YOU WANT TO VISIT CHINA BUT YOU DON’T KNOW WHERE TO START? THIS CHINA BLOG SHOWS YOU ALL THE TIPS ON PLANNING A TRIP TO CHINA ESPECIALLY IF IT’S YOUR FIRST TIME IN CHINA.
China is a place that everyone should visit at least once. It’s a country with rich history and culture, beautiful landscape and delicious food. But many foreigners see China as an exotic destination that’s challenging to travel to mostly because of the language barrier. Some people may also have the wrong impression of China due to the western media. Either way, China is an interesting play to travel to and I want to share some tips on planning a trip to China so your first time in China can be easy and stressfree.
Table of Contents [hide]
- Things to Know Before Your First Time in China
- China Tourist Visa
- Best Time and Worst Time to Visit China
- How to Get Around in China
- How to Get Directions in China
- How to Get Internet in China
- Booking Hotels in China
- What to Eat in China
- Safety in China
- How to Exchange Currency in China
- Best Places to Visit in China
- Useful Websites & Apps For Your First Time in China
THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOUR FIRST TIME IN CHINA
- You most likely need a tourist visa to visit China
- Cash is preferred in China, unless it’s a high end restaurant or shopping center then you can pay by credit card. However the local Chinese people all pay using Alipay through Wechat (China’s messaging system) and they just scan the QR code with their phone. Super convenient!
- You cannot rent a car in China with foreign licenses
- You need to carry your passport with you at ALL times in China. If you do not have a passport with you, don’t even think about traveling by train or bus.
- China blocks Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram
- Download WeChat! Everyone uses wechat in china. You can also communicate with your friends outside of china on Wechat (if they have it too) since Facebook messenger, Gchat and Whatsapp are blocked
- Not everyone in China speaks English. Find young people if you really need help. Chinese college graduates generally speak some English
- China is big so research the areas you are visiting for weather and food information
- Bring stomach pills, especially if you plan to eat on the street or try raw food. Although in recent years it has gotten better and I haven’t gotten sick eating in China
- Spring and fall are the best time to visit, especially if you are sensitive to air quality
- China is not just Beijing and Shanghai!!! If you only have 1 week in China, check out my 1 week in China itinerary.
CHINA TOURIST VISA
China generally require a tourist visa to visit. If you are American (and some other western countries), and this is your first time in China, then getting a China tourist visa should be the first thing on your list when planning a trip to china. There are several different China Tourist visa types, some are single entry, multiple entry, some expires in 6 months, some in 1 year or you can get a 10 year multi entry China tourist visa. If you obtain the 10 year tourist Visa and your passport expires before the visa expires, when you travel to China you must bring your old passport (with the visa) and your new passport together. Just make sure the name, sex, birthday and nationality are the same on both passports. The passport numbers will be different and that’s okay.
Generally when you apply for a China tourist visa, they will ask a lot of questions including your entire itinerary, all your hotel and flight booking, etc. One tip I would offer is that if you are not sure which hotel you are staying at, just book a hotel on www.booking.com and cancel later instead of waiting till last minute to apply for your visa.
If you are transiting in China for less than 72 hours and have proof of on warding international flight, then you may qualify for visa free when you enter China. Check the visa requirement before traveling to China or you may get deported like I did last time (long story).
BEST TIME AND WORST TIME TO VISIT CHINA
I would be lying to you if I said every season is good to visit China. Since China is a huge country the climate within the country different drastically from region to region.
In Northern China (Beijing, Inner Mongolia, etc) the climate is very similar to New York City, with cold and snowy Winter and hot and humid summer.
As you go more South in China the winters generally get more mild but the summer get even more humid and hot. For Example when I went to Shanghai one year in August, it was 40C/90F with 100% humidity, which made it feel more like 50C and 120F, I was literally drenched in sweat walking around even at night.
The air quality has been an issue in China in recent years and tends to get worse in the summer and winter. If you want a nice climate and better air quality for your first time in China then I highly recommend visiting China mid April – early June or mid September to end of October when the temperature is mild and dry.
Another reason I don’t recommend visiting China in the summer is that it tends to rain more in many regions which causes mudslides or just foggy weather, especially in the mountain regions.
I also advise avoiding visiting China in the following weeks to avoid Chinese national holidays:
Chinese New Year: Chinese New Year falls on different dates every year as the holiday follows lunar calendar, but in general Chinese New Year is in end of January or early February every year. I suggest avoiding this time period because a lot of restaurants and stores close for Chinese New Year and train/flights could be a nightmare as large number of migrant workers go back to their hometowns for the holidays. It would be difficult to find train or bus tickets for long distance traveling in China during this period.
Labor Day (May 1) & National Day (October 1): Labor Day and National Day are when the entire China takes off a week to 10 days to celebrate. It’s interesting that most people don’t get much vacation time in China (Usually a week a year) and there is mandatory company shut down for Labor Day and National Day for 10 days. Therefore these 2 weeks are when the entire China travels domestically. You do not want to be traveling anywhere in China during the holidays because you will be greeted with crazy crowds everywhere.
HOW TO GET AROUND IN CHINA
China is a huge country and it helps to know how to get around when planning your trip to China. I will go into more detail about getting around within the major cities as well as traveling between cities in China.
Getting to city center from International Airports in China
Most likely when you visit China for the first time, you will be flying into a major international airport in Beijing or Shanghai. Airports in these major Chinese cities generally have public transportation to allow visitors to get to the city center quickly. There are generally subway, train, buses and of course taxis that will take you from Chinese airports to the city center.
Subway and Trains in from Airports in China: If you are landing in Shanghai, there is a subway (line 2) that goes directly to both airports in Shanghai: the Pudong International Airport and Hongqiao International Airport. Cost: <15 RMB.
There is a train from Beijing International Airport to Sanyuanqiao and Dongzhimen, then you can transfer to local subways. For more information on how to transfer from the Airports in Beijing and Shanghai to the city center, check out my 1 week in China itinerary.
- Bus from Airports in China: The major international airports have bus service that goes to the city center, generally this information is available on the airport’s website or visitor information booth outside of luggage claim. I would generally recommend Buses if you have a lot of luggage since you will have to carry the luggage onto the subway yourself whereas the buses can put your luggage on the bottom compartment. You will need to make sure the bus goes to the stop you need and that you will be informed when it’s your stop.
- MagLev train from Pudong Airport in Shanghai: the MagLev Train exclusively applies to Shanghai. There is a MagLev train that travels at 300km/h between Pudong Airport and Long Yang Road station (龙阳路）you can then transfer to subway 2 to city center. The ride takes you 8 min and is actually a tourist attraction in itself. Cost: 50RMB + subway
- Maglev Train Ticket
- Taxi from Airports in China: there are usually tons of taxis waiting at the airport. Make sure the taxi drivers use the meter before you get in and have your hotels address in Chinese as most taxi drivers don’t speak English. You don’t need to tip the taxi drivers in China.
Riding the Subway in the Cities of China
Once you are in the city center in China in most major cities, there is a very comprehensive subway system. Subways are the main methods of transportation for most people in big cities in China now. For security reasons, you have to X ray your bags and luggage every time you go inside a subway station, at least in Beijing and Shanghai. This may be a surprise for you if this is your first time in China but you will quickly get used to this procedure. The process is generally pretty quickly and not as time consuming as at airports.
If you are staying in China for a long time, you should look into getting a transit card in the cities. However if you are only visiting each city for 2-4 days, it may be better to just paying for single fare tickets at the machine. Generally these subway fare machines only take cash so make sure you have cash with you.
The subway in China generally stops running around midnight and becomes available again around 5am. When subways are closed you will need to take a taxi to get around.
Riding the Bus in China
Buses are also a very popular form of transportation in many cities in China. However many local buses do not have any English signs or announcements, so write down your destination stop in China beforehand and tell your bus driver where you want to get off.
Taking the Taxi in China
Taxis are available everywhere in China especially in big cities but in recent years it’s nearly impossible to flag taxis down on the road. The reason is the rise of apps like DiDi Chuxing (more below). It’s basically a Uber like app but it allows you to get taxis through the app. You will then pay cash to the driver. Unless you are staying at hotels when you can ask the hotel front desk to book a taxi for you, I really highly recommend that you use the DiDi app.
You should download DiDi app before leaving for China set up the app. You can also link your credit card to DiDi app which is convenient. Sometimes the driver will contact you (via the app in both English and Chinese) to verify the pick up location is correct.
Long Distance Travel in China
For long distance travel in China, you can either take a long distance bus or high speed train. It’s much easier to book high speed train tickets online through websites like ctrip rather than attempting to take a long distance bus. Once you book your China train ticket on Ctrip, take down the reservation number and bring your passport with you when picking up the tickets. Even if you are traveling by long distance buses in China, security will still check your passport and scan your luggage through the X ray machine. This is something many people don’t know during their first time in China.
When you pick up your long distance bus or train tickets in China, you will need to line up at ticket counters. I suggest that you also write down the city you are going to in Chinese when you pick up your ticket just for double verification.
Once you get into the bus station or train station, there are usually fast food restaurants inside (such as Mcdonald’s or some Chinese chain). Once it’s about the time you board the train/ticket, there will be gates that you have to go to. I suggest you ask the counter people (any counter people) just to see what gate they tell you to go to. There usually will be a “queue” but in reality many people just try to flood to the front of the queue so be prepared for some pushing and crowding.
High speed rain station in China
If you want to travel between cities by long distance bus in China, I find this a useful website that shows you bus route timetables, prices, and booking options. Generally for bus tickets in China, I actually just go to the bus station early and buy it in person. However there is always a risk of popular routes being sold out especially on the weekend especially for popular destinations.
Biking in China
Bikes have long been the main way of transportation in cities in China but more and more people are opting for subway, buses and personal vehicles. But if you want to explore the city in China at your pace, it’s a good idea to ride a bike! When I was in Shanghai, I saw all these yellow and orange bikes lying around. Apparently they are free to ride if you have the app and scan the QR code on the bike to unlock them. The two popular ones are Mobike and Ofo. You can basically pick up the bike and park them anywhere once you finish riding and they are extremely popular in China now.
HOW TO GET DIRECTIONS IN CHINA
Since Google is blocked in China, you will not be able to get directions from Google Maps. Like I said earlier, China has its own version of American apps for everything so worry not! Chinese people use apps such as Baidu Map (百度地图）or Gaode Map (高德地图）feel free to copy and paste the Chinese in your App Store if you can’t find an English version. I personally used Gaode Map when I was in China as Baidu Map did not work for me. These map apps in China will tell you public transportation directions also.
Hong Cun Village
HOW TO GET INTERNET IN CHINA
Free Wifi in China
Free Wifi was everywhere when I went to China. Literally every restaurant and cafe had free wifi and most of the time the password was 00000000 (8 0s) or 123123123. But feel free to ask them for the password.
Getting a Local SIM Card in China
China Local Sim cards are very easy to get in China if you don’t have international roaming. There are 2 major telecom companies in China: China Telecom & China Unicom. The two companies are practically the same and both offer prepaid SIM cards. The easiest way may be to get a prepaid sim card at the airport (I got mine for 400 RMB with 5 Gig of data for a month) but there are many different (and maybe cheaper) packages.
If you didn’t get a China sim card at the airport, you can also go to the official China Telecom or China Unicom stores in major cities to get the sim card. However I personally find it must easier to get the sim cards at airports in China as they just take your money and give you the sim card. When I got a sim card in stores in Shanghai, it took quite a long time because they had to verify my passport information and fill out forms on the computer.
One thing to note is that if you have international roaming on your phone, then you can access Facebook, Google, Instagram, etc in China. If you switch over to a local sim card, you will not be able to access these websites unless you have VPN in China.
VPN in China
VPNs basically allow you to bypass the Great Fire Wall in China but the government has been cracking down on these VPN services and apps in recent years.
I downloaded VPN Master from the App Store before I got to China. It’s a free app and worked wonderfully when I was there. However VPN apps tend to get shut down quite quickly by the Chinese government so you may need to look for a different one before you go.
In Shanghai, I was recommended the app called 花生地铁 Wifi that allows you to get free wifi on Shanghai subways. I’m not sure if there is an English version but this is pretty useful. Just copy and paste the app name into your App Store and you should be able to find it.
BOOKING HOTELS IN CHINA
Hotel in Xitang by the water
Like everywhere else, there are different types of hotels in China. I’ve stayed in hostels in Beijing, small family run places in Xitang, business hotels in Shanghai and upscale hotels in Sichuan.
Hostels in China
For hostels, I used hostelworld.com or hostelbookers.com like I would for Europe. I’ve stayed at a couple of hostels in China and they are pretty decent! There are many hotels in major cities in China such as Beijing, Shanghai and Xi’An. Most of the time you will see international visitors in hostels in China but occasionally you will also see domestic Chinese tourists in these hostels. I actually prefer hostels in China because you get to stay at more traditional buildings like the Siheyuans in Beijing and the hostels are all located in very good areas.
Luxury and Medium Price Hotels in China
One important thing to tip for your first time in China is that on Ctrip a lot of hotels will have a symbol that says Chinese residents only (especially on the Chinese site, not so much on the English site). This means the hotel (or the specific room) only accepts people who are residents in China, so you cannot stay there with a foreign passport.
I read that this is a way for hotels to raise their prices and charge foreigners more. This probably won’t affect you too much in big cities but when I went to smaller touristy towns like Hongcun and Xitang, I had a lot of issues trying to find a hotel that would accept foreigners.
Another tip for your planning a trip in China is that a lot of the local hotels in China will also ask for a deposit of 100 RMB to make sure that you return the room key. They will give you a receipt for the deposit so make sure to not lose that slip or you will not get your money back. Wifi are generally fast and reliable at the hotels in China so yay!
Airbnbs in China
As with most countries, you can book accommodation through Airbnbs as well. But I haven’t actually done that myself.
WHAT TO EAT IN CHINA
Shengjiabao in China
Chinese cuisine is world famous and it does not only have Kung Pao chicken or Beef chow mein. Since China is so big, each region has its own unique style, dishes and ingredients. Generally speaking, if you like noodle dishes, head to northern China (like Beijing).
If you want spicy cuisine, head to Sichuan province and get the spicy hot pot. If you like sweeter taste or xiaolongbao (soup dumpling), head to Shanghai area and if you like dim sum head south to Guangzhou and Hong Kong. My 1 week in China itinerary talks about what to eat in Beijing, Xi’An and Shanghai for your first time in China.
China street food
Fast Food in China
American fast food chains like McDonald and KFC are everywhere in China but these chains have also adopted local flavors in China (I heard KFC now serves rice in China). Pizza Hut is a nice sit down restaurant in China compare to the US and TGI Friday is considered quite nice in many cities.
Upscale Restaurants in China
International cities like Shanghai and Beijing are full of upscale Michelin star restaurants and Michelin Star recommended restaurants. you will need to make reservation ahead of time in order to eat there and most of the time you won’t even remember you are in China anymore.
Street Food in China
Most people don’t go to China to eat at Mcihelin Star restaurants or McDonald’s. The charm of visiting China is trying all the cheap hole in the wall places as well as Chinese street food. It’s a little hard to order at these hole in the wall places as menus tend to be only in Chinese without any photos so I suggest you do some research online ahead of time to know what to eat and what to order, or you can simply point to the food you want.
Some of the most popular street foods in China include Jianbing (Chinese crepes), Chinese donuts, lamb skewers, lamb burgers, Malatang (food boiled in spicy broth), stinky tofu, etc. The type of street food you can get in China also depends on the region you are in.
China street food
Chinese Restaurant Review Websites
Websites like TripAdvisor is quite useful for tourists but I generally don’t trust those reviews on restaurants in China. Also TripAdvisor might not list all the popular local restaurants so you end up getting recommendations to tourist traps.
If you happen to know Chinese (or willing to use Google Translate) then I highly recommend the app and website (Dianping) 大众点评 that provides you with reviews of restaurants among other cool functions.
If you use Google Chrome browser, then sometimes an option will pop up asking if you want to translate the website to English. If you click on that you will be able to understand more of the website.
English Translated Website
SAFETY IN CHINA
China is generally a very safe country even for solo female travelers. Crime rates are low in the cities and most crime you encounter (if you encounter them) would be pickpockets. There are a lot of police at popular places and tourist sights and in the subway station so it’s perfectly safe to walk around at night even alone. However still be mindful when you travel in China as you don’t want to be a victim of pick pocketing.
HOW TO EXCHANGE CURRENCY IN CHINA
The official Chinese currency is Renminbi (RMB), the literally translation means People’s Currency. The exchange rate for the Chinese currency is generally pretty stable (~6.5 – 7 RMB = 1 USD) because the Chinese government controls the exchange rate instead of letting it float as other countries do. I will spare you the details and not getting into macroeconomics but don’t expect the exchange to fluctuate too much.
There are several places that you can exchange money in China: Airport, Hotels, and Banks.
Airport Currency Exchange
The easiest and fastest place to exchange currency in China is at the airport. These currency exchange counters at the airport are owned and regulated by the Chinese government and they usually charge a fee of RMB50 (sometimes more) per transaction. If you prefer to be hassle free during your trip then I highly suggest exchanging your currency at the Chinese airport.
Hotels for Currency Exchange
Not all hotels in China offer currency exchange and generally the large chain hotels do. Generally the fees for currency exchange is higher at hotels.
Currency Exchange at Banks
Banks are people’s go to place for currency exchange in China because you will rarely find kiosks and random stores that offer currency exchange. The Chinese government has a tight control and regulation on currency exchange especially converting RMB to Dollars or Euros or Pounds. When you go to the bank for currency exchange make sure you bring your passport with you.
ATMs in China
If you are American then I want to point out one thing that may help with your trip planning to China. Brokerage firm Charles Schwab has a world-wide ATM fee free debit card if you open a brokerage account with them. This means that you can use that debit card to take out money at Chinese ATMs without fees (you pay the fee and Charles Schwab reimburses you later). This was super useful when I was in China so I avoid the hassle (and fees) of exchanging money and also the ATMs (and credit cards) generally give you a much better exchange rate.
BEST PLACES TO VISIT IN CHINA
Most foreigners only know Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai when they first start planning a trip to China, but China has way more beautiful places to see than those 3 cities. See below a list of places you should see in China:
Cities in China That You Must Visit
Beijing: Beijing is a no brainer when it comes to planning a trip to China since it is the capital of China and has some of the most famous sites to see. Things you must see in Beijing include the Great Wall, Temple of Heaven, Tian’an Men Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace and the new Olympic Stadium. You need at least 3 days in Beijing to see the highlights, check my 1 week in China itinerary for more details on what to see in Beijing.
Shanghai: The most modern city in China and the financial center in Asia. Shanghai has world famous restaurants, bars and sights. You must not miss the Bund, Yu Garden, the observation decks and water towns such as Zhujiajiao or Xitang near Shanghai.
Xi’An: The ancient capital of China, Xi’an is known for Terracotta Warriors, museums, the most well preserved city walls in China as well as its cuisine.
Chengdu: Panda is the symbol of China and Sichuan is where all the pandas are at.
Guilin: Guilin is a city in southern China known for its dramatic landscape of limestone karst hills, rice terraces and amazing scenery. There is a Chinese phrase that says there is no landscape prettier than the one in Guilin.
Hong Kong: Hong Kong was a British colony that was returned to China in 1997. Hong Kong is one of the largest financial centers in Asia. Famous for the amazing skyline and Big Buddha, Hong Kong offers a vibrant city life, beautiful hikes and island hopping experiences.
Macau: One a Portuguese colony, Macau was returned to China shortly after Hong Kong. Macau is the only city where gambling is legal, therefore many of the largest casinos and hotels are in Macau.
Mountains in China That You Must Visit
Yellow Mountain: Rumored to be the most beautiful mountain in China and I can see why. Most Chinese paintings have mountain ranges after Yellow Mountain. About 4 hours from Shanghai by Train, it’s a must visit if you are in the area.
Zhangjiajie: If you’ve seen Avatar then you would recognize Zhangjiajie. The landscape is so unique that Hollywood decided to use this mountain range as an inspiration for its movies.
Huashan: Labeled as one of the most dangerous hikes in the World, many visitors hikes through the treacherous trail to get to the tea house on top of Huashan.
JiuZhaiGou: Not necessarily a mountain, but it’s a collection of beautifully colored pools of water. Unfortunately there was a massive earthquake in 2017 that destroyed some of the pools
Yangshuo: Not really a mountain but more a county, the landscape is out of this world. It’s located near Guilin
Other Beautiful Places to Visit in China
Yunnan: High altitude but unique and beautiful scenery
Tibet: Located in western China, Tibet is always alluring and intriguing with its history and religion significance. Although it’s a bit hard for foreigners to visit Tibet and you will need an organized tour to visit.
Feng Huang: Located about 4 hour drive from Guilin in central China, this ancient town receives numerous visitors everyday.
Hong Cui: Located about an hour from Yellow Mountain, one of the most famous ancient towns in China thanks to the movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
USEFUL WEBSITES & APPS FOR YOUR FIRST TIME IN CHINA
- Ctrip: My go to website to book train tickets and hotels in China
- Etrip: Great for bus booking & bus timeables
- Travel China Guide: Good information for each city, including transportation, attractions, map, etc
- Baidu: The Google of China
- Gaode Map (app): I loved using this map when I was in China since Google Map is blocked.
- Didi Chuxing (app): The Uber of China. In cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, there is an English version
- Ofo (app): bike sharing app
- Mobike (app): another bike sharing app
- Dianping (大众点评) (website & app): Amazing app with restaurant reviews and many more. Unfortunately it’s only in Chinese. But if you can Google translate the page, it’s amazing
- Mafengwo (蚂蜂窝) (website & app): Chinese only, but great information for different travel needs. It also has blogs, Q&A session, etc
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