Planning a trip to China in 2023? Now is the perfect time to travel to China since tourist visas have just been reinstated here!
China has something to offer for every interest, whether it’s visiting cultural and historical sites, perusing local food markets, going on hikes through breathtaking natural scenery, or experiencing the megacities and nightlife.
However, organizing a trip to China can be more difficult than planning a trip to other parts of the world. There are a number of things to consider, such as the language barrier, applying for a visa, itinerary planning, packing, currency exchanges, ticket booking, and getting used to local customs. But don’t worry—I’m here to help!
Since 2015, I’ve been an expat living in China, and I am currently based in Beijing. I’ve visited more than 25 different parts of China on my travels, and I also stayed in China during the COVID period. From navigating the language barrier to understanding cultural norms, my experiences in China have given me valuable insights that can help make your trip smoother and more enjoyable.
Whether you’re a first-time visitor or a seasoned traveler, these tips will help you make the most of your time in this fascinating country. Here are 50 things you should know before traveling to China in 2023.
- Tourism in China & COVID Policies in 2023
- Technology & Apps
- Planning a Trip To China
- Booking Tickets
- Money & Paying For Things in China
- Chinese Language Tips
- Packing for China
- Eating and Drinking in China
- Other Tips for Traveling in China
Tourism in China & COVID Policies in 2023
1. China is now open for tourists! For 3 years tourist visas were not issued because of COVID, but it was just announced that China will resume issuing all types of visas for foreigners including the tourism visa, port visa, and multiple visa-exemption policies starting from March 15, 2023.
Note: Foreigners who plan to travel to China in the near future are suggested to consult with their local embassies or consulates for more information.
2. China also offers a visa-free transit, which many people may not know about. The visa-free transit policy in China, offering 24-, 72- and 144-hour periods of visa-free transit officially resumed in January 2023. This means you could have up to 6 days in China without a visa! Note: This option is not available to all passports and countries. Check the latest and detailed information with the Chinese embassy of your country.
3. Since January 8, 2023, there is NO more quarantine when arriving in China!
4. China Entry Requirements: When entering China, most countries are required to have a 48 hour COVID test by the time of your departure. Some countries are now allowed to do an antigen self test within 48 hours instead. Check the official Chinese embassy website and your country of departure for the most up to date information.
5. Masks: When outside in public in China, masks are not always required, and more people are not wearing masks now. However, in certain places, such as official public attractions and public transportation like subways, planes, and trains they are still worn. It is not as strictly enforced as it used to be, but you should have masks with you for flying into China, and in case you need to wear one elsewhere.
Technology & Apps
6. Download a VPN (Virtual Private Network) before you fly to China. In China, the Great Firewall is very real. Google and Google-based apps and other websites are blocked, as well as social media apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, and so on.
It’s best to download one onto your phone and computer in advance, as once you arrive it’s tricky (but not impossible) to do. I used Express VPN for several years, but switched to Astrill in recent years because it has I feel it works more consistently.
7. Bring an unlocked phone if you want to use a Chinese SIM card during your trip. I would highly recommend getting a Chinese SIM card. This way you can access internet wherever you are and if you need help. Also, many public places that offer WiFi require a SMS verification. It just makes things more convenient to have access to things. You could buy a SIM card in advance on Amazon, or even buy one in most airports when you arrive.
8. Download WeChat, China’s top social media app. It’s more than just a media app for messaging friends and sharing updates, it’s also used for booking train tickets and movie tickets, sending money to friends, sharing locations and maps, and using a plethora of other mini-apps within the app. It’s like Facebook, What’s App, Venmo, and more all rolled into one. It’s recommended to download before you arrive, as it will ease communication with drivers, tour guides, new friends, and other people you meet here.
9. There are many other useful apps you should download before you come to China. Here are a few of my recommendations:
- A translation app like Pleco. Downloading an offline translation app is a good idea!
- CTrip for booking plane and train tickets, as well as hotels.
- A map app. I use Baidu Maps, which is in Chinese, but I find it more useful than Google Maps. Google Maps will work if you have a VPN on, but generally I find it less accurate.
- I also have a conversion app I use for calculating USD to RMB.
- If you have connected a bank card to WeChat or Alipay, you can use Didi (an app for calling taxis).
Planning a Trip To China
10. Avoid traveling during holidays in China, especially the two big holidays when most people are traveling.
The first holiday to avoid is Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, which is generally sometime between end of January through February, but the exact dates change every year because of the Lunar Calendar.
The second holiday to avoid is China National Day, which falls on October 1st every year. China National Day, officially the National Day of the People’s Republic of China, is annually celebrated on October 1st to commemorate the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This week is called “Golden Week”, as most people will have a holiday from October 1 – 7.
These are large human migration times in China, as people will have time off to go home to see their families or travel. It’s difficult to book train tickets during this time, and tourist destinations (especially Beijing) will be really crowded. Also, many shops and places will close during Spring Festival, depending on the city you’re in. So generally, it’s best to avoid these times.
11. Research Where To Travel.
China is a vast country with diverse regions and cultures, so research and planning ahead can help make the most of your trip. China’s big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an have so much to offer and you definitely must visit the Great Wall, the Bund, and the Terracotta Warriors. But also, China is a HUGE country with so much to see and there’s more to China than big cities! If you’re visiting for more than one week and have time to travel around more, I highly recommend visiting some mountains, smaller villages, or less traveled places.
Here are the top 10 cities that are usually visited 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
Not sure where to go? Check out my post: Where To Travel In China: China Travel Quiz and Best Destinations To See.
12. As a foreigner, the best app to use to book trains, planes, and hotels is Ctrip. It accepts both Chinese and Western forms of payment, is in English, and offers great customer service. If you can read Chinese or are more familiar with Chinese apps, you can use the official booking apps, like 12306.
13. Try China’s high-speed rail system. It’s amazingly fast, convenient, and always punctual, and you don’t need as much time for security as you do for flying. It’s also just a cool way to see more of the countryside of China! You can also take an overnight sleeper train in China for long travels.
14. Check tourist attraction schedules in advance. Some tourist attractions might require booking in advance or have unusual hours or days when they are closed. For example, the Forbidden City requires booking a day in advance usually, and is closed on Mondays. Plan in advance so you don’t miss out on any attractions you want to see!
15. Consider if you want to travel with a tour group or book by yourself.
Depending on the type of trip you want, both options are fantastic and have unique advantages. Although I personally like to plan more of my own trips, in more remote locations it may be advantageous to join a tour group or hire a driver to make your travels more convenient.
I recently took a solo trip to the southern mountains in Chongzuo, Guangxi, where I needed to hire drivers since it was a more remote area. Read more: A Guide To Visiting Mingshi Scenic Area: Daxin, Chongzuo, Guangxi
There’s also some really cool specialty tour trips like Lost Plate Food Tours which will help you navigate a city and introduce you to the best local dishes. Lost Plate is an award winning food tour group in China and Asia that dive into local culture with excellent guides and incredible food. I’ve been on two of their tours in Beijing, and they were heavenly. They also do tours in Xi’an, Ningxia, Lijiang, Chengdu, and Suzhou.
If you want to book a tour, use my code for a discount at checkout: RACHELMEETSCHINA
Money & Paying For Things in China
15. China is largely a cashless society now. Most people pay with WeChat or Alipay, which are apps on your phone that connect to your bank card. All around China you will see QR codes for mobile payment everywhere from taxis to restaurants, making it a very convenient way to pay.
You can now connect a foreign bank card to Alipay! Check out this guide to connect your card to Alipay. That being said, of course cash is still used and is always good to carry in case.
16. You can exchange your currency for Chinese yuan before you leave or after you arrive in China. I would recommend exchanging a small amount to start you off, then just withdrawing RMB from an ATM with a debit card, as it is usually cheaper than exchanging in your home country. It is best to stick with major banks such as the Bank of China, ICBC, China Construction Bank, or HSBC. Be sure to check which cards are supported before you use the ATM.
17. Not everywhere will accept credit card, especially more local places. However, in bigger cities, some hotels, upscale restaurants, and foreign brand-name stores accept credit cards. Visa, MasterCard, and American Express are all widely accepted in big cities in China. Check with your bank about the kinds of international fees you may incur.
18. You don’t need to tip in China! Unless you feel there is a particularly special reason to tip (like you had an amazing tour guide for your trip) there is no reason to tip and would be kind of weird and strange to staff.
19. There is no sales tax in China. The price you see at markets and stores is the price you pay. This also goes for restaurants, there is no additional tax at most places.
20. Haggling: I think it’s a common misconception that in China you will haggle for things all the time. Most stores, malls, and restaurants will have set prices for things, and in my daily life here in China I never haggle.
However, there are a few markets where it’s still possible to barter with store owners, like at the Pearl Market and the Silk Market in Beijing. This is becoming less common I feel, as most store owners will just have a set price with a label on the item.
21. Carry your passport or a photocopy of your passport and visa pages with you. For many tourist attractions in China like the Forbidden City you’ll need your passport anyways, so it’s good to have on hand. If you’re just going out for the evening, I recommend keeping your passport in a safe place and just having a photocopy of your passport and visa.
22. Don’t forget to buy travel insurance for your trip.
23. It IS safe to solo travel in China. I’m often asked about solo travel, especially as a female traveler in China. Yes, the traffic and noise and culture shock can feel overwhelming or chaotic, but I feel very safe traveling by myself in both big cities and remote places. I’ve walked home late at night in Beijing too many times to count, and also take dozens of planes, trains, and buses by myself. Of course, you should always be cautious. Read more of my guide: Tips For Traveling Solo in China
24. Be aware of scams. Just like traveling anywhere, there are scams that can happen in China. Some common ones include tea house scams – where someone will “invite” you to a tea shop and then drop a huge bill on you. For those of you using dating apps like Tinder and Tantan in China, be aware of some catfishers or people who meet up and take you to a bar then also leave you with a bill. Another interesting scam is the Good Samaritan Scam. Just keep your wits about you.
25. When taking a taxi, make sure you go to an official taxi zone if you’re at the airport or train station. This ensures they are a legit service and will run the meter. I walk straight past the other people who call out for me (they might overcharge you, unless you can speak Chinese and can directly talk to them). If you’re in a smaller city, just be careful and still make sure they run the meter for you.
Chinese Language Tips
26. Print out your hotel confirmation in Chinese! This is a huge lifesaver to quickly show taxi drivers or other people to help you.
27. Try to learn some simple Chinese phrases for traveling and ordering food. China is a large country and on the whole there is a low percentage of people who speak English. However, in bigger cities at international shops and restaurants it’s far more likely you’ll meet people who speak some English or are fluent. And even in smaller cities I’ve met students and other people who can speak some English. But it’s still good as a traveler to learn a few phrases!
Even better: Learn a few phrases about your country or hometown to make a connection with people you meet. “Wo shi Meiguoren” (I am American) and “Wo laizi Dalasi” (I’m from Dallas) usually get me fun responses from Chinese people who love NBA. If you can’t speak a lot, smiling can go a long way.
28. Download a translation app to have on the ready. Pleco is a popular app, as well as Google Translate. Try to have an offline version downloaded, in case your phone dies or you don’t have service.
Also, Wechat and Google translate camera function will translate any written Chinese text for you, so you can take photos of menus. The Google translate voice to text function can really speed up conversations pretty well. Many foreigners often use these features to screenshot apps to translate options quickly. (Remember for Google you will need a VPN for it to work, so it’s not the most reliable option).
29. If you don’t speak any Chinese at all and you’re speaking to someone who doesn’t speak much English, speak very slowly, using as few words as possible and very simple words. This sounds like common sense, but I’ve seen some foreigners get frustrated and yell quickly at someone. You’re in their country; just be respectful, as they are another human being. People are usually very friendly in China and happy to help, even with language barriers. This is where you can also whip out WeChat, add them as a contact, and use the translation function to chat back and forth.
And if you speak more slowly, someone might be able to catch more of the words and get the gist of what you’re trying to communicate. A few Chinese used English loan words or they sound similar, like coffee (kafei), salad (shala), sofa (shafa), pizza (pisa), Coka cola (Kouke kele) and so on. This is not a hard and fast rule at all though, but sometimes works out in your favor.
Packing for China
30. Wear your most comfortable walking shoes because you will be doing a lot of walking in China!
31. Pack lots of layers! From Beijing in the north to Guangzhou in the south, China is such a large country and the weather may vary greatly depending on the season when you’re traveling. An umbrella or rain jacket and quick drying fabrics are a great idea.
32. This might be the most important tip I can share with you: be prepared for squatty toilets, and carry a pack of tissues or toilet paper with you everywhere!
Many places don’t stock toilet paper. Everyone just carries their own. Of course, hotels, nicer restaurants, and malls will have their own toilet paper, and will usually have Western toilets. But many smaller cities and bus and train stations may not have Western toilets at all.
33. Other good things to pack for China: Specific toiletries, medicine, vitamins, hand sanitizer, power convertor, sunscreen, razors, snacks, band-aids, face masks, and feminine products.
34. Electrical Outlets and Plugs: China uses three associated plug types, types A, C and I. Plug type A is the plug which has two flat parallel pins, plug type C is the plug which has two round pins and plug type I is the plug which has three flat pins in a triangular pattern. China operates on a 220V supply voltage and 50Hz. Keep this in mind when bringing over your electronics, hair dryers, etc.
This photo below shows the common outlets you’ll see in China.
35. Battery Packs are a lifesaver! I never travel without one in China. In China, your mobile phone is your lifeline. It’s used for paying for things, booking taxis, using Translation apps, and so on. If your phone dies, you could be SOL. So, I recommend bringing one with you. In China, many public places will have battery pack systems as well that you can rent out and return to other locations.
36. China can be quite a loud and noisy place. It’s quite normal to see people chatting loudly on trains, buses, etc. Just be prepared and pack ear plugs and headphones in case you’re a light sleeper on trains and planes.
37. Forget something? No stress. In China you’ll find shops like Miniso, Watson’s, or WuMart that will have accessories, toiletries, lotions, hygiene products, laundry detergent, and other items on hand. Your hotel, hostel, or guide should be able to help you navigate and find shops for what you need, or even help you have it delivered to your hotel.
Eating and Drinking in China
38. Do not drink the tap water in China. Most people will drink boiled hot water in China (everyone has kettles here) or will buy bottled water. The tap water is unfiltered and might make you sick.
39. Try the many diverse regional Chinese cuisines. Cuisine differs from province to province, and even city to city. Research the cities you plan to go to so you can learn about their specialties! It’s a treat to try the variety of Sichuan (spicy), Dongbei (rich and hearty), Cantonese (sweet), and other cuisines of China. Try all the Chinese food because it’s amazing!
Here’s a quick guide to 12 Popular Chinese Dishes & How To Order Them in China
40. Not sure where or what to eat? Look around at where locals are lined up or sitting.
My favorite meals in China aren’t the super fancy ones at hotels, but rather the local mom and pop shop in a small street. Local Chinese people will know the best places. It’s also fun to ask the waiter or owner of the shop what dishes they recommend. Also, you’ll commonly hear people eating loudly and slurping noodles, which is generally a compliment to the chef.
Like I mentioned before, a great way to explore local food is through a food tour! Once again, check out Lost Plate for a food-experience that will blow your mind.
If you want to book a tour, make sure you use my code for a discount at checkout: RACHELMEETSCHINA
41. Traveling in China as a vegan or vegetarian can be challenging, but it’s not impossible.
Copy or screenshot some phrases in Chinese to tell someone your dietary requirements. Some people and restaurants can be quite accommodating and nice. But also, don’t be surprised if somethings get lost in translation, or other items are cooking along with meat. There are more vegetarian and vegan restaurants now in larger cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen. I recommend looking up specific city locations you’re going to.
42. There are many international food options in China.
If you’re worried about eating only Chinese food or just need a break for a meal, you can find KFC, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and McDonald’s in most cities, as well as many other International cuisines.
Additionally, there are also restaurants that serve Korean, Japanese, Italian, and other international cuisines. However, I always recommended trying mostly local Chinese food as it’s a unique and integral part of the country’s culture and cuisine.
43. It is legal to drink on the streets and in public places in China. Convenience stores sell alcohol available at any time of the day so have fun BUT be responsible. Remember, as a foreigner it’s important to keep in mind you are in another country. Respect their rules (and having to deal with police is a huge hassle that may not lean at all in your favor).
44. Restaurant styles: family style or individual.
Some restaurants will serve food family style at a large round table, with many dishes ordered for everyone to share. Other restaurants are more casual, where you can order your own dish for yourself. If you’re invited to a nice dinner, the host or guest of honor will sit directly opposite of the door. Also, don’t stick your chopsticks standing up in your rice! This is a taboo and bad luck.
45. Carry some snacks and comfort food with you. This is not only a good idea for long travel days on trains or buses, but also good if you’re a picky eater or have certain food requirements, or if you’re traveling with childen. In big cities you can find shops like 7/11 and Family Mart, and small cities also have convenience shops and grocery stores where you can pick up extra snacks, instant noodles, water, coffee, and other things.
Other Tips for Traveling in China
47. Chinese people are so friendly and hospitable. Everywhere I’ve traveled I’ve met wonderful hotel owners, restaurant staff, and random people on the street. Sometimes you might get asked very direct questions, which is just part of their cultural language frame and also curiosity. For example, many taxi drivers often like to ask me if I have a boyfriend. And several years ago, upon finding out I was American, they liked to ask me about Trump.
46. Be mindful of pollution
InChina, pollution is a significant issue, particularly if you have respiratory health issues. If you have sensitivity to the air, try to avoid crowded areas or use a mask. Many people download an AQI app to check pollution, and carry a mask for it. Honestly, the pollution has gotten MUCH better in China than in the 2010s, but that bad reputation still carries through. There are, of course, some bad days, like in Beijing. But, don’t let that ruin your idea of China travel.
48. People might ask to take your photos. This often happens at famous tourist attractions like the Forbidden City and Great Wall, but also in many other settings. Mostly people want to be friendly to you as a foreigner, and think it’s fun to take a photo.
49. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and meet new people!
50. Embrace the adventure. There are many incredible experiences to have in China if you just lean in and say yes to what it sends your way!