34 Essential Things to Know Before Visiting China

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China has been a destination that has been a country of intrigue for many travelers since it opened its borders to the world in the 70s. It’s a country with a unique culture, a place where modernity and ancient traditions seamlessly collide, and where nature really feels out of this world.

No seriously, they did base Avatar on Zhangjiajie.

wild the great wall of China at sunrise
Sunrise at the Great Wall of China

These days, more and more tourists from around the world want to visit China to experience the thrill of this ancient country and to tap into its rich history, and perhaps catch a glimpse of its bright future.

While modernization has meant that many western amenities are now available, it’s not exactly designed for western visitors.

Those who visit without knowing the major tips for travelers to China will find their experience to be a long list of troubles and catastrophes. In many cities, the English level of the locals isn’t great, so there won’t be anyone to help you out on the ground.

To make sure you don’t face any unwanted obstacles and hurdles that might catch the unprepared unaware, we’ve prepared this China travel guide to things to know before you visit China.

After two and a half years living and working in China, plus being able to travel the country extensively, I’ve pretty much made every mistake so you don’t have to.

Things to Know Before You Visit China

In this guide, I’ve compiled some top tips for going to China that I wish I’d had before I got there.

Hopefully, these will help you discover what a wonderfully challenging and beautiful country this is.

1. Cash is preferred

Load&travel wallet with china cards and passport

Although more and more businesses (particularly large hotel chains and upscale restaurants) now accept Visa and Mastercard, the most widely accepted card scheme is UnionPay.

However, for the most part, when you are traveling in China you’ll need to pay with cash!

2. China recognizes only one currency – its own

The official currency of China is the yuan, otherwise known as RMB or colloquially as ‘quai’.

Notes are available for 1RMB, 10RMB, 20RMB, 50RMB, and 100RMB. There are also 1RMB coins available, as well as smaller fractions of known as ‘Mao’ for the Chinese leader who adorns them.

Chinese businesses do not accept any other currency, including the US dollar or Hong Kong dollar.

3. Exchange currency at ATMs in China

While many Chinese banks do not accept foreign cards, larger chains such as HSBC can be used to withdraw local currency from foreign bank accounts. This usually offers a far better exchange rate than services such as Travelex.

International ATMs are available in all major cities but may be harder to find in less tourist friendly areas.

4. Don’t forget to tell your bank you’re visiting China

lion statue in front of Forbidden city temple
Forbidden city by Shutterstock

Before you go to China, make sure your bank knows you’re going to be using your credit or debit card over there. You don’t want your card being canceled mid-trip for unusual transactions.

5. Prepare for Language Barriers (Especially in Banks)

If you need to do your banking face to face, you may need to bring a local to help translate.

Chinese people don’t often speak very good English, and their grammar is different to English, so simply using Google Translate or another translation app isn’t going to work for important things.

Very few bank employees will have sufficient English to help you, although in larger cities such as Beijing or Shanghai should have an English speaker on staff.

6. Don’t tip in China

The Chinese do not tip, and you aren’t expected to either.

7. Use your haggling skills

Outside of chain stores and boutiques, it’s totally possible to practice your haggling skills. Never accept the marked price or first price offered.

With shrewd negotiation, it’s possible to get souvenirs and such for a fraction of the quoted price.

Tours in China – The folks at Get Your Guide are the world’s largest online platform for booking tours, tourist attractions and activities. To see a list of all their tours click here.

8. Visas for China

shanghai skyline china
Shanghai

One of the most important things to know when traveling to China is that they do not offer visas on arrival. So before you travel to China you’ll need to arrange your visa well in advance!

When applying for a tourist visa, you’ll need to provide either a letter of invitation from a Chinese friend or relative, or provide a detailed itinerary of your intended trip. This includes return flights and confirmed reservations for your hotel bookings.

Visas can be applied for in person at the Chinese consulate or can be ordered via post.

Interested in teaching English to Chinese students? You can from the comfort of your home (or wherever you are)

9. Booking hotels in China

If you want some flexibility with your itinerary, make use of sites that do not require an upfront payment to make bookings.

Booking.com has over 50,000 properties in China including hotels, apartments, and hostels. You get free cancellation on most rooms. And their book now, pay later at check-in system allows you to lock in that rate with some flexibility. Check current hotel prices.

Chinese sites such as C-Trip require no deposit to book accommodation, and you can cancel without penalty once your visa is approved.

10. Travel Insurance for China

While China is a very safe country with relatively low crime, it pays to be prepared. So one of my top China travel tips is don’t leave home without travel insurance!

If something unexpected does happen and you are not insured, you can be up for a lot of money AND inconvenience. For a small price to pay you get peace of mind – if you can’t afford insurance, you can’t afford to travel. 

For Americans, consider a big brand like Alliance Travel Insurance who are a world leader in the industry and trusted by millions (y TravelBlog are ambassadors).

11. Drinking water in China

One of the things NOT to do in China is drink the water.

For the most part, tap water in China is not drinkable. Bottled water can be purchased very cheaply at most restaurants and stores.

13. Pharmacies in China

Chinese pharmacies offer both western and eastern medicine at very reasonable prices. Prescription medication can usually be purchased without a prescription (within reason) by simply providing the pharmacist with your identification.

14. Finding a doctor in China

herbs and food on a table
Shutterstiock photo

Chinese hospitals can be crowded and daunting, but most major cities also have specialized hospitals catering to foreigners living and working in the country.

Even in the crowded public hospitals, many doctors will speak English.

15. Coping with air pollution in China

Larger cities in China have serious problems with air pollution, particularly in Beijing. Many locals swear by masks on days with hazardous air pollution, but it is safer to avoid exertion on days with particularly bad pollution.

16. Bring toilet paper

One of the unusual things to know before going to China is that most Chinese toilets do not provide toilet paper. In fact, prepare yourself for the squat toilet, which if you haven’t seen before, is one of the biggest culture shocks!

Hotels and nicer restaurants, or even McDonalds (though not KFC), will have proper toilets with toilet paper available, but it’s always a good idea to carry a roll of toilet paper or a box of tissues!

17. Bring hand soap or hand sanitizer

Like toilet paper, hand soap is not standard in many Chinese bathrooms. Carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer with you just to be sure.

18. Get to the airport early

It is advisable to get to the airport three hours early for international flights to China and two hours early for domestic. Chinese airports can often be chaotic and overcrowded, so you’ll be grateful for that extra time.

19. Expect delays

In my two and a half years in China, I can count on one hand the number of flights that left on time. Be prepared to wait in the airport (or even on the plane) when flying from a Chinese airport.

20. Catching buses and trains in China

carriage riding trhough chinese village
TonyV3112 / Shutterstock.com

China is serviced by a fantastic network of buses and trains, including the high-speed G-Trains that can whisk you across the country in a matter of hours.

Rates are extremely affordable by western standards. Train stations are usually very modern and have high security.

You can buy train tickets from machines which will usually have the function to translate to English, but if not, you may need to use Google Translate (or another translater app if you don’t get a VPN) to help you communicate with the ticket officer.

21. Bring your passport when making a booking

You’ll need your passport when making a booking, and you can only book one ticket per passport.

22. Make use of local booking sites

Chinese booking sites such as C-Trip and eLong often offer better rates than western booking sites. Be sure to check both when planning your trip.

23. Driving in China

aerial view of chinese highways

If this is your first trip to China, you’ll soon see that Chinese roads can be rather chaotic, so self-driving is really only recommended for the particularly brave!

24. Catching taxis in China

Taxis in China are cheap and plentiful. Most taxi drivers will not speak English, so it’s a good idea to get your destination address written in Chinese by somebody at your hotel.

25. Eating street food in China

Chinese street food is delicious and it is everywhere! When choosing which vendor to purchase from, check to see where the locals are dining.

If you see a queue, it’s likely to be a safer bet.

26. Spitting in China

The Chinese do not use handkerchiefs and tissues to clear their noses, and instead spit. While this can be a bit confronting when you first visit China, they’re similarly affronted when they see us blowing our noses and keeping it.

27. Personal space

China is a crowded place, and the locals have become accustomed to a much smaller personal space than we are accustomed to in the west.

Don’t be surprised if you’re jostled or shoved when queuing – it’s just part of Chinese culture.

28. Taking photos in China

people holding flags
Photo: silhouette women fan dancing by Shutterstock

The Chinese love to take photographs, and don’t be surprised if a local tries to snap a sneaky photo of you or even comes up to ask for a picture with you.

Like in most other countries, it always pays to ask permission before photographing a person or a government building.

Likewise, if someone takes a photo of you without your permission, try not to get too upset about it, they are just not used to seeing foreigners.

If you don’t want your photo taken, simply say “Bu Yao Pāi Zhào” which means “don’t take photos.” Or simply saying “Bu Yao” would be enough to show what you mean.

29. Mailing things home from China

With cheap prices and a huge variety of products, it can be easy to go over your luggage limit while shopping in China.

Thankfully, it is very affordable to post things home using China Post’s surface (sea) mail.

This can take one to two months but is a very affordable way to get your belongings home.

30. Beware of Chinese knock-offs

Shopping streets such as Nanjing Road in Shanghai are a great place to find a bargain, but be aware that knockoffs of prominent brands can be seized at the airport upon your return home.

31. Don’t be shy in restaurants

Chinese waiters and waitresses aren’t as proactive as you may be used to, so don’t be afraid to throw your hands up and call for the fuyian if you want service.

Also be aware that conventional western service is hard to come by. Don’t be surprised if your starter, main, and dessert all arrive at once while your friend still waits for their first dish.

32. Get a local SIM card in China

boats in a dock
Photo: Guilin landscape by Shutterstock

If you want to always have access to the internet, be sure to get a local sim card.

China’s major carriers include China Telecom and China Unicom. SIM cards can be purchased at the airport or at most corner stores, and credit is quite affordable.

Most Chinese SIMs are locked to the province in which they are purchased, so you’ll pay roaming charges when texting, calling, or using data outside of this province.

Even then, the rate is far cheaper than international roaming.

You can also get really cheap eSims from Airalo. You can set it up so it’s ready to go as soon as you arrive. That way you don’t have to worry about finding a local sim card. See prices and availability here.

33. Get a VPN for China

When you visit China keep in mind that its ‘Great Firewall’ blocks sites such as Facebook, Whatsapp, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and most of the Google selection. That means no Gmail and no Google Maps.

If you want to access these while you’re visiting China, you’ll need to purchase a VPN (Virtual Private Network). Don’t worry, a VPN is totally legal and everyone does it.

When shopping for VPNs, check that they cover China – as many free options do not.

Get your vPN with NordVPN here. It’s what we use and is fantastic for China.

34. Download WeChat (Weixin)

China’s premier messaging app is Weixin (WeChat in English) and everybody you meet – expats and locals alike – will have it. You even use it to pay for things, book a table in a restaurant and order food.

Without it, you simply cannot function in China. You can download the free app for free, but you need to have at least two friends already set up to be able to create an account. You can always ask your hotel accommodation to help you with this, if you don’t know anyone in China.

Once you’re all set up, it’s a great way to keep in touch with locals you meet along the way who may not have social media.

Best Times to Visit China

people walking past chinese buildings in the rain

The best time to visit China is during the spring (April–May) and autumn (September–October).

These seasons offer comfortable weather and are considered tourism-friendly since they are not so overcrowded.

If you’re planning on visiting the countryside of China such as Yangshuo or the Karst Mountains, this time of year offers the perfect balance of mild temperatures and low rainfall.

Make sure you avoid Chinese New Year, which while is a huge cultural experience, it’s the busiest time of year and when the Chinese people from overseas return home to spend time with the family.

Most things are closed and the weather is cold since its always in January/February.

Chinese New Year may be a great time for locals but for tourists, it’s not the best time to visit China.

Final Thoughts

caz and craig sitting in front of yangtze river
Hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge

This is a massive country with a rich history, over thirty distinct cultural groups, and a huge variety of landscapes to explore – don’t limit yourself to the same few sites everybody else visits.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to get off the beaten track. While Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an are worthy of their international fame, there is so much more to China than these cities and their cultural sites.

I hope my local insights and traveling to China tips help you have a memorable time.

More China Travel Tips

Need more tips for visiting China? Check out these other guides…

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If you have already visited, do you have any tips for travel in China or other things to know before visiting China? Please share in the comments below!

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