Visiting a country with a population of 1.4 billion people can be a daunting endeavor. Still, every year millions of people flock to this ancient country to explore its rich history. China is a huge country, and it doesn’t help that there are multiple dialects that visitors need to battle with. It’s understandable why first-time visitors are intimidated by this massive country, though. China is one of the world’s biggest countries geographically and is also the largest regarding population. However, this only means that there are more opportunities for adventure! If you are suitably prepared, a trip to China can be an absolutely incredible and rewarding visit.
There are hundreds of historically incredible places to visit, mouthwatering delicacies to dazzle the taste buds and even one of the most awesome man-made walls in the entire world. It is definitely worth visiting China at least once in your lifetime. Fair warning, though. One trip will NOT be enough to experience all that China has to offer. So, brush up your chopstick skills, and get your suitcases ready, here are 20 tips for anyone who is planning a trip to China.
If you are a frequent traveler, then you know the perks of owning a U.S passport. With the U.S passport, international travel is often a breeze. Either we don’t need a visa, or we are given one on arrival. However, there are a few countries where the U.S passport won’t grant us easy access. China is one of them. Before visiting China, you need to apply for a visa. The process isn’t difficult. However, we do recommend that you ask for it as soon as you are aware you want to visit the country. Make sure you have a good idea of where you are planning on going. For example, Hong Kong won’t require a visa. But if you plan on hitting the mainland, you will need a visa.
19 Language Apps
As we’ve mentioned before, China has several major dialects. There are actually 299 different languages in China. Yikes! Luckily, about 70% of the population can speak Mandarin. There are a few other major Chinese dialects, too. But chances are Mandarin will be the one you hear the most. Google Translate is a great app to use. You can take images of the characters and receive instant translations! Other popular options to use are Pleco, Naver Papago Translate, and WayGo. You’ll find them handy when you’re in a restaurant with a menu covered in scribbles or trying to ask for some directions.
18 Get a Guide
If you’re traveling around in one of the bigger cities where tourism is popular you probably won’t have too many issues. However, if you are interested in the smaller towns and for a more authentic experience, we would suggest hiring a guide. You can join a more extensive tour group if you are interested. Or you can hire a local for a more private experience. Tours by Locals is a company that offers local guides and some hotels that you stay in hire people to give tours too. They’ll come in handy because it will be easier to navigate the language barriers. They’ll also be able to help with navigation and planning.
Alright, there are a lot of surprising things in China. One of the ones that we still struggle to get over is the toilets. In China, the style of bathrooms that are most common is called squat toilets. They are exactly as they sound. Instead of the Western style that we are used to that you sit upon, you hover over these toilets – hence the name. They are essentially holes in the ground that you stand over and do your business. Yes, they sound terrifying. But, if you think about it, they’re actually more sanitary than the Western toilets that we are used to.
16 Toilet Paper and Soap/Hand Sanitizer
As if being shocked by having to stand over a hole to do your business wasn’t challenging enough. Be prepared to have to supply your own toilet paper and soap. Yup, public toilets in China don’t stock their restrooms. Before you freak out, the people in China are used to this system. Everyone carries small packets of tissues on them at all time. They also carry small bottles of hand sanitizer or soap to use to wash their hands. All the local corner shop and convenience stores will sell everything you need. Make sure you have everything with you before you head into a toilet!
15 Loud Voices
When you first touchdown in China, you are going to be overwhelmed with the cacophony of human voices, traffic, and the everyday hustle and bustle. You probably won’t understand what’s going on around you. Let us go ahead and warn you, Chinese people are loud. The combination of raised voices and a foreign language might seem like people are arguing and about to get int a fight, but they probably aren’t so don’t get intimidated. Trust us, we know from experience! They’re probably talking about the lovely weather or how expensive fish prices have gone up. Just stay courteous, and it won’t turn into a real fight!
14 Travel Insurance
It is in your best insurance to get some travel insurance before you head to China. There is so much going on constantly all around you that chances of an accident are higher. Let’s just say that driving in China isn’t as orderly as other places. Buying travel insurance is easy, and several sites offer it. If you book your trip through an agency, you can add the protection through that. Also, pack some medicines that you might need. Simple things like some ibuprofen, cold medication, and such can come in handy rather than navigating a foreign pharmacy.
Make sure you inform your bank that you will be traveling. This is a rookie mistake if you don’t notify your bank that you’re going to be in a foreign country. Having your card frozen when you’re in a different country is not the best situation to be in. Once you have things settled with your bank, it will make the process of getting money much more accessible. Unlike some major tourist areas and large cities that occasionally accept US dollars, China does not. To get the best rates, use an ATM such as HSBC’s (one of the largest banks) that accept foreign cards.
12 Have Cash on Hand
In the US, seeing physical cash is becoming more and more rare. Most people use their credit cards in all their transactions today. In fact, a lot of people use their phones to pay for things now too as we move farther into the technological world. While in the large cities most places will say take your credit card. The more rural areas in China won’t accept cards. So, make sure you always have back up cash on hand when you are traveling the country. As we’ve mentioned before, larger banks accept foreign cards at their ATMs so you can use those to pull out some cash.
Hey, have we got a tip for you. Get it? We crack ourselves up. One of the things we love about traveling is that tipping is not a common thing. In Hong Kong and Macau, tipping has become adopted and is a common practice. However, in the rest of mainland China, tipping is not a regular practice unless in certain situations. However, it is a good idea to give a little something to your tour guides or perhaps the bellboy. But at restaurants, you don’t need to worry about calculating a gratuity to add to the bill.
In China, one of the most significant cultural differences is that if you don’t like the price of something, you can haggle it down! This doesn’t mean you can go into a department store and say that you will only pay 10$ for a 20$ item. However, if you go to a street vendor or a marketplace, you can bargain a bit to get a better deal. In fact, it's expected. The first price that a vendor offers you is usually grossly exaggerated. Unassuming tourists will pay outright, and the lucky vendor will pocket a heck of a good deal. So brush up on your bargaining skills before you go out and shop.
When you go to markets and street vendors you will be bombarded with name brand items. They may look like the real thing, but 99.9% of the time the items are fake. Honestly, we’d say 100% of the time, but maybe there is someone on the corner selling real Gucci bags. Buying a knock-off bag or scarf is harmless. However, a lot of places also sell knock-off electronics. From past experiences, these items rarely work for long or well. So as real as that iPhone X looks, we suggest you stay far away unless you’re looking for a gag gift.
8 Air Pollution
You’ve probably already heard about China’s reputation with air pollution. With over 1.4 billion people living in this country, it isn’t a surprise that pollution is an issue they are dealing with. In large cities, smog is a huge issue. You will often see people wearing face masks to filter out the worst of the pollution. Keep an eye on the weather channel while you’re in China. They monitor the smog index of the day. On bad days, trains can be delayed because it is so difficult to see. So, on bad days put on a smog mask that contains a carbon filter for maximum efficiency.
Unless you’re an ex NASCAR driver, we do NOT recommend renting a car in China for use. Not only will be you driving in a foreign country with different driving rules. You’ll also be fighting for road space alongside a few billion people. The traffic is pretty horrific in China, and no one seems to follow the rules. Also, a widespread scam is for people to jump in front of moving cars so that they can claim insurance money. Most vehicles in China install a camera now so that they can disprove such cases. So we don’t suggest taking the risk of driving yourself. There are plenty of taxis to use.
Speaking of taxis, they’re an excellent mode of transportation. Unlike the States, taxis in China are much more affordable and are a preferred method of transportation. Most taxi drivers cannot speak English. So it is highly recommended that you have your location written down to show them. Keep small bills on hand to pay the drivers. They don’t take cards, and they often don’t have the change to handle large bills. You don’t have to worry about tipping them either! If you need it, you can wait and take the receipt. It will have the cab’s number in case you forget something or need to report an issue.
5 Street Food
China has some of the most versatile, sophisticated, and mouthwatering food that is available. If you think you’re going to be eating some run of the mill Chinese takeout General Tao Chicken and eggroll, then think again! Real Chinese food is much more complicated and a delight to the taste buds. Don’t be scared to try new things. Chinese street food offers some incredibly delicious things. When you’re strolling down a street, and you see a vendor with a crowd of locals around it, that is an excellent indicator that there is something yummy there. Take the plunge and try something new!
4 Drinking Water
We definitely encourage you to try some local street food. However, we do not advise you to drink the tap water in China. Even in the big cities, the tap water is not safe for consumption. China is an ancient country, so it is safe to assume that their pipes are just as old. Even when it comes to brushing your teeth, we don’t recommend using the sink water. All hotels offer bottled water in the room or even a kettle so that you can boil your water. We also go so far as to say that you should avoid drinking anything with ice cubes. It might not be an issue for locals who have grown up with these bacteria. But for a visitor, it could mean a nasty trip to the ER.
3 Taking Photos
When you visit a new place, you will most likely take a few pictures to capture the moment. A selfie with a terracotta warrior, a panorama at the top of the Great Wall. However, don’t be surprised that some people start taking pictures of you. Especially if you look like a foreigner. If you’ve got fair skin and light hair, chances are people might come up to you and ask for a photo. In smaller areas, many of the people might have never seen a foreigner before except for on TV. So enjoy your brief moment of fame and just be courteous.
2 Restaurant Etiquette
When you go to a restaurant in China, it isn’t uncommon to see people rinse their chopsticks and bowls with hot tea at the table. Also, when you’re eating, it is typical behavior to pick up your bowl as you eat. And, unless you’re in a fine dining restaurant, the serving staff don’t hover. If you need someone, you’ll have to call or flag them down. Don’t stick your chopsticks in a bowl because this is a symbol of death. Also, a lot of Chinese dishes that have meat contain the bones (more flavor!). To get rid of them, use your chopsticks or spit discreetly into your hand and set them next to your plate.
China has stringent regulations of their internet access. Their firewalls block many of the social media sites that people use. These include Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and even Google. If you decide that you cannot enjoy your vacation to the fullest without access to these sites, we suggest getting a VPN. Many free VPNs are available for download online. However, most of these don’t cover China. You will be better off with purchasing a more reputable one – though you should still check if they cover China. These will allow you to Instagram your adventures to your heart’s delight.