China is an amazing country that should be added to your travel list. With ancient temples, beautiful mountains, unbelievable food, and world famous sites like the Great Wall, China offers many unique experiences and travel destinations that are unlike anything else.
With that said, a trip to China definitely takes some preparation and planning. Between cultural differences, language barriers, and the visa process, there are some things you should know before you arrive.
If you’re planning a trip to China for the first time, here are some tips that will help you be better prepared.
1. Research The Places in China You Want To Visit
China is a huge country with so many cities and sites to see. It is important to carefully plan out your top destinations to make sure you have time to see everything you want to. Every city in China offers its own unique sites, foods, and traditions, so where you should go depends on the experience you want to have. Traveling between cities in China may take some time because of how big the country is, so where you go depends on how much time you have.
Top Destinations in China:
- Beijing: The Great Wall, Forbidden City, and Temple of Heaven
- Xi’an: The Terracotta Warriors and the Muslim Quarter (the best food!)
- Shanghai: The Bund and Nanjing Shopping Road
- Guilin and Yangshuo: Rafting and hiking in stunning mountains
- Hangzhou and Suzhou: The West Lake and “Venice” of the East
2. Apply For a Visa In Advance
If you’re visiting China as a tourist, you need to apply for a Tourist Visa in advance (at least 2 months before is recommended). To apply for a visa you’ll need:
- Visa Application Form (Form V.2013) and Photo
- Proof of legal stay or residence status (applicable to non-U.S. citizens)
- Photocopy of previous Chinese passports or previous Chinese visas
You’ll also need documents showing your itinerary including flight bookings (round trip) and hotel reservations, or an invitation letter issued by a resident in China.
3. Get a VPN
If you’re wanting to stay connected with Gmail, Facebook, Instagram, and other Google-run websites and apps, you will need to download a VPN app on your phone. Express VPN, Astrill, and Vypr are all good VPN services.
Some people who are visiting China for a short time might be fine not using these apps while they are away, but if you rely on these apps for communication daily and want to share photos of your trip while you travel, you should download one.
4. Download Offline Translators & Other Useful Apps
I highly recommend downloading an offline translation app. Having a translation app will be a life-saver in China. You don’t need to speak Chinese to enjoy traveling here, but having a way to communicate more easily with people will make your experience much better. Whether you’re asking for directions, ordering food, or translating Chinese characters you see on a sign, an offline translation app will be your best friend.
- Google Translate is a great option and lets you download different languages so you can use them offline.
- Baidu Translate lets you screenshot photos and scan them to translate pictures (great for translating food menus).
- Pleco – another offline app useful for single words with multiple translation options
Bonus: Add the Chinese Keyboard to Your Phone. This is a little thing that helped me a lot in China. If I needed help or asked a question but didn’t have WiFi, someone could type something for me in Chinese.
You should also download metro apps and city apps, especially for bigger cities like Beijing and Shanghai. This will make navigating a new city much easier.
These are some of the apps I use to help with daily life in China: Wechat (Chinese social media), Express VPN, Beijing Metro Map, Baidu Translate, Google Translate, Pleco Chinese app, Trip.com (Booking trains in China), Baidu Maps (more accurate than Google maps but you need to type Chinese), and a Currency Convertor app.
5. Prepare for Squatty Potties & Bring Toilet Paper Everywhere
Squat toilets are very normal in China and you’ll find them in most public restrooms at train or bus stations, and at Chinese restaurants (and even McDonald’s). These squattys can range from various degrees of cleanliness, so be prepared for anything.
Also, you’ll want to carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you everywhere (just in case!) Chinese restrooms typically don’t have toilet paper stocked – everyone in China carries their own tissues with them.
Hotels, hostels, big malls, and nicer restaurants and shops (like Starbucks) will have Western toilets, though, and if you are in a bigger city Western toilets are easier to find around.
Squatty’s aren’t always pretty, and some may not have a door and will only be separated by dividers..just a warning! Here are two different ones you might find.
6. Chinese Food and Drinks
The most important thing to remember: don’t drink the tap water! Most Chinese people have a water kettle they use to boil water before drinking it (Chinese people also prefer drinking hot water to cold water). Before you drink water make sure it’s bottled or boiled first.
Some people might try to warn you about not eating the street food in China – it’s actually prepared well and I’ve never been sick from eating it. With that being said, use good judgement and see that it’s cooked right then.
7. Chinese Money, Haggling, and Tipping
In China you’ll use yuan, or remnimbi. When you go to certain markets you will haggle for prices – this might be a bit difficult if you don’t know Chinese numbers, but some people in bigger cities might speak a little English.
Another thing about money: there is no tipping in China. When you go to restaurants you don’t include a tip. And when you buy things at a store there is no sales tax – the price you see listed is the price you pay.
What’s astonishing about China now is how little cash is actually used now – people pay for everything through Wechat or AliPay on their mobile phone. Cash is still used and accepted though.
8. Culture Shock
Chinese people may behave differently than you’re used to. You’ll see some people spitting on the street, yelling loudly on the phone when riding the bus, and you might even see babies peeing on the sidewalk. Personal space isn’t really a thing here, especially on the metro or when waiting in line for something. Be prepared for the unusual and unexpected.
But also know – not all Chinese people are like this. It really depends on where you go and who the person is.
Waiting in an entrance line in China:
9. You Might Be Asked For Photos
Many people in China have not interacted closely with foreigners or may not have even talked to a foreigner before. When they see you they might get really excited and ask for a photo – or may take one without asking anyways. They’re not trying to be rude, they’re just really excited. I’ve always had a really positive experience with Chinese people, but if you’re uncomfortable it’s okay to say no and walk away.
10. Bring These Packing Essentials
China is highly developed and has lots of shops and malls to buy things – but here are some things you should definitely bring:
- Sturdy Shoes – you’ll do lots of walking (and it’s hard to find good shoes for foreign sized feet here!)
- Over-the-counter medication like ibuprofen, Dramamine, other traveling medications. There are pharmacies here but it’s much easier to bring your own.
- Tampons, deodorant, and other specific beauty products you require. There are shops like Watsons that sell shampoo, soap, etc., but you can’t find tampons or many kinds of deodorant here.
- You can buy tissue paper, hand sanitizer, and face masks in China, but if you’d rather not have to buy them here bring those along with you, too.
When I was moving to China, these were things in my carry on. For a short trip yours might look different.
Most importantly, bring an open mind and willingness to try new things! China is an incredible country that will surprise and baffle you at times, but also give you an unforgettable experience.
Have you been to China? What else is helpful to know before you visit?
Check out my other posts about living and traveling in China:
- Living in China: Big City VS. Small City
- What Do You Eat In China?
- Chinese Social Media: 7 Cool Things You Can Do With WeChat
- My Favorite Chinese Fashion Trends
- 16 Things I’ve Learned Living in China for 3 Years