Visiting China for the first time? China is a fascinating, beautiful, interesting and at times challenging country to travel through. On our first trip to China, we hopped off an overnight train from Vietnam and arrived in China totally unprepared. China challenged us more than we could have imagined, but it also left us craving more. On our last trip we spent two months in China, and although we still had our struggles, felt way more prepared. If you go to China prepared and simply just give into it, you will have an amazing time. Here are our China travel tips and all the things to know before visiting China from our experience.
Things To Know Before Travelling To China Video
Organise Your Chinese Visa In Advance
VPN’s And Internet
Booking Accommodation In China
Airbnb In China
Money In China
Food In China
Safety and Security
Chinese National Holidays and Travel
You Don’t Need To Travel To China On A Tour
Things You Need For Travelling To China
Things To Know Before Visiting China Video
Organise Your Chinese Visa In Advance
Perhaps one of the most important things to know before visiting China for the first time is that you need to organise your Chinese Visa in advance. To do so, you will need to apply at your local Chinese Visa Application Service Center if in Australia and some other countries, otherwise, it may be at your local Chinese Embassy or Consulate (either in person or via mail).
When we applied, we needed our flights booked into and out of the country, as well as accommodation booked. You can always book accommodation with free cancellation in case you do not get the visa. Booking.com is great for this, as they usually have plenty of options that you can book with free cancellation. You may be able to do the same with flights depending on where you book.
How long does it take to get a Chinese Visa? The process took about 4 working days, but it was possible to pay for a 2 working day rush service. If done by mail they estimate to allow 10 working days. At the time of writing this, the regular single entry visa fee is $109.50 AUD.
VPN’s and Internet
Certain websites and apps are blocked in China, like Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Google and even Gmail. If you want or need to access these during your trip, you should sign up to a VPN (Virtual Private Network) before you get to China and make sure you download it to all your devices.
If you use a VPN, not only does it provide more security when on the internet in general, but it also means you can access all the sites that are blocked. You do need to be careful which VPN you pick, as some are more successful than others. We signed up to 3 different VPN’s before our trip to see which one worked best. Hands down, ExpressVPN, which we had already used on a previous trip to China, worked best for us.
Coming soon: Take a look at our article on VPN’s in China and how they compared for us here.
You can get a local sim card when you arrive for affordable internet, but you will need to make sure your phone is unlocked before you arrive in China. We used China Unicom on our last trip and it was pretty easy to pop into a store and sort it out, just make sure you take your passport.
Booking Accommodation In China
Booking accommodation in China is simple and can be done in advance on places like Booking.com. We have also used Airbnb in the past, but wouldn’t necessarily do this again in China (see below for why).
Airbnb In China
Of all the things to know before visiting China, this is one we learnt the hard way. We’re going to write an entire post on our Airbnb experience in China and why it’s probably better to stick to traditional hotels. But in short, here’s what we learnt.
When you arrive at a hotel in China (and most places around the world), they will take your passport and register you with the local authorities, which usually has to be done within 48 hours. This usually happens without us even having to think about it. But when you stay at an Airbnb, this still needs to be done but usually isn’t. You will need to organise for your Airbnb host to help you do this at the local police station. This is another thing that you have to do, and you may find that your host is hesitant to do this with you. Although we can’t guarantee what will happen if you don’t register, we had heard that some people had been denied entry the next time they tried to visit China.
So from our experience, although we loved our Airbnb experience in an apartment block with neighbours who brought us dumplings and soup, next time we visit we will be staying in a hotel unless our host agrees to help us register before we book.
Money In China
The currency in China is the Yuan, otherwise known as Renminbi (RMB) and sometimes as Kuai (pronounced Kwai). 10 Chinese Yuan currently equals around $2 AUD, $1.40 USD and 1.30 Euro.
WePay, AliPay and Apple Pay
China is the land of WePay and AliPay, basically paying with apps and QR codes rather than cash or card. We couldn’t get a WePay or AliPay without having a local bank account. WePay is part of WeChat app (Weixin App in China), which we downloaded in China. We needed to get a local to verify our app to access WePay, but even when we did this through our Airbnb host, we still couldn’t use WePay without linking a local card. You might have better luck or things might change in the future.
Although Apple Pay is also accepted, a Chinese card still needs to be attached to the Apple Pay account. This is at least in our experience over two trips, our last one being two months. This is something that could change in the future, so always worth trying.
Cash and Cards In China
Cash is still widely accepted and we had no trouble using our Citibank Debit MasterCard to get money out at the local ATM’s (we used ICBC – The Industrial and Commercial Bank Of China) in the main cities. But, not all ATM’s will accept your card. We had this trouble in Nanning, trying multiple ATM’s before one would work.
But I would definitely check with your bank before you leave if your card can be used in China. And perhaps take two different debit cards from different banks if you want to be safe.
You can also use Mastercard and Visa in some places, usually nice restaurants, cafes, supermarkets etc. American Express is not widely accepted, but we did manage to use it a few times. And when purchasing train tickets and accommodation online, we were able to use our credit cards.
We would definitely recommend making sure you have enough cash on your debit card for your trip and then whatever you can put on a credit card is a bonus, that is, if you use credit cards to collect points.
Is China Expensive?
In our experience, China is fairly affordable. Street food is delicious and cheap, food in local or casual restaurants can also be really well priced. Fancy restaurants and cafes can be quite expensive, think $8 AUD for a coffee in a western-style cafe in Shanghai. The price of accommodation in big cities is similar to big cities around the world. Transport within cities is very affordable, in Shanghai, it was less than $1 AUD per trip on the metro. Transport between cities was also quite affordable considering the value of the high-speed trains.
Although different dialects are spoken depending where you are in China, Mandarin is the most widely spoken, so it’s helpful to learn a few words before your trip. We used and loved Duolingo before our trip to try and learn simple phrases and numbers.
Also, make sure you download Pleco and Google Translate before your trip as these are invaluable once you arrive. Pleco is like an offline dictionary of Mandarin words that comes in super handy. And Google Translate is fabulous for translating words on menus, packages and signs in supermarkets.
You will find that in the big cities some people will speak English, but even here, many will not. In more regional areas, English will not be widely spoken, so knowing a few mandarin words and having Pleco and Google Translate will be even more important.
China does experience high levels of air pollution at times, but this really varies depending on where you are, time of year etc. So the best thing to do is download an air pollution app to see what the levels are on a day to day basis. We used these apps: AirVisual, Plume and AirMatters.
If you want to wear a mask, you will not be alone, these N95 Cambridge Masks (N99 also available) are what we travel with. But overall, it didn’t seem to bother us too much, although occasionally we could ‘feel’ it.
You cannot drink tap water in China. Make sure to buy bottled water, some of our favourite brands were Nestle and C’est Bon. Bottled water is fairly affordable and readily available.
Things To Know About Chinese Culture
Ok, so I’m not going to sugar coat this. There will be quite a few things that you may not expect, that might shock or even disgust you. But the most important thing to remember is that all cultures are different and some things you do may shock them too.
I’m going to start with the not-so-positive. There will be spitting and nose clearing on the streets. Not by all, but by some. This one is hard to get used to, well, you probably won’t get use to it. Why do some Chinese people spit? From what we’ve read, it’s seen as cleansing and that fluids are better out than in for health. One thing that’s interesting is that they view blowing a nose into a tissue and putting this in your pocket as disgusting. If I’m ever in a situation when travelling and something happens that I don’t understand I always try and remind myself that there is usually a reason behind it. Even though we struggled with this, all we would say is don’t let it ruin your trip, accept it will happen and stay astute and agile on the streets ;)
As mentioned, you will see a lot of people wearing masks. This could be for a number of reasons, including being sick themselves and trying to prevent the spreading of germs, trying to avoid getting sick, or for air pollution.
On our first trip to China, I really struggled with the lack of personal space. There are a lot of people in China and cities are really busy, so the idea of personal space there doesn’t really exist. So you may be pushed past or shoved in lines, at events, in transport hubs etc. But again, although that’s considered rude where we are from, it’s not in China, it just is. And you will get your space in many places, it’s just in certain circumstances.
It’s a very strange phenomenon, but you will get photos taken of you. Some people will take them from a distance, some will come and ask to have a photo with you, but I think it’s just the novelty of seeing foreigners. This won’t happen in the big cities as much. We feel completely uncomfortable when this happens, but by the end of our second trip to China tried to have fun with it a little more.
One thing I love about the culture is the singing. I didn’t notice this much on our first trip to China but, especially in Shanghai, we would often walk around the corner to someone singing whilst they were walking home or in the park. It was normally older men, who usually had pretty amazing voices. I loved this so much, super refreshing.
We also loved the Tai Chi in the parks in the mornings. So peaceful and such a beautiful thing to watch, or take part in if you have the opportunity.
Getting Around China
Knowing how to get around China is one of the most important things to know before travelling to China. Getting around in China can be really easy, but also has its challenges. A lot of Chinese cities are well connected by high-speed train services, as well as flights. There are also many bus services between many places in China.
The challenge with getting around China lies within the language barrier and cultural differences. Things like pushing in lines and no personal space. There can be long lines at ticket counters at train stations so it’s much better to buy your ticket online beforehand (we love trip.com). You may still need to pick up your ticket at the station but this line is usually a lot shorter. And at larger stations, there can be multiple security checks with long lines to get through before you reach your platform, so allow extra time.
We haven’t taken any internal flights in China but have heard that significant flight delays in China are very normal.
Getting Around Each Destination
Once you get to your destination, depending on where you are, you may be able to get around on foot, with taxi’s or Didi (we could never get the Didi app to work as it required a Chinese bank account linked to it, perhaps download it before your trip and see if your local app will work in China?), metro and buses.
Our biggest tips are to always have your address written down with you, download an app called Pleco and Google Translate to help you communicate and if walking, and watch out for electric scooters which are very hard to hear. MetroMan is a great app for metro routes and times in cities. Shanghai Metro App was also useful in Shanghai. As for maps, we had heard great things about Baidu Maps, but ended up finding Google Maps (with a VPN) easier to use, although it did fail us a couple of times, but we got to see more of the neighbourhood than expected, so it’s not all bad! Other map options include Apple maps and maps.me.
Food In China
I still remember our first trip to China. We arrived in Guangzhou, we hadn’t organised internet on our phones yet, we were starving and we really wanted to find this amazing dumpling restaurant. We were completely disoriented, it was dark, we were in a new place, and the directions we got were just not going to plan. It’s also really hard to recognise the Chinese characters on a building are the same as the ones on your piece of paper.
After a hilarious 3 hours trying to communicate with the locals every time we realised we had no idea where we were or where we were going, we somehow managed to find our dumpling restaurant right before it was about to close. Let’s just say dumplings have never tasted so good! I’m not sure what was more entertaining, the 3 hours it took to find the restaurant or the 5 minutes it took us to walk back to our accommodation!
Chopsticks will be at most restaurants and some larger/fancier restaurants will have other options. But it’s a great time to practice your chopstick skills. Although we are not experts, we can use chopsticks, and I’ll never forget some locals looking at us eating and it brought big smiles to their faces when we could actually eat our food, and they gave us big thumbs up. It was very sweet.
Most menus will be in Mandarin/Chinese characters, some may have English menus available. The best way around this is by using the Google Translate app, where you can easily hover over the menu to see the English translation.
Another thing to know about Chinese Food is that it differs greatly from region to region. This is great if you are travelling around China, as you will constantly be discovering new dishes. But it also means what you know and love in one place may not be available in your next destination.
To find amazing restaurants and cafes, we love using Bon App in Shanghai.
As for street food, we have had no trouble on our two trips to China. Obviously, look for stalls that other locals are at, but we have gone to little holes in the wall in big cities even as the only ones there and had delicious food. You may need to be a little more diligent in more regional areas.
Weather In China
China is a vast country so the weather varies depending on where you are visiting. Once you know your China Itinerary, it’s best to check the weather for each place. Generally speaking, Northern China has fairly hot summers and cold winters. In Southern China, there are monsoon seasons and typhoon seasons, so make sure to check this before you book.
Safety And Security In China
Is China safe? We haven’t been everywhere in China but the places we have been we have felt extremely safe. We can only talk from our personal experience, and it’s always essential to keep your wits about you and be aware of your belongings and surroundings no matter where you travel.
China also has a lot of security, whether it is police on the roads, CCTV cameras on the streets, security checks at public transport hubs and buildings. This probably all adds to the feeling of safety, but also adds to a feeling of being watched, so make sure to follow the rules.
Most public bathrooms in China have squat toilets, which can be ok to use but I have to admit, I have not mastered this in all seasons, struggling in winter with multiple long layers. But, rest assured there is usually a disabled toilet which is a western-style toilet.
Nice restaurants will usually have a western toilet available, but more local/casual restaurants may only have a squat toilet. As for toilet paper, best to come prepared with some pocket tissues, as you may not always find toilet paper available in public bathrooms in China. And it’s also a good idea to bring some hand sanitiser with you.
Chinese National Holidays And Travel
If you’re only going on a short trip to China we would definitely recommend avoiding national holidays if you can. At this time, people in China are travelling much more within their country, and cities tend to empty as people visit family. So getting around will be much harder, more expensive, with less availability and when you arrive at your destination it may not be a true representation of what normal life is like there.
Holidays to look out for include Spring Festival/Chinese New Year and National Day (sometimes referred to as ‘Golden Week‘).
We actually aimed to be in China for Chinese New Year on our last trip. We were going to be there for two months, so knew it wouldn’t affect us as much travel-wise but we could still experience it. The main reason we would recommend avoiding national holidays is that the days before and weeks after many restaurants and businesses close. So you really won’t be able to eat at some of the best restaurants or pop into local finds and some sights will also be closed. But if you are going for a longer trip like us, then it’s a great thing to experience, although our Chinese New Year was a bit of a non-event.
Coming Soon: Experiencing Chinese New Year In Shanghai
You Don’t Need To Travel China On A Tour
Although you will get great insights and local tips on a tour, and of course, it will definitely prevent some struggles, you can easily travel China independently. They have a great public transport system with high-speed trains, internal flights, metro systems and buses. You will have your struggles and frustrations, but some of our funniest memories have come from said struggles. Travel isn’t meant to be perfect, often the real gems are found in its flaws. Well, at least in retrospect.
Electric Plugs In China
The electric plug in China is Type A or Type I. Type A is a flat two-pin and Type I is an angled three-prong plug. The standard voltage is 220V and frequency is 50Hz. China and Australia have very similar electric plugs so generally speaking you should be ok without an adapter (Chinese plugs are a little thinner). Otherwise, a universal adapter is always a great thing to have.
Things You Need For Travelling To China
Here are the things you need for travelling to China. Some of these have been mentioned already in this article, but these are things that you should really organise before your trip and take with you.
- A Chinese Visa
- Travel Insurance – we love and use Good2Go Travel Insurance
- Copies of all documents
- A VPN (or two)
- Clothes for the weather in each destination you are visiting – but pack lightly as you may be using plenty of public transport
- Download these apps before you go: Google Translate, Google Maps or Baidu Maps, Pleco App, Weixin or WeChat, Air Pollution App, MetroMan
- Debit cards and credit cards
- An N95 face mask if you are concerned about air pollution or for other health reasons
- An electric adapter if required
- Thermal socks if visiting in winter
This is not a full China packing list, but more China-specific things you may not think about for other trips.
So that’s all of our tips for things to know before travelling to China. We hope these help you to have an amazing time in China :)