Planning a trip to China can be pretty intimidating.
I’d like to think of myself as this carefree traveler but the truth is that I spend a ridiculous amount of time researching and planning my trips abroad especially to places like China that I know very little about.
When it comes to China, it’s just not one of those countries where you can “play it by ear” when you get there.
There’s a Travel Visa to consider, a major language barrier, everything is a lot more spread out than you think and oh yeah, the government blocks pretty much any website from being accessed.
But that doesn’t mean that a trip to China should be stressful or difficult – as long as you are well prepared.
After spending a few weeks traveling in China, here are 20 essential travel tips & resources from my personal experience that will help you prepare for your trip to China.
(This is a pretty extensive travel guide. If you’re looking for something specific, click on the sections below to go there directly.)
- Get A China Travel Visa
- Get VPN
- Use Project Fi
- Download A Translating App
- Bring A Converter Plug
- Use Cash
- Bring Your Passport Everywhere
- Carry Toilet Paper With You
- Don’t Tip
- What To Wear
- Use Public Transportation
- Books Trains On Trip.com
- Best Time To Go
- Safety And Theft
- Tours vs Going On Your Own
- You May Be The Main Attraction
- Dealing With Overcrowding
- Pollution & Health
Get A China Travel Visa
Before you travel to China, the first thing you will need to do is apply for a China Travel Visa. Without a proper Visa, you will NOT be allowed to enter China. Thankfully getting a China Travel Visa is actually pretty simple and easy – as long as you apply well in advance.
First, you will need to fill out a Visa Application that can be obtained online from your local China Visa Office.
When filling out the Visa Application, make sure to fill it out perfectly. If there are any errors or blank fields, your application may be delayed or denied.
Then, you will need to print out and turn in this application in person at the local Visa Office along with a passport photo. You can get the passport photo taken at a CVS Pharmacy but note that you may need to cut the photo to fit the required dimensions.
I turned my Visa Application into:
The LA Visa Office is open Monday to Friday from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm. This office is usually super busy so you may need to wait about 2-3 hours in line to turn in the Visa paperwork so plan accordingly.
Once your number is called, if the Visa Application is filled out correctly, it takes about 5 minutes for the clerk to look over the paperwork and submit your application for processing.
The Visa Application takes a few days to be approved so don’t wait until the last minute to fill it out. Travel Visa for China costs around $140 which you will need to pay when you go to pick up the approved Visa at the same office.
If there is one important thing to know before traveling to China – it’s that you should get a VPN system for your phone and laptop.
Without having VPN, most websites and apps will be blocked from being accessed while you’re in China like Google, Maps, Facebook, Instagram, etc.
Without having access to the Internet or Maps your travel experience can become super frustrating but there are ways to go around the system. In order to have unrestricted internet access in China, you will need to download a VPN system onto your laptop and phone BEFORE leaving.
VPN is a system that will trick your device into thinking that you are accessing the internet from somewhere else, like the United States. This service is a MUST for traveling in China but it does cost a small fee in order to use it.
There are multiple VPN providers but one that most people use in China is Express VPN. Just make sure to download and set up Express VPN before your trip or you may not be able to access the internet at all.
Use Project Fi
If you’re really worried about not having internet or reception on your phone while you travel in China, I highly suggest switching to Project Fi phone service before your trip. Project Fi is the only cell phone provider that has worked out a deal where their service won’t be blocked or censored in China.
I have personally used Project Fi for a few years because it makes traveling so much easier. Project Fi phone service automatically connects to the local cellphone provider in any country as soon as you land or cross the border. I have traveled to over 20 countries using this service (including China) and it worked great.
But even with the Project Fi cellphone service I still highly recommend downloading Express VPN on your phone and laptop. With the combination of both, I was able to use my phone, access the internet, maps, translating apps and social media even in remote towns in China.
Download A Translating App
While most major hotels and restaurants might have staff that speaks English, in general, most people in China don’t speak any English. Just simple things like ordering lunch or asking for directions can be very challenging and confusing.
To make things easier you may want to download a translating app like iTranslate, Pleco or Google Translate before your trip. If the app has an offline language version, make sure to get that as well since the internet in China is not always accessible or reliable.
Learning a few basic phrases can also go a long way. In general, locals will appreciate your effort to speak their language, or at the least be very amused which can be a great ice breaker.
- Hello – Ni Hao
- Thank you –Xie Xie
- May I ask?/excuse me? – Qing Wen
- Sorry – Dui Bu Qi
- Where Is The Toilet? – Cesou Zai Nali
- Good – Hao
Bring A Converter Plug
China has a different electrical set up than the US so make sure to bring along an adapter plug like this one to charge your electronics.
Certain electronics like my iPhone charger did fit directly into the electrical plugs in China but my laptop or camera chargers did not, so I had to use a travel adapter to charge them.
Also, note that China uses a different voltage than the US so some electronics can get fried (like hair straighteners, electric toothbrushes, etc). China uses 220V versus the 110V that is generally used in the US so make sure to check your electronics before bringing them to see if they are equipped to handle China’s electric voltage.
During my trip to China, I learned that very few businesses actually accept payments in credit cards.
To pay for stuff in China most locals use an app called WeChat that is linked to their bank accounts. Unfortunately, tourists can’t use this app because payments can only be set up in WeChat if you have a local Chinese bank account.
Most of the time I ended up paying for things in cash. The easiest way to get Chinese currency is from a local ATM but note that not all ATMs are reliable. To avoid money scams in China you should only take out cash from reputable banks and avoid any small town ATMs that might give you “fake cash”.
I keep in mind that street vendors might give you change back in “fake cash” too so try to pay in exact cash whenever you can.
Bring Your Passport Everywhere
Usually, when I’m traveling abroad I try to leave my passport hidden safely in my hotel room (because losing it would be a nightmare), but in China, you should always have your passport on you.
You’ll need your passport when checking into a hotel because Chinese hotels are required to register international visitors with the police and make copies of their passports.
You will also need your passport when entering most major attractions, to purchase entrance tickets, train tickets and (in a rare case) if you’re ever stopped by the cops.
I brought my passport with me everywhere and I also kept a copy of it on my phone and on a cloud online in case it ever got lost or stolen.
Carry Toilet Paper With You
Unless you’re at a fancy restaurant, hotel or the mall, most of the public bathrooms in China are squat toilets that almost never have toilet paper. Whenever you go out sightseeing for the day, always bring a travel-size toilet paper, wipes and hand sanitizer with you.
I’m not gonna sugar coat it, most of the public bathrooms in China were pretty gross. But at the minimum there was usually an enclosed stall and flushing water, just don’t expect any other luxuries like seat covers or toilet paper that we take for granted in the States.
When eating out at restaurants in China, the common practice is not to tip.
Coming from the US I’m so used to over-tipping for everything so my initial instinct was to leave a tip everywhere. But my sister who had lived in Beijing for a while told me that it’s not customary and almost rude to tip in China.
While it certainly took me a while to get used to it, it made things so much easier. You pay exactly what’s listed as the price and there isn’t that awkward “Is this enough of a tip?” feeling after.
What To Wear
One of my biggest concerns before my trip to China was “What should I pack and wear?”
As a 5’8 tall blonde, I knew that in China I wouldn’t exactly “blend in” as it was, but I also had some questions for what was acceptable to wear in the local culture.
Before going to China I was worried that shorts and skirts would not be appropriate but after arriving in Beijing I realized that everyone wears such different and unique styles that if you’re traveling to a major city, you can pretty much get away with wearing anything you like.
If you plan to travel out to smaller cities, try to dress more conservative. The smaller cities in China don’t get many international visitors so you’re guaranteed to get a lot more looks and stares as it is. As a general rule, outside of the big metropolitan cities, you may want to dress down and wear longer pants.
Also, keep in mind that you’ll be doing quite a bit of walking especially if you plan to go on tours and sightseeing. Everything in China was a lot more spread out than I expected so comfy walking shoes are a MUST.
Use Public Transportation
If you plan to visit major cities, don’t be afraid to use public transportation as it’s often the fastest and most efficient way to get around. Metro systems in major cities are set up to run every few minutes so you never have to wait long for the next metro.
Although taking public transportation in China on your own can seem pretty intimidating, with the help of Apple Maps taking a bus or metro in China is actually super easy.
Before you go anywhere, search for your destination in Apple Maps and click on the “Transit” icon. Apple Maps will give you the best metro or bus options, tell you where the metro or bus stations are located and which exit to take.
I also highly recommend getting a prepaid metro/bus card especially if you plan to stay in a certain city for a while. I stayed in Beijing for 2 weeks and used my metro/bus card almost every day. Instead of buying an individual metro ticket every time, I could just swipe my prepaid card and get on the metro super quickly.
With a prepaid public transportation card and Apple Maps, you’ll be able to navigate any major city in China like a local.
Books Trains On Trip.com
If you plan to travel between different cities, the best transportation mode to get around in China is by the speed train. Speed trains in China connect most major cities, are very fast and reliable.
The easiest way to purchase speed train tickets in China is through an app called Trip.com. When buying speed train tickets you usually have the choice to get economy tickets or upgrade to the business class.
I wanted to visit Pingyao Ancient City that’s located 4 hours away from Beijing so I took the speed train there. I tried out both economy and business class options and the business class was definitely worth the upgrade. In business class, you get your own little pod to sleep in, tons of snacks, drinks and a full meal. The economy class, on the other hand, is much cheaper, but it’s often overbooked and stuffy.
You can also buy the tickets at the train station itself, but I advise against it. Not only the train tickets can get sold out, but don’t expect anyone at the train station to speak English. Buying train tickets on Trip.com ahead of time helps ensure that you have a seat reserved which is especially handy if you plan to travel with other people and don’t want to be separated.
On the day of your trip, when you arrive at the train station you will need to go to the ticket counter where the clerk will check your passport and print out your tickets. Make sure to hold on to these tickets because you will need to swipe them upon entering the train station AND upon exiting.
Best Time To Go
Weather in China can get pretty extreme and brutal. I visited China in the middle of the winter during a snowstorm and froze my buns off while trying to climb the Great Wall. And I’ve been there in the summer during the hot season when I wanted to take 5 showers a day because I couldn’t stop sweating.
Choosing the right time to visit China can be an important factor in determining what type of experience you’ll have.
Summertime is generally the busiest tourist season in China because many locals take time off for summer break to travel around so you can count of any major attraction to be pretty crowded.
One of the times that you should avoid traveling in China is during the Chinese New Year – which changes every year. This is by far the biggest celebration in China and you can expect everything to be sold out and packed.
One of the best times to visit China is at the end of the summer or in early fall. At this time weather in China is super nice, the crowds are starting to thin out and you may even catch beautiful fall colors.
Safety And Theft
During my visit to China, I spent most of the time exploring on my own and overall I felt pretty safe walking around by myself during the day.
Most people that I encountered in China were super nice and friendly even with the major language barrier and difficulty communicating. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be aware of your surroundings and always have your belongings safely put away especially in crowded public places like at markets and on public transportation.
As a rule of thumb, whenever I travel abroad, I avoid walking on the street after dark or drinking more than a few drinks.
If you do go out in town at night, make sure to call a cab after instead of walking back to your hotel. I know it sounds pretty obvious but most of the sketchy travel stories that I’ve heard usually happen when people walk home after having a few drinks late at night.
Tours vs Going On Your Own
If it’s your first time visiting China, everything at first might seem a bit intimidating.
To avoid feeling overwhelmed, I highly recommend booking a few tours for sightseeing especially for some of the bigger attractions like The Great Wall Of China or The Forbidden City that can take half a day to visit. Try to go with an experienced tour group that can not only take you there but can also tell you more about the history and meaning of each place.
I visited some places like The Summer Palace on my own without a tour and truthfully I felt a bit lost and not as engaged. Temples and attractions in China have very little information in English so you end up missing out on a lot of the background and cultural information.
The downside of tours is that sometimes they can be a bit rushed or the tour guides will take you to tourist traps like tea houses or jade jewelry workshops where they will try to sell you some of these local goods.
Also, keep in mind that everything in China is a lot bigger and more spread out than expected. Try not to over-plan your schedule because even visiting one temple can take 3-4 hours plus travel time there.
In Beijing, I really enjoyed tours with Beijing Postcards and Beijing Hikers groups but these companies offer very select tours. For more general tours I recommend going with Get Your Guide tours that take place almost daily.
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You May Be The Main Attraction
If you are traveling to China for the first time, expect it to be a major culture shock. But not just for you – for the locals as well. Many locals in China have never seen an international visitor before so when they do, they might want to snap a photo.
During my time in China at least a few locals a day would come up and take a photo with me (sometimes even entire tour buses) making me feel like a mini-celebrity. In smaller cities, you can expect that to happen even more often. After a while, I got pretty used to it but if you don’t feel comfortable, just try to kindly say no and walk away.
Dealing With Overcrowding
China tops the charts for being the highest populated country in the world, but nothing can prepare you for how insanely crowded it is, especially in major cities.
Every temple, attraction, restaurant, metro or bus that I went to was always packed full of people. In China, there is no such thing as “personal space” so that is something to keep in mind especially if you’re not a fan of big crowds.
If you want to avoid the biggest crowds try to visit attractions early in the morning. By 11 am every major tourist spot will be flooded with people making it hard to get around or take any photos.
Note that from the moment you land, you will be constantly getting bumped, shoved or getting cut off in line – something that I wasn’t used to, especially when going through entrances, standing in lines or getting on public transportation. When traveling in China you kind of need to learn to stand your ground or you’ll never get anything done.
Pollution & Health
One of the downsides about traveling to any major city in China is pollution. Due to overcrowding and booming factory industries, China is putting out more emissions in the air than ever. Most of the days that I was in Beijing the air was super hazy and smoggy.
You’ll notice a lot of locals wearing masks over their faces to protect themselves from breathing polluted air. I chose not to wear one during my trip since I was there only for a couple of weeks but that is entirely up to you.
You can always bring along a mask like this one and monitor the air.
It is also highly recommended to avoid drinking tap water and only stick with bottled or filtered water in China.
Another thing to watch out for health-wise in China is food poisoning. Note that street-food style eateries might not always practice proper cleanliness when cooking and serving food. I actually got food poisoning on my last day in China but after taking a few charcoal capsules it passed over pretty quickly.
China has a lot of awesome street markets where you can find local goodies such as food, clothing, teas, jewelry and other cute souvenirs to bring back home.
If you plan to do any shopping during your time in China, it is almost expected to bargain down the price especially if you shop in touristy areas where most items will be extremely overpriced. However, the language barrier can make it quite hard to bargain or communicate with the sellers.
Thankfully China uses the numerical system for their currency so you can communicate with the shop owners by using the calculator app on your phone to show them the price you’re willing to pay.
If you’re ever in an emergency or need to contact the police, dial 110 for an English speaking Police station in China. Thankfully I never had any issues or problems on my trip so I didn’t need to contact them, but this would be the number to call if you ever need to.
I also highly recommend always bringing a portable battery charger for your phone when leaving your hotel. Most sightseeing tours in China take at least a few hours, plus lunch and travel time. My phone would often run out of battery halfway through the day so I would keep a portable battery in my purse just in case. This way you’ll always have access to your phone, internet, maps and translating apps even on long sightseeing days.
Looking for other awesome things to do in China? Make sure to check out our other Beijing posts below:
- Guide To Visiting The Forbidden City In Beijing
- Hiking & Camping On The Great Wall Of China
- Guide To Visiting Summer Palace In Beijing
- Tips For Visiting Temple Of Heaven In Beijing
- The Complete Guide To Visiting 798 Art District
- The Ultimate Guide To Pingyao Ancient City In China
Interested in how I capture photos on my trips? Here is my suggested camera gear that I use to create my images:
- Main camera: Sony a7II Camera With 28-70 mm Standard Lens
- Polarizer Filter for the standard lens (helps eliminate reflection and enhance color especially on super bright days): Amazon Basics 55 mm
- Wide Lens (great for landscape shots): Sony 16-35 mm F4
- Polarizer Filter for the wide lens: Amazon Basics 72 mm
- Small Tripod (to stabilize photos and eliminate blur): JOBY Gorrilapod
- Memory Cards: SanDisk 32 GB
- Batteries: Wasabi Power battery charger and extra battery pack
- Camera Bag: Lowepro weather-resistant bag
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