Ten things that would have made traveling to China a lot easier on my first trip. It can be exciting discovering them on your own, or it can be a big headache. So hopefully my frustrations will make things just a little easier for you. Here are ten China Travel Tips you must know before you visit China.
1. WeChat — The must-have App
Of all the China Travel Tips WeChat is perhaps the most important. WeChat, it’s a mix of Messenger, Facebook, Apple pay, and a host of other smaller apps. And virtually every Chinese citizen has it. If you want to make friends and be able to message them then this app is a must. Another great feature is that you can translate text messages from Chinese. Having difficulties talking to someone? Add them to WeChat and chat away. Though with all translation apps, keep it to simple wording otherwise you might get some pretty odd translations.
Pro Tip: Download WeChat BEFORE you get to China. At the International Airports, you should be able to get free WiFi, but you MUST have WeChat on your phone already to access it. So download it and set it up before you arrive in China.
WeChat can be downloaded from the apple or Android app store and you don’t need a VPN to use it (unlike most of the other messaging apps) but I’d recommend downloading it before going to China as you won’t be able to access the Android app store without a VPN. And that brings us to point #2.
2. Best VPN for China
“Google it”, it’s become synonymous with looking anything up online. Well, not in China. “Baidu it” will work better, but only if you can read and write Chinese. For rest of us, we’ll need a VPN. Gmail, Google (all Google products) Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Line etc. are all blocked. Get a VPN and the internet is open again.
Virtual Private Network: it’s a piece of software that tells the internet you’re actually in a different country routing all of your information to the server in that country.
There are various free VPNs but they are all limited in some way and not reliable. I’ve used a handful and the best one I’ve found is Express VPN. Having a reliable VPN for your China trip is so important and I recommend you get a good one.
There are a few other apps I’d recommend you get before you visit China. Full post coming soon.
3. Spitting, Shoving and Cutting — Manners in China
I’m in line for the bus, but as soon as it arrives all hell breaks loose. Everyone turns into an animal in an every-man-for-himself attitude buried somewhere deep within all of us. Chinese people push and shove, old and young. I’m shocked and out of instinct look back to see what they’re running from. It’s the scene from a zombie apocalypse movie. I’ve never seen a group of seemingly well-behaved people devolve into a fanatical crowd so fast. An old lady in front of me is getting smashed in the crowd as she too tries to aggressively elbow her way onto the bus.
A pretty Chinese girl walking down the street in Chengdu. Suddenly out of nowhere she puts her fingers on her nose and blows a snot rocket right in front of me.
It’s normal in China to spit (almost everywhere) cut, shove and just generally lack what we in the Western World call “manners”. It’s not everyone but it’s so common that you should brace yourself for it. That being said, Chinese people are generally very friendly and hospitable to foreigners. Keep this in mind when you visit China and take bad manners with a grain of salt, it’s not personal.
4. Hot Water and Availability
Ask for water anywhere and it’ll likely be boiling with the cup being too hot to touch (god only knows why they haven’t adopted cups with handles so you can actually pick it up without burning your fingers) Ask for cold water and be amused by the cluster of confusion you send the wait staff into.
One should also realize that hot water is a panacea to all that ills you in China. Or so most people will tell you. I wonder if they have hot water on ambulances.
The plus side of this is that on every train, train station and most public areas have a hot water dispenser and might also have a room temperature water spigot as well.
So if you’re on a budget pack some instant noodles on that 20-hour train ride as you’ll have an endless supply of hot water.
5. Toilet Paper and Napkins
Always bring your own. Even sometimes in hostels. And just remember, when you go to use the squat toilet the toilet paper (if they have it at all) will probably be in the logical place, outside the stall, so collect what you need before entering. Because everyone knows exactly how much tp to use ahead of time. And a final note on toilet paper: DON’T flush it down the toilet! Put it in the small trash can (usually) next to the toilet. Otherwise, you will probably clog the toilet.
“Chinese people like things they don’t have to pay for” my Chinese friend tells me after I see a woman being stopped at the restaurant as she’s walking out with an unopened box of tissues, without paying. (I love free things too! Don’t we all?)
When you go out to eat be prepared with your own napkins. Or if you go with a Chinese friend ask them for theirs that they’ll inevitably be prepared with.
6. Deodorant in China
On my initial foray into a large supermarket, the first time traveling to China, my hunt for deodorant devolved into buying a pack of lemons. It’s an amusing story for another time but suffice it to say that it can be quite difficult to find so I recommend you bring a good supply. Watson’s is a store that will most likely have deodorant, it if you can find one.
7. Trains, Tickets and Ctrip (Trip.com)
Buying a train ticket is as simple as showing up at the train station and waiting in line at the ticket counter (though sometimes there are multiple lines so you have to figure out which one is correct by asking people unless you can read Chinese). This becomes a problem however when it’s a busy time and the train is likely to be sold out if you arrive shortly before departure.
So you have a few options of buying your ticket ahead of time. The first is to buy it at the train station ahead of time. This works if you know your exact schedule while you’re at the train station. If you aren’t near the train station or don’t want to travel there you can buy it via an app called Trip.com by Ctrip (it used to be just Ctrip). They will charge a percentage fee (which can get more costly if you are buying an expensive ticket) and you will still need to wait in line at the train station to pick it up. The benefit of using this app is that you can check the train schedules and reserve it ahead of time. It’s also helpful just to look at the train schedules ahead of time even if you aren’t buying a ticket. For this point alone I highly recommend you install this app on your phone before arriving in China.
It’s an interesting phenomenon. Every Chinese person gets an average of ten years of English classes (if they go to college, less if they don’t) but many places you go, especially outside of big cities you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone who can speak it. You’ll have better luck with the younger population But don’t count on it.
To make your life easier use a translation app such as Google Translate (You’ll need to be running your VPN) or a phrase book. Baidu Translate can be used without a VPN.
Keep in mind that more Chinese people speak English than they let on at first. So speak slowly and enunciate and they just might understand but be too shy to reply. In some of the larger cities, you might also ask other people standing around if they speak English. They might be too shy to offer their help but if directly asked, will do what they can.
9. China SIM Cards
Getting a SIM card in China is not as straightforward as it is in other Countries. You can’t just walk into any store and buy a SIM card, you’ll need to go to a larger store from one of the mobile carriers and fill out a form (don’t forget to bring your passport). There are only 3 carriers: China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom.
There is more information here. Your hostel or hotel should be able to help you as well. If you’re in China for more than a week or two I’d definitely recommend getting a SIM card and getting it as soon as you can after arriving. It will make your trip a lot easier being able to find your way and communicate with people (somewhat) through a translation app.
10. China Visa
Everyone needs a Visa when traveling to China so start thinking about it at least a month or two before your China trip.
I’m a US citizen and I got my ten-year multiple entry (60 days at a time) visa (first time traveling to China) really easily through a Visa Agency called “Forever Bright” after arriving in Hong Kong (I know, it sounds like a dental office).
You can go to a Chinese Embassy and fill out and file all the paperwork yourself but realize that they are very specific and you’ll need to write exactly where you’re going and staying on each date. I’ve heard of people booking all of their hotels and giving their itinerary just for the visa only to cancel their hotels and follow a different itinerary. It’s fine and will most likely work but just realize the Chinese can be very strict about writing very clearly with no mistakes on the form as well as very strict about the passport photos you submit.
To do it yourself you will need to find the Consular Office of the Embassy or Consulate-General in your country Procedure for Chinese Visa Application for US citizens can be found here. If you decide to get the China Visa yourself and not use an agency ensure you have enough time before your trip in case your visa gets rejected the first time. Did I mention that they are very strict?
With so many places to visit in China, it can be a daunting task trying to figure out where to go and how to get there. Add to that the language barrier and cultural difference and it can make things even more difficult. But don’t let these things ruin your visit to China. Follow these China Travel Tips and may you have a great trip!