Useful China Travel Tips for First-Time Visitors

You learn a lot when you travel through China. It’s a difficult place to travel for a Westerner, but an incredibly beautiful, diverse country with amazing landscapes and cities that seem to go on forever. And though it may seem a bit daunting, China is a very safe country, even if you’re a female traveling alone.

I’ve traveled to China several times, both on layovers as airline crew and as a solo traveler on holiday. Every time I had an amazing experience exploring the culture, meeting the locals and finding new tricks to make my travels through the country easier. Here are some of the most useful China travel tips I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) that I hope will help you make the most of your time in this amazing country.

TIPS FOR PLANNING YOUR TRIP TO CHINA

Travel Visas

You may need one. If you do, apply for it well in advance. I recommend applying between 2-4 months before your trip. With your visa application, you will need to show confirmation of airline tickets in and out of the country as well as provide the addresses of where you’ll be staying (if you’re staying with someone who resides in China, you will need to submit an invitation letter from them). I suggest making sure that everything you book is fully refundable. You can always make changes to your plans later on.

Depending on where you’re traveling and what passport you hold, you might be eligible for 72-hour visa-free transit. This is a great option if you want to only spend a couple of days in China on the way to or from another country.

Holidays

Try to avoid traveling around China during local holidays. While it may seem exciting to experience a major event in a foreign place, it can be a nightmare due to the sheer amount of people all traveling around the country at the same time. You may not be able to get flights, trains or busses, and attractions will be absolutely packed. Prices will also skyrocket due to higher demand. If you absolutely have to travel on (or near) a Chinese holiday, be sure to make your bookings as early as you can.

Vaccinations

Make sure you have the required vaccinations. If you’re traveling from or through a country that has Yellow Fever, you will need to show a Yellow Fever vaccination certificate when you enter China. If you need the vaccination, it should be done at least 10 days before your trip.

TIPS FOR GETTING AROUND CHINA

Taxis

If you’re taking a taxi somewhere, ask the hotel receptionist or concierge to write down the Chinese name and address of the place you’re going. Also try to write down the phone number so the taxi driver can call the place and ask for directions if he can’t find it.

I also recommend downloading the DiDi app, which is the Chinese version of Uber. You can connect your credit card to the app, so it’s great to have if you’re running low on cash. Most locations are in English, but you can always ask someone to help if you can’t find your destination. It even has a function that lets you translate messages from drivers. Just remember that like Uber, you will need wifi or data to use it.

Many taxis in China only have seatbelts in the front seats. The driving in major cities can be pretty scary at times, so I recommend that you check before you get in if there’s an available seatbelt.

Exploring On Foot

Pay attention to what’s going on around you at all times when you’re walking around. Pedestrians don’t have the right of way, even on the sidewalks, and you’ll constantly be dodging bikes and scooters even if you stay off the road. Be careful when crossing the street, even if the walk sign is lit up. If there are traffic guards, wait for their signal that it’s safe to cross.

Bring comfortable walking shoes. My pair of Vans were a lifesaver from the steep steps of the Great Wall to the uneven backstreets of Guilin. Big cities aren’t usually too bad if you stay on main roads but keep in mind that many parks & attractions are not well maintained and pathways/steps can be slippery, especially on wet days.

Don’t rely on Google Maps. The GPS may be accurate, but the maps may not be, and locations of businesses and attractions might show to be in different places than they actually are. I’ve unfortunately never found an English-language maps app that is super accurate in China, but you could try switching back and forth from your favourite one to Baidu Maps, which is good but only in Chinese.

Trains

China has a great train system, and offers high-speed trains between many cities. If you’re taking the train, keep in mind that you should arrive at the station at least one hour early.

Chinese train stations are like airports – you’ll need to show your passport and go through security, then find the right gate. Once your gate opens, you have only about 10 minutes to go through before it closes. You will also need to add extra time if you need to buy or pick up a pre-purchased ticket, especially at larger, busier stations.

Tickets can be pre-booked through sites like Ctrip and Travel ChinaGuide  (I’ve used both and can confirm that they’re legit).

CHINA HEALTH & SAFETY TIPS

Staying Healthy

Make sure to check the air quality of the city you will be traveling to. Pollution in China is a big problem and can potentially be hazardous to your health. If the air quality is bad during your visit, or if you have respiratory problems, it’s a good idea to invest in a face mask. Don’t worry – the locals wear them too, so you won’t look silly!

Bring a pack of baby wipes and hand sanitizer with you wherever you go. Many toilets won’t have soap or toilet paper (or both).

Don’t drink the tap water (even if there aren’t signs warning you not to)! Most places will have bottled water available and very cheap (usually between 4-6 CNY – less than $1 USD) and some places like train stations and airports have filtered drinking fountains. You could also consider packing a Life Straw That way you can drink the tap water anywhere.

Protein bars are great to have when buying food isn’t an option, like a long bus or train ride. They’re also good to have on hand if you have a sensitive stomach, as many dishes can be quite spicy. Try to taste the local food though!

In An Emergency

It’s a good idea to program the number 110 into your phone so you don’t forget it – it’s the main number in China for emergencies.

Make sure your first-aid kit includes rehydration salts and anti-diarrhea meds. It’s also a good idea to take daily probiotics. Even if you have a strong stomach, there’s still a risk of getting sick. Don’t let that scare you though – I’ve gotten food poisoning in many places, but China has never been one of them.

Safety

Make sure your suitcase has a lock. Most boutique hotels don’t have a safe in the room, and you unfortunately can’t trust anyone anywhere. I’ve heard numerous stories of colleagues having valuables stolen from hotel rooms around the world and hotel staff are often the most likely culprits. You’ll also want to keep your stuff secure on public transport, as you may not be able to sit near your bag.

OTHER USEFUL CHINA TRAVEL TIPS

Making Purchases

Most places don’t accept card payments. When you withdraw cash, try to take out slightly more than you think you’ll need. You can always exchange leftover money at the end of your trip, or keep it as a souvenir.

The currency in China is the Yuan, and you may see it written several different ways. Remember that CNY, RMB, Yuan and 元 are all the same thing!

You’ll probably get overcharged if you look like a foreigner, but in many cases it’s totally acceptable to haggle for a cheaper rate. This doesn’t work in large brand stores with set prices though.

Tipping isn’t usually done in China, but if the service is good, it’s nice to leave something (10 CNY is about $1.50 USD). Having said that, don’t expect Western standards of customer service. The locals may be shy about using English, even if they speak a bit of it.

Staying Connected

Download a VPN before you go, as many sites you may be used to using outside of China (such as Google and Facebook) are blocked there. I used StarVPN, which has apps for both desktop and mobile and offers a free and paid version (I paid for the premium subscription, which gives a slightly faster performance, and was happy with it). Keep in mind that using a VPN outside of wifi spots can eat up phone data very quickly.

If you’re in China for more than a couple of days, consider buying a prepaid local SIM card when you arrive. Travel SIM cards are great if you travel to many different countries regularly, but can be expensive for long periods of time abroad, especially if you’re using a VPN. I use KnowRoaming, and it’s great for short trips, but it cost me over $75 USD in data charges during my first 4 days in China.

It’s helpful to have the WeChat app on your phone, especially if you’re planning to book a tour or pick up tickets for an event as the organizer may use it to get in touch with you.

Communicating With The Locals

Learn at least a few phrases in Mandarin. The Chinese are very good-natured people and appreciate it if you can attempt to speak their language. If you don’t at least try, it could get frustrating for both of you. For some language tips and recommended apps, see my post on Mandarin language tips for non speakers.

If you’re traveling to a smaller city or town and look like a foreigner, you may have lots of people asking to take their picture with you. This can be a lot of fun, but it can be a bit much sometimes too. Most people really do mean well though, they’re just curious about you!

Don’t be afraid to ask the locals for help. Everyone I talked to in China was very friendly and willing to help. Remember to be friendly and respectful to them as well, even if the language barrier is frustrating.

LAST, BUT NOT LEAST…

Let go of any prejudices or expectations you might have and just enjoy the new culture around you. You’ll be stared at. You’ll be jostled. You’ll witness people spitting onto the sidewalk in disgusting ways. You’ll be yelled at for no apparent reason in a language you don’t understand. You might even be accidentally skewered by a stick from someone’s street food (true story). China can be a chaotic place, but it’s also extremely beautiful and filled with hospitable, friendly people. It’s one of my favourite countries on earth, and hopefully these China travel tips will help it become one of yours too!