sorts of tea are available in many provinces. Be careful not to buy colored green tea – it looks too green.
Ordinary tea costs US$40-100 kg.
A higher quality tea – US$100-500 kg.
The highest quality tea – US$1000 kg and more
The best place to shop in Beijing for tea is Maliandao Tea Street, and in Shanghai – Tianshan Tea City. You can try many different types of tea and participate in tea ceremonies to choose your favorite.
Porcelain. A delicate cup or pot might be a perfect gift. Vases are beautiful, but usually bigger and more difficult to transport.
Chinese calligraphy and paper cutting. These are nice for you or your friends as a home decoration.
Chopsticks. Wooden painted chopsticks are an excellent practical and useful souvenir from China.
Food delivery in China
The Chinese very often order delivered food. The Sherpa app is very popular for food delivery from many restaurants in the biggest cities in China.
Taking photos in China
Chinese people adore taking photos. They will try to take photos with you, and of you. Sometimes they will ask your permission, sometimes they won’t.
In return they will gladly pose for you.
Do not take photos of anything related to the military or the police, and ask for permission before taking photos of government buildings.
China is generally a safe place for tourists, but pickpockets are everywhere. When you travel, make a copy of your passport and credit cards, and keep these separate or on the Internet, where you can get to them if needed.
Sightseeing in China
Tourism in China is oriented mainly for local tourists. There are more than enough Chinese tourists, so unfortunately, explanations and instructions are mostly in Chinese. Locating a knowledgeable guide with good English is not easy, but you’ll find it a real asset if you can find one.
So, before your trip to China, prepare well; read a lot and select carefully. Also, have a look at my post on how to choose a reliable travel agency.
The budget for travel in China
China, especially in the big cities, is not cheap.
A room in a hostel costs from 200 – 300 RMB per person
Hotels vary from 20 to 1,000 RMB:
• Midrange hotel, 700 – 1,000 RMB
• High-end hotel, 1,200 – RMB
A local inexpensive meal will be around 20 RMB.
Allow 100-150 RMB per day for food. Meals might be cheaper in local restaurants.
Tickets to major museums will cost 60 – 80 RMB. Some have free admission.
Western food is much more expensive. For example, a flat white in Starbucks costs 35 RMB. Cheese, butter and sausages are more expensive than in Western countries. So, local food will be less expensive.
Tips on how to save while traveling in China
Book trips from local agencies, compare prices, but be selective – in most cases, quality is the way to go.
Join groups for a day trip, and share the costs.
Use public transport, it is relatively cheap.
Eat street food – usually it is safe and much cheaper. Eat where you see a lot of locals.
Buy fruit in local shops (not shops for foreigners), not in markets, unless you find a cheap local market.
Use Couchsurfing in China to get accommodation and to meet locals.
I hope you have found this information as your guide to China useful. If you need additional information, read my book or send me an email.