China is an exciting country to visit, but at the same time it can be quite challenging. The visa process, the language barrier, the crowds, the Internet censorship, the toilets… there is a lot to take in. But don’t worry, I have put together everything you need to know before going to China! China is a very unique place and you shouldn’t skip it just because it’s a little bit harder than other countries 😉
You will find answers to the following questions in this post:
How to get a Chinese visa?
Which apps do I need in China?
How do I survive in China without speaking Chinese?
How do I access Google and Facebook in China?
Which places are worth visiting in China?
How to get around China?
…and a lot more!
To get started, here are a few basics to know before travelling to China:
- You need a visa to travel to China unless you are a citizen of Japan, Singapore or Brunei.
- Almost no one speaks English.
- Don’t expect to see a lot of other foreigners. Majority of tourists in China are Chinese.
- Chinese people are… a little bit different.
- The toilets will be out of your comfort zone most of the time.
- Most websites and social media you use daily are blocked in China and you won’t be able to access them without a VPN.
- Public WiFi sucks.
- People smoke everywhere.
- There is more to see than just Beijing and Shanghai.
- Don’t ever come to China during the summer of national holidays. Crowds everywhere.
- Trains are a great way to travel around China but you need to learn how they work first.
- Many hotels in China don’t accept foreigners because they don’t have the right certification for it. Check before booking.
- Traffic in China is similar to Southeast Asia. In other words, crazy.
- If you want to withdraw money, the Bank of China is your best bet.
- Never trust taxi drivers waiting around stations who will pester you as soon as you get off the bus or exit the train station. They will most likely rip you off.
- If some friendly locals ask you to join them for a tea ceremony, DO NOT go with them! It’s a scam that might end up costing you a lot of money. Very common in Shanghai.
BEFORE YOU GO
Out of all the countries I’ve been to, China has the most complicated and expensive visa process. Don’t expect e-visas or visas on arrival here.
Most nations in the world need a visa to enter China (unless you are staying less than 72 hours) and it’s the kind of visa you need to sort out beforehand. A trip to the embassy is usually required.
To apply for a Chinese visa, you are expected to fill out a 4-page form (looks like this) where you must provide details of your travel itinerary and accommodation, together with your return flight ticket and your photograph.
Tip: If you don’t know your travel itinerary yet, you can just book a few hotels on Booking.com with the option to cancel later. Once you have your visa, no one checks where you actually stay. Also, if you want to go to Tibet, don’t put that on your visa application.
I recommend getting your Chinese visa sorted as early as possible (you can apply up to three months in advance). From what I’ve heard and read everywhere, it is not uncommon to have your application returned to you for modification simply because you missed one little detail.
If you want to avoid all this hassle, you can always pay a little bit extra and apply through an agency. I actually did this in Hong Kong because I only had a few days there and no time to re-apply in case my application got rejected.
When I applied through a visa agency, I didn’t have to provide my itinerary or any bookings. However, I did have to retake my photo, just because my ears were not showing! That’s something I wouldn’t know if I went straight to the embassy… At the agency they make sure you have filled out everything correctly.
I will not mention any prices of Chinese visas here because they depend on the country you are from, number of entries and other factors. You can use this website as a reference but it’s best to check the official website of the Chinese embassy in your country. I went to China on a tourist double-entry visa but could only stay 30 days per entry. (I am a Czech/EU citizen.)
Note: None of this applies to Hong Kong and Macau where citizens of many countries can enter without a visa. However, if you plan to go to Hong Kong or Macau from China, it counts as leaving the country and you will need to have a double- or multiple-entry visa to go back to mainland China. For this reason it’s better to put Hong Kong either at the start or end of your Chinese trip.
When (Not) to Go?
Before you book anything or start planning your trip, you should check for any major national holidays in China. Whenever the Chinese have a time off, they travel – and not only abroad. All tourist attractions and trains are ten times busier (that’s an estimate, but you get my point) during this time. Remember China has a population of 1.4 billion and when all these people decide to travel… not fun.
If you travel to China around Chinese New Year (February), during the National Day Holiday (first week in October) or during the school summer holidays, you will definitely have a memorable trip. And not in a good way. My Chinese friend told me she doesn’t dare to leave her hometown during the summer because the amount of people everywhere is just unbearable…
You can find all the dates here.
I went to China in May / first half of June and can say it was a good time to visit!
MOBILE APPS YOU NEED FOR CHINA
As you probably know, many websites are banned in China. Not just Facebook, but pretty much everything most of us use on a daily basis. Whatsapp, Instagram, Twitter, Youtube, everything Google (including Gmail), WordPress, etc. So if you want to continue to function normally in China, you need a VPN – a magical app which connects your devices to the Internet from somewhere outside of China. Just a warning, though: You have to download your VPN before you enter China. It will not work otherwise.
I have a (mostly) good experience with ExpressVPN which is meant to be the fastest VPN service. You can get it here for $12.95 a month (or just use their free 30-day trial 😉 ).
Another app you will find useful is WeChat. If you make any Chinese friends, you won’t be able to contact them through Facebook or Whatsapp. Instead, they will ask to connect on WeChat. WeChat is the number one social media in China; everyone has it and uses it 24/7.
In fact, WeChat is the reason many people never carry cash – they just top up their WeChat with money and pay this way for everything. If you see people scanning QR codes in shops and markets, this is what they are doing. (To be able to use WeChat for payments you need to have a Chinese bank account.) If nothing else, you can sometimes connect to a public WiFi via WeChat.
If you have Internet connection, you can also use DiDi, the Chinese version of Uber. I never had the app myself but my friends were using it all the time. Didi is a cheap and convenient way to get anywhere, but be warned – drivers can sometimes call you before picking you up. In Chinese, of course.
Don’t rely on Google Maps in China. Have Maps.Me instead. If you read my blog regularly, you know I keep recommending Maps.Me – in my eight months of travelling, it has never let me down and China was no exception.
It might also be a good idea to get one of those apps monitoring the air quality in your location, such as AirVisual. China can be polluted sometimes, especially in winter, and big cities like Shanghai and Beijing tend to have the most unhealthy air. Not every day is bad (I mean, believe it or not, blue sky exists in Beijing) but the app will show you when the air pollution levels are so high you might consider wearing a medical face mask.
One more app you definitely need is Google Translator with OFFLINE Chinese. More on that in the next part.
THE LANGUAGE BARRIER
China is one of those countries where English doesn’t get you anywhere. Get ready to use your hands, pantomime and don’t enter the country before you have downloaded Chinese to your Google Translator app. I also recommend having all addresses and names of places you need to get to in Chinese. Especially if you are taking buses between towns: they don’t have numbers and the destinations will always be just Chinese characters.
Sometimes, just sometimes, you might find some signs translated to English. However, these will be more for your amusement, rather than information… They very rarely make sense 😀
Don’t worry though – all the big cities have subway trains which are actually very easy to use because the navigation signage is also in English.
The Chinese don’t speak English but that will not stop them from talking to you. In Chinese. They are very social by nature and it’s super common for them to interact with strangers – and they want to talk to you, too! If you don’t speak Chinese, just smile and nod. If they keep talking, speak English in return…
And to make things even more confusing, China uses different hand gestures for numbers than you might be used to. For example, if you want to show number 2 on your hands, instead of lifting your thumb and index finger (which means 8 in China), you must use your index and middle fingers and do the V sign. Look at this image to see the difference:
If you want to know more about hand signs in China, go here.
While the language barrier may sound daunting, it’s what makes travelling to China so fun! Or at least… an experience. 😉
WELCOME TO CHINA, YOU ARE NOW THE CELEBRITY
If you are going anywhere outside of Beijing and Shanghai (and you should), people will stare. And I mean EVERYONE will stare. I thought I had experienced this in Vietnam but this was a whole new level of staring. Tourism is popular in China but 99 % of tourists are always Chinese. Most of the time, I found myself being the only white person on the train, on the bus, in a hostel, at the train station, on the street… No wonder I was the centre of attention pretty much everywhere I went.
Sometimes it was quite fun when people asked for a photo with me, telling me I was “sooo beautiful” (probably the only English they knew) or video calling their friends to show me off. But I am a shy person and being stared at all day was frankly exhausting and mostly uncomfortable, especially when people were taking photos of me without asking. Every day in China I thought to myself: “Oh, this is what it must be like to be famous…”
Most people in China know it is rude to stare at foreigners (well, the more educated know) but they do it anyway. Take a deep breath and try to ignore it. Or just stare back at them and see how they like it – that’s what I did when I was getting fed up.
MEET THE CHINESE
Chinese people are very social and communicative but they are… well, different. Coming from a western country, you should forget everything you have been taught about good manners because you are in for a cultural shock in China.
It is perfectly normal to push onto a train without letting people get off first, to skip queues, spit on the streets (Remember the kind of spit Jack was teaching Rose in Titanic? Yeah, he probably learnt that in China.), eat loudly, play music on their phones without using headphones, sing in public or look at someone else’s phone over their shoulder. The Chinese might seem rude and loud but that’s just their culture. Don’t waste your energy getting angry.
And despite not having Facebook and Instagram, they LOVE using their phones! We are all online a bit too much these days but this is even more true in China. People here are constantly taking photos, selfies, recording voice messages for their friends on WeChat and using their Chinese apps.
Also, don’t get mad if they seem to think the world only consists of China, Russia and America.
Their quirks aside, the Chinese are usually friendly and kind at heart, and always interested in us foreigners… even if they don’t speak much English. If you have the chance, make friends with them!
TOILETS IN CHINA: WHAT TO EXPECT
While western toilets are fairly common in big cities, more often than not you will find yourself using squat toilets. I even stayed in a few hostels where squat toilets were the only option.
Sometimes it can get worse than that, however. The Chinese are not very private people and will sometimes have no problem using a toilet with the door open. It doesn’t happen very often but be warned, you might see more than you would like in some public toilets in China. Most of the time you’ll be alright but you can come across toilets where the walls between cubicles will not be high enough…
There was also that one time in Beijing I entered public toilets and ended up facing a woman using a squat toilet. There were just no doors or cubicles inside! Needless to say, I was out of there within seconds.
Just like in Japan or South Korea, public toilets can be found in many places and are completely free. (And normally have doors…) But remember to always carry toilet paper with you – that is something you will almost never find. Be sure to dispose of the paper in the bins, not the toilet.
GETTING AROUND CHINA
While it might be more comfortable to fly between places in China, I can highly recommend using the trains. Not only are they cheaper, they are also fun. China has a highly developed train network connecting the whole country and I always felt very safe on the train. You can choose between high-speed trains and normal trains and even travel comfortably overnight. Locals use trains a lot so it is a great place to observe the Chinese lifestyle.
However… it takes some time to get used to the way trains work in China. You can’t exactly show up at the train station five minutes before the train leaves, buy your ticket and go like you would in European cities. I have written a whole blog post where you can find all the information you need to travel in China by train with confidence.
You can also travel by local buses if your destination is not too far but that can be even more challenging. (Remember what I said about always having the name of your destination written in Chinese? Rule number one of travelling in China.)
While you can probably have a half decent WiFi connection in your hotel or hostel, public WiFi in China almost always sucks. Buses, trains and stations sometimes have WiFi but in my experience it either never works, you have to log in in some mysterious way (explained in Chinese) or it’s just some “fun” WiFi that doesn’t let you browse the Internet but only offers some games and other entertainment. Airports seem to be the only exception. Generally, be prepared for a much slower connection than you are used to.
If you need to access the Internet in cafés (to do some work, for example), choose your place carefully. Even “reliable” places like Starbucks, KFC or McDonalds can let you down and will not let you connect without a Chinese phone number. A simple WiFi with a password is a safer bet.
FOOD IN CHINA
There is so much that can be said about Chinese food, it would probably need another whole article! China is a very big country and you will find different dishes in every province so it’s hard to generalise. Chinese food is really diverse and they eat pretty much everything. You can find some really strange food, beginning with chicken feet. However, eating dogs really isn’t very common, and the fried bugs and scorpions in Beijing are more for tourists…
The most common way of dining in China is to have rice and various dishes on the table and share it with other people. Be prepared to eat a lot of rice in China. Because Chinese are very social, they love to eat together with friends and family. Many restaurants only offer food to share – not very convenient for solo travellers, right? If you are eating alone, look for places that sell food like fried rice, fried noodles or dumplings.
In China you normally eat from a small bowl. Chopsticks are used for everything, but you can also eat with a spoon if chopsticks are not your friends. Never ever leave chopsticks vertically stuck in rice, it symbolises death.
Because of the language barrier, finding a restaurant where it was easy to order was honestly an everyday challenge in China. One time I was so hungry I just went to a restaurant and pointed at something written in Chinese… Somehow, I managed to end up with fried vegetables and rice. Phew!
Occasionally, you might find a place with food pictures. Otherwise, just look at what other people are eating and point at something you like. You might also try having some food pictures saved on your phone and show them to the staff to give them an idea what you are looking for… If you are a vegetarian, vegan or have allergies, be sure to have it written in Chinese. (And good luck, Chinese cuisine has a lot of meat…)
DRINKING WATER IN CHINA
While tap water in China isn’t safe to drink, drinking water is available everywhere. However, when you see “drinking water” signs, expect hot (boiled) water. Hot water must be the most popular drink in China! The plus side is, there are no bacteria in boiled water. Locals also use it to make instant noodles on trains or at train stations.
Just a note for all my fellow non-smokers coming to China: brace yourselves.
Honestly, I have never been in a country where people smoked more than here. In spite of smoking being forbidden in many places, you will find people ignoring the ban everywhere including restaurants, hotels, train stations, trains, taxis… I saw people literally smoking next to a “no smoking” sign.
It was a small hell for someone who absolutely cannot stand the smell of a cigarette smoke. I think the fact you can buy a lighter in a convenience store for 1 yuan (equivalent to about 10p) says a lot about China.
EXPERIENCE THE REAL CHINA
China is a huge country but somehow, most foreign tourists only seem to go to Beijing and Shanghai – or at least that’s how it felt when I was travelling in other parts of China, sometimes not seeing another foreigner for days.
If you are serious about having an insight into the Chinese culture and its people, definitely explore beyond the famous cities. China has some amazing and diverse landscapes which are worth leaving the cities for. Cities can be crowded and polluted but the nature is stunning.
Tips on Places to Go
And finally… where should you go in China?? Not an easy to answer because China is huge, of course! You could spend months exploring and still only see a small part of the country. The most popular places in China are Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Chengdu…
I have been to Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Guilin, Yangshuo, Zhangjiajie and a couple of smaller cities not worth mentioning. And Hong Kong, of course, but that’s not part of mainland China.
I recommend doing an online research on places to see in China (you can get inspiration from Adventures Around Asia) and decide for yourself what interests you the most. In my opinion, you shouldn’t miss the Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, The Great Wall and Yangshuo!
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