OK, so you’re American and you’re traveling to China.

Firstly, congratulations! That is so exciting.

Having spent loads of time in China myself, I’m pleased to be able to share my best tips with you so that you can feel more confident and organized.

These are all the main things you should consider before jumping on the plane.

Not from the US? You may still find this article helpful but I’d suggest referring to my mega China travel tips page for more details.

1. Don’t tip

meat in large pot in a restaurant in China

Great meal in China? Don’t tip. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

My first tip – don’t tip.

The Chinese don’t tip, and neither should you. It might feel strange at first, but you’ll get used to it.

There are some exceptions to the rule, for instance if you receive amazing service at a luxury hotel, but generally you can keep your purse closed for your entire trip.

If you want to hear my personal stories about tipping in China, or you want more information about the exceptions, visit this page on China tipping.

2. Shop around for flights

woman buying flights online

Airfares have been higher than usual so try to get a good deal. Image by goffkein.pro on Shutterstock.

This might sound like common sense.

But with China-US relations at a sobering low, the number of direct flights between the two countries has not rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.

The result? Higher than normal airfares.

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This is why it’s even more important to shop around for a good deal. I recommend bundled flight and hotel deals through Trip.

(In case you don’t know, Trip is one of the best travel companies for China because it started there and has a huge offering of hotels, flights, tours, and train tickets.)

3. Plan your flight route

American Airlines airplane in cloudy sky

Flights from the US to China vary in terms of the route, flight time and cost. Image by Max Lewandowski on Pexels.

Speaking of flights, will you be flying out of the west coast or east coast?

And which Chinese city will you be flying into?

China is a huge country like the United States, so this will dictate not only how long your flight is, but also the options you have for a possible stopover (which may make the flight cheaper).

If you’re heading to southern China and you’re on a budget, you might find it’s more economical to fly to Bangkok, Thailand and transfer there.

There are lots of options, so it pays to do your research.

4. Consider U.S. government travel advice

woman on sofa looking at her phone

Make sure you’re aware of the travel advice. Image by Yamil Najul on Shutterstock.

Before you buy your flights, it’s worth knowing the U.S. government’s official stance on visiting China.

Of the four travel advisory levels, the People’s Republic of China is regarded as Level 3: “reconsider travel”.

The U.S. government says you should “reconsider travel to mainland China due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws, including in relation to exit bans, and the risk of wrongful detentions.”

I believe the United States is the only country in the world with such advice at the moment (correct me if I’m wrong, in the comments below).

Other countries, such as Canada and Australia, have a lower level of advice, which is to “exercise a high degree of caution”.

It’s such a shame that the USA and China aren’t getting along at the moment.

5. Get a VPN before you leave

Americans should get a VPN in China

You need a VPN if you want to use hotel Wi-Fi. Image by Privecstasy on Unsplash.

If you want to stay connected with all your loved ones in the United States, and keep using all the sites and apps you’re used to, you’ll need a VPN if you want to use Wi-Fi in China.

Censorship is extensive and the Chinese authorities are making it harder and harder for the VPN companies.

Of course, you can survive in China as an American without a VPN but life is much, much harder. Almost every major American social media and news site is banned, not to mention sites that make our lives easier like Google.

Refer to my page on the best VPN for China which only highlights the ones that work in China.

It’s worth pointing out that the Chinese government isn’t trying to make it hard for foreigners regarding internet access. The restrictions are in place to control what the locals see.

6. Allow enough time for your Chinese visa

Americans need a visa for China

Allow time to get your Chinese visa. Image by Toa55 on Shutterstock.

One of the downsides of being a US citizen traveling to China is the visa process.

Unless you live near one of the Chinese consulates (and you do a walk-in), you’ll need to pay an agent to handle this for you.

You cannot do visa applications by mail. It’s a pain in the butt, and makes your trip a little more complex and costly.

For walk-ins, consulates are located in:

  • Washington DC (the embassy)
  • Chicago
  • New York
  • Los Angeles
  • San Francisco

There used to be one in Texas but it’s closed at the moment.

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You can refer to the Chinese embassy’s US page for more info.

When using an agent, allow about a week for visa processing, provided you’ve submitted everything perfectly the first go.

If you need a visa agent, I recommend using a trusted one such as iVisa:

Remember not to buy your airfare until your visa has been issued and you’ve got your travel documents back.

7. Brace yourself for the steps and stairs

tourists on Great Wall of China

One tiny, tiny section of the Great Wall. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

A lot of Chinese tourist attractions have loads of steps and stairs. And I’m talking thousands.

There are no elevators at the natural attractions, either. So, if you’re very unfit and you want to see some of China’s best attractions, you might need to rethink your trip.

From my experience traveling around China the past couple of decades, here are the main culprits with an insane amount of stairs and steps:

  • The Great Wall of China (sorry!)
  • Longji Rice Terraces near Guilin
  • Any mountain (it probably goes without saying) such as Huashan Mountain
  • Zhangjiajie, the area that inspired the backdrop in the movie Avatar
  • Giant Buddha in Leshan

And there are many more!

Oh, and if you’re in a wheelchair, you’re going to have an extremely hard time in China even in the major cities.

Getting through a temple or the Forbidden City would be impossible (as Chinese traditions involve stepping over the bottom of a doorway), let alone being able to get up and down sidewalks.

8. Ditch the credit cards

person holding wallet with credit cards

Cash or card? You won’t hear that expression in China. Image by Rann Vijay on Pexels.

In recent years, China has become a lot more advanced than the US when it comes to consumer payments.

You’ll never see a Chinese person pull out a plastic card from their wallet. Everyone pays for stuff using a phone app – either WeChat Pay or Alipay.

The good news? You can too!

If you’re comfortable submitting your personal details (including passport details) to WeChat or Alipay, you’ll be able to pay for everyday stuff in China.

Your only other real option is cash, and that’s a pain because Chinese ATMs only spit out 100 yuan notes.

Small vendors often don’t have change for large denominations. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but trust me, cash is getting really hard to use in China.

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Sign up for Alipay or WeChat Pay, or both, before you head off. If you only sign up for one, my personal preference is Alipay as I find it a lot easier to navigate.

And when you sign up, make sure all your personal details match up, or your application will be rejected.

Customer service for both apps is appalling (it’s practically non-existent), so don’t bother contacting them if you have any issues.

You can check out my China travel apps page for more apps that will make your trip easier.

9. Expect a different hotel experience

typical Chinese hotel room

A typical Chinese hotel room in a big city. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Hotels in China are OK, but they’re certainly not great (unless you’re staying in luxury).

When it comes to dealing with foreigners, Chinese hotel staff are generally helpful but quite shy and reserved. They’re afraid of making mistakes when speaking English.

From my experience staying at countless hotels across China, here are the main things an American traveling to China needs to know:

  • Bottled water is provided daily because the tap water is unsafe to drink
  • Most hotel rooms don’t have a minibar (but amazing Chinese food won’t be far away)
  • Front desk staff can barely crack a smile
  • Western breakfast is usually terrible (no fresh dairy, no cereal, bad coffee etc), so choose the buffet option if there is one
  • If the Wi-Fi password isn’t printed anywhere, it’s probably 12345678 or 88888888
  • Other guests can be noisy so bring earplugs
  • Many rooms and hallways smell like cigarette smoke
  • Toilet tissue is low quality and they don’t provide enough for two people.

I’ve also found that many Chinese hotels don’t understand what privacy means.

Even if you hang the ‘do not disturb’ sign on your door, you may find that hotel staff have entered the room to clean and so on. This has happened to me countless times.

I hope all of this doesn’t sound too negative. I’m just trying to give an honest appraisal so you know what to expect.

(I’ve written a whole article called What are Chinese people like? if you want to dig deeper into the Chinese psyche.)

10. Good luck with food

holding prawn dumpling with chopsticks

The so-called vegetarian dumplings which had prawn in them. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

Chinese food is delicious and so much better than the ‘fake’ Chinese food in the United States.

General Tso’s chicken? Errr, the Chinese have never heard of it!

If you’re part of a tour, then your guide will probably take your group to restaurants to eat. But if you go it alone, here’s my advice:

  • Choose a restaurant with photos on the wall or menu, so you can point
  • Use a translator on your phone, such as Google Translate (remember to get your VPN)
  • Chinese people don’t understand allergies (they don’t exist in China) so if you’re allergic to something know exactly what you’re ordering
  • Food will come out at any random order, so don’t expect the rice first
  • Locals love spicy food so if you don’t want a scorching mouth, say “Bù yào là” or show them the Chinese characters (不要辣) on your phone.

This list is by no means exhaustive but hopefully it helps you a little!

And remember to get China travel insurance in case you get really sick from food or something else. Medical care isn’t cheap in China.

11. BYO toilet paper

Chinese squat toilet with toilet paper

A rare sight – a Chinese toilet with paper provided. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

And finally, the bathroom.

If you’re brave enough to use a Chinese squat toilet, then don’t forget to bring your own toilet paper. It’s not provided, except at hotels.

Similarly, you should BYO hand sanitizer because hand wash or soap isn’t provided in local loos.

It sounds funny to say it, but ‘holding on’ until you get back to your hotel is often your best option.

I hope you liked this special list with US citizens in mind. There’s some more general travel information below, otherwise check out my page on what not to do in China for more helpful advice. Have an amazing time in China!

Main image credit: Krakenimages.com on Shutterstock.

Helpful resources

Need help with your trip? Here are some helpful resources:

Assistance for U.S. citizens in China

Hopefully you won’t require consular services, but if you do then here are the contact details for the U.S. embassy in Beijing:

There are also consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Wuhan and Shenyang.

FAQ for Americans traveling to China

Are Americans allowed to go to China right now?

They sure are. China is open and warmly welcomes American tourists.

Is China good for Americans?

Yes, China is good for Americans because it’s safe, there are lots of attractions, and things are cheap.

What should I know before traveling to China?

The main things are to get a VPN if you want to connect with the outside world via Wi-Fi, don’t tip anyone, download Alipay or WeChat for easy payments, and bring toilet tissue everywhere you go.

Is it safe to travel to China as an American?

Yes, China is safe for American citizens. Just remember to follow all local laws and you should be fine.

Is it safe to bring my phone to China?

Of course. In fact, you’ll need your phone to make payments in China, unless you only want to use cash which can be troublesome at small businesses.