Before I left for China, my friends and family repeatedly asked me the same questions: Don’t you need a visa? How will you get around? Aren’t you afraid? Honestly, I didn’t know much about traveling to China before I went. Despite my ignorance on the subject, I booked my ticket and went anyhow. Obviously, I learned a lot and I’ve put together these China travel tips for you. I hope they encourage you to take the leap and book your own trip to China!
Yes, you need a visa.
I can’t speak for citizens of other countries, but Americans definitely need visas to travel to China. I’m lucky because I live near the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles, so I was able to apply for my visa and pick it up in the same week. The other consulates are located in Washington D.C., New York City, Houston, San Francisco, and Chicago. If you don’t live near one, you’ll have to pay an agent an additional fee and wait a little bit longer for your visa.
Our trip to the consulate for the visas was WILD. There were people everywhere, everything was confusing, and we had to go in a small, cramped room to pay a woman $10 (cash only) to print our travel documents that we forgot to bring. But honestly, if you can’t get through this one little errand, you’re going to have a difficult time in China. Be brave and patient! It will be worth it. I suggest you go with your travel buddy so you can laugh about it.
2. You can use the ATM in China.
I was under the impression that once I ran out of money, that was it. I brought 300 USD, exchanged it at the airport, and blew through it in four days. Great news, though! Most Chinese ATMs will accept American debit cards for an additional fee. Which is great because…
3. Chinese merchants don’t accept American credit cards.
Very, very few vendors will accept American credit cards. In my experience, American credit cards are only accepted at hotels that cater to Western tourists. So, you’ll probably be on a cash-only basis for the entirety of your China trip.
4. People don’t speak English.
As I’ve said before, it’s one thing to know in your mind that people won’t speak English, it’s another thing to go somewhere and not be able to communicate with anyone. I didn’t speak a word of Mandarin before I left for China. I wouldn’t suggest that you do that! Learn some of the essentials. You know, “water”, “restaurant”, “toilet”, “two beers, please”.
I downloaded the Google Translate app before I left. While it was helpful for me to be able to learn how to say easy phrases and words at critical moments, having the app wasn’t really that beneficial because no one could say anything back to me. Apparently American iPhones don’t have the keyboard that most Mandarin-speaking Chinese people use to type.
Just to be clear, people who work in the service industry DO know some English. They know enough to do their job, but you won’t meet very many people who speak conversational English. So, don’t expect to make small talk about the weather.
5. China is relatively safe.
You don’t need to worry about violent crime in China. You’re probably not going to be mugged, murdered, or kidnapped (though I make no guarantees). Instead, you should concern yourself more with being ripped off or scammed. Everyone is trying to sell you something or scam you into a fake taxi ride. Be smart, use your head, and only take taxis from a taxi stand!
6. Follow the crowds.
Because of the language barrier, finding good food to eat can be difficult. My dad (a veteran of Chinese travel) suggested the following: if you see a bunch of people in a line for a food stand, go get in that line. The locals know what’s good to eat, just follow their lead and keep an open mind!
7. Take the metro.
The larger Chinese cities have extensive and FABULOUS metro systems. They’re super cheap and easy-to-use. Just tap the button in the corner for English and follow the colored lines to your destination! I wish we had that in Los Angeles.
8. Bring a map.
Even if you get a SIM card, cellular service in China is spotty. To be safe, bring a map of your travel destination. Even better, get a city guidebook. I know it’s tacky and touristy but our guide books SAVED OUR LIVES! I never thought we would use them as much as we did. If you don’t follow any of my other China travel tips, at least follow this one.
9. Download a VPN.
OBVIOUSLY you’ll want to get on Western social media so you can brag to everyone about how you’re in China. Download a VPN on your phone before you go. I recommend ArkVPN, which is free. Just don’t tell anyone you have it because apparently they’re illegal.
10. Pack Western “essentials”.
Bring hand sanitizer and tissues in your bag whenever you go out. The bathroom situation can be kind of weird, and you won’t always have soap or toilet paper available to you. YES YOU MAYBE WILL HAVE TO PEE IN A HOLE. It’s not THAT big of a deal, provided that you’re rather limber. Maybe practice doing squats before you leave.
But great news! Chinese hotels offer amenities that many Western hotels don’t. For example, they always give you toothpaste and toothbrushes!
11. Wash your shoes.
So, there’s no delicate way to say this, but the way the floor toilets are set up mean that you get pee on the bottom of your shoes. Take your shoes off when you get into your hotel room and rinse them off with soap and water. You’ll live.
12. Don’t eat before getting on a domestic flight.
On every Chinese domestic flight, the flight attendants will serve a hot meal. Even if it’s just quick jaunt from Shanghai to Beijing! If you want to save money, skip the meal at the airport and enjoy the free food on the plane. It’s not that bad, honest.
13. Just say “NO!”
Everybody wants you to spend your money with them. Shops, clubs, restaurants – there are many times when people will accost you in the street and try to get you to buy something. Firmly say “NO!” If you do want to buy something, definitely barter with the vendor. The price tag is merely a suggestion. I wasn’t comfortable with doing this, so I basically bought nothing in China.
14. Don’t pack a lighter.
You CANNOT bring a lighter on a Chinese airplane. Not even in your checked luggage. Why? I don’t know. But if you try THEY WILL FIND OUT. How? I also don’t know. But just don’t do it, okay?
15. Just be cool.
Look, China is its own country and they have their own groovy thing going on. It’s really different, but it’s cool. Don’t be the ugly American. Just be chill and take it all in.
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So, those are my China travel tips! If you have any questions, let me know in the comments.
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