I’ve heard some pretty lousy China travel tips before.
“Bring an inflatable travel pillow”, the so-called experts will insist.
Clearly, they’ve never been to China before.
Having visited practically every corner of the country, let me share with you my best China travel tips.
There are 40 of them for you to enjoy!
1. Never leave your hotel without toilet paper
Unless you’re going on a luxury tour of China (and even then, you can’t guarantee it), bring toilet paper with you wherever you go.
You won’t find toilet paper in most Chinese toilets, let alone hot water to wash your hands with.
2. Always carry hand sanitizer with you
Washing your hands with only cold water, and no soap, does not kill all the germs.
I like having clean hands when I eat, and after using the toilet, don’t you?
3. Pack the right way
No, I don’t mean squeeze everything neatly into those pointless packing cubes.
I mean check out my super-duper packing list for China which outlines everything you should and shouldn’t bring.
4. Have your translation app ready
The language barrier in China is real. So, choose a translation app (like Google Translate) and make sure you know how to use it before you arrive.
Find out if you can access it offline while you’re touring, or whether you need a data connection.
The article on China travel apps will help.
5. Get a VPN before you go
If you want to use Wi-Fi in your hotel in China, and not burn through money using data on your own phone plan, you need a VPN in China.
A virtual private network (VPN) is essential to access most major websites, apps, and social media.
You need to download it to your devices before you go, not after you arrive in China or it won’t work.
6. Don’t bring a water bottle
Sorry, you’ll need to leave your environmental consciousness in your own country.
Chinese tap water isn’t safe to drink, so unless you want to fill up your bottle with boiled water (which is a pain in the backside), leave your bottle at home.
There are oodles of public water-filling stations across China, but in most cases the water is boiling or warm. Chinese people don’t like drinking cold water.
So, most foreign travelers buy bottled water in China.
7. Bring low-denomination cash and join Alipay
The locals don’t use cards, and cash is almost extinct too.
Everyone uses payment apps – mostly WeChat Pay and Alipay. You can’t use WeChat Pay without a Chinese bank account, so your only option for digital payments is Alipay, but specifically their Tour Card option.
Set it up before you arrive so you’re ready to go. If, for some reason, it doesn’t work in China, have low denomination cash (yuan).
For small purchases, many merchants won’t accept 100 yuan notes, which is all the ATMs spit out here.
See also: How to count money in Chinese
8. Don’t try to avoid crowds
Because it’s impossible. Everywhere is crowded in China, unless you’re in the middle of nowhere.
The only thing you can do is get to a tourist attraction just when it opens, or around midday when the hordes of Chinese tourists go off for lunch.
But even then, there’s no guarantee there won’t be other tourists.
When booking flights, tours and hotels, avoid the peak season which is during Chinese New Year and all the national Chinese holidays, which you can look up here.
9. Don’t forget your passport
This might sound silly at first, but it’s not.
You need to show your passport to get into any tourist attraction, as well as to buy and ride the high-speed trains.
The Chinese do the same, but they use their national ID card.
No ID? No entry.
10. Bring a travel adapter/converter
Officially, the country runs on 220 V and appliances should have two or three angled prongs.
But there is no consistency among hotels, and you need to make sure you can charge your devices.
That’s why it’s a good idea to bring a travel adapter with all the variations, including the Hong Kong connection (UK type) if you’re heading there too.
Make sure your adapter is a converter too, if you’re from a country like the US which isn’t on 220 V.
11. Don’t tip unless you’re on a private tour (and it’s amazing)
The locals don’t tip – it’s not part of Chinese culture. So, why should you?
If you really want to tip, only do it on a private tour where you received mind-blowingly great service.
There are some money-hungry guides and they will actively talk about tips.
12. Avoid coach tours
Speaking of tours, don’t go on those cheap and nasty big bus tours, e.g. to the Great Wall of China.
They’ll take you to the busiest, tourist section of the wall, which is Badaling.
You’ll be pressed for time too, because the guides will insist on taking you to a silk or tea factory where they make a big commission on purchases.
And afterwards, they’ll take you to a huge hall for lunch where you’ll eat rotten, unauthentic food among hundreds of other noisy tourists.
Check out this page for travel tips specific to the nation’s capital, Beijing.
13. Try to visit smaller cities
Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love most of the major cities.
Take Beijing, for example, which is jam-packed with culture and history.
There’s so much to do there, like visiting the enormous Forbidden City, pretty Summer Palace, and the infamous Tiananmen Square.
But, you really should take the time to visit some of the lesser-known cities, where you’ll still find amazing attractions, tasty local food, and interesting things to do.
Plus, there are significantly fewer tourists, if that matters to you.
My new favorite Chinese city is Yinchuan. It’s a northern desert city that has incredible things to do, and not many foreigners venture there.
There are also lots of incredible places in Southern China, which I’m yet to fully explore.
14. Turn a blind eye to the spitting and coughing in your face
A lot has been written about this on The Helpful Panda, so I won’t go into too much detail here.
All I’ll say is this – if you venture out of the big tourist centers, you’ll experience people spitting right at your feet, and coughing up their lungs without covering their mouth.
The deeper you get into China’s smaller cities, the more pronounced this is.
Try to ignore it, if you can. It’s the only thing you can do.
The article on tips for your first time in China may help you.
15. Wear dark running shoes
Chinese streets are dirty, and your lovely clean shoes won’t be so lovely and clean within a few days of traveling.
My advice – bring black or dark colored walking shoes.
I’ve written a whole guide on what to wear in China if you need help.
16. Buy comprehensive travel insurance
Medical care is expensive in China.
If you’re hit by a car (many Chinese drivers don’t obey pedestrian zebra crossings), and you need to be hospitalized, you could be up for a small fortune. The Chinese government won’t foot the bill.
Please read my guide on medical insurance for China which talks more about this.
17. Don’t expect to learn any Chinese on a short trip
At most, you’ll learn “ni hao” (hello) and “xie xie” (thank you).
It’s a really hard language to learn, and most foreigners who can speak the lingo have studied it for years, or have lived in China (or both).
As I mentioned earlier, have your translation app ready!
If you do want to learn some survival Mandarin before you arrive in China, I recommend LTL for online classes. They also have schools in China.
You can get my discount for LTL here.
18. Visit the Big Three
If you want to see the most famous places on your trip to China, then head to:
- The Great Wall near Beijing – it’s bloody amazing
- The Terracotta Army in Xi’an – it’s also bloody amazing
- Panda sanctuary in Chengdu – the big fluff balls are bloody amazing.
The only challenge is these three cities are nowhere near each other. If you only have time to visit two of the best places, go with the first two.
19. Land in Shanghai
If you’re prone to culture shock, fly into Shanghai as your starting point.
It’s China’s most cosmopolitan city, and it’s where you’ll find all the creature comforts and many people can speak English there too.
After a few days, you’ll be a China pro and you can go on to tackle Beijing and the rest.
Check out this page for travel tips specific to Shanghai.
20. Finish in Hong Kong
If you want to visit Hong Kong, do it on the way home, i.e. it’s your last stop.
This is because you’ll most likely have a single-entry visa to mainland China, and so once you leave the mainland and enter HK, you would have to apply for another visa if you wanted to get back into the mainland.
Alternatively, you could make Hong Kong your very first stop on your China trip.
21. Get your tour guide’s recommendations on food
Constantly hound your tour guide for the best food and restaurant recommendations.
If you don’t, you could end up in those big soulless food halls en route to the attractions.
Chinese food is incredibly diverse and delicious, and it’s nothing like the Chinese food you eat back home.
Whether you’re into meat, vegies, spicy food, street food or yummy desserts, you’ll be spoiled for choice.
22. Get your visa sorted early
Unless you’re stopping in China for just a couple of days and you’re eligible for Visa Free Transit, you’ll need a China tourist visa.
The process can take time, so don’t leave it to the last minute.
23. Avoid the no-frills Chinese airlines
The Chinese aren’t known for their great service, and this is very true when it comes to Chinese airlines.
You can do what I’ve done and fly with a budget carrier for a low price (and a horrible experience) or fork out a few more dollars for a better carrier.
Otherwise, you could stick with a homegrown carrier that you know and love, which might be even more expensive.
Every time I go to China, I say to myself “Must fly with Qantas” but then somehow, I get swayed by the worse, cheaper option! Ahhh…
The largest Chinese airlines are China Southern, Air China, and China Eastern (and I would rank them in that order for service).
If you want to see how terrible their airlines can be, read my Beijing Capital Airlines review.
24. Entertain yourself
Some of the Chinese airlines, especially the smaller ones, have limited English movies on board. Or, the movies are really, really bad.
If you’re the kind of person who gets bored on long-haul flights, make sure you’ve got other ways to entertain yourself.
- A tablet or laptop loaded with lots of movies and shows
- A book – physical or e-reader
- Music, magazines, games and playing cards.
Having some stuff to entertain yourself is especially important if you’re traveling solo.
See also: How long does it take to get to China?
25. Be wary of anyone that approaches you
Chinese people are curious and will stare at you.
However, they’re generally shy and won’t be comfortable approaching you, as they don’t like making mistakes when they speak English.
This means they will leave you alone, which is great (especially for an introvert like me).
So, if someone approaches you and invites you somewhere using great English, be extremely careful.
Unfortunately, there are some well-known tourist scams and I’d hate you to get caught out!
They almost always involve being invited to a place where you have to cough up an insane amount of money.
The most common one is known as the tea ceremony scam.
While I haven’t fallen for the tea ceremony trick yet, little old me has been scammed in China.
I was 19 at the time, and I had just flown into Pudong Airport in Shanghai.
An impeccably dressed man approached me. He said to follow him for a taxi (at this point, the alarm bells should have gone off, but I was young and naive).
He took me to a private car, locked my suitcase in the trunk, and then told me the exorbitant amount I owed the driver to get to my destination.
I was shattered.
But it was a good lesson learned. Now, if anyone approaches me in China, it’s an instant “no”, regardless.
26. Leave your boob tube at home
The local girls usually wear flowy and loose clothing, particularly when it comes to tops.
By all means, you can wear tight-fitting and revealing tops, but just be aware that men may leer at you.
The females I’ve traveled with have hated this (and I don’t blame them – they’ve even been filmed).
I’ve written a whole article on what to not to wear in China if you’re keen to learn more.
Spoiler alert: There aren’t too many things I recommend against wearing. China is fairly relaxed when it comes to clothing.
27. Have your hotel address handy
I strongly recommend having your accommodation address on your phone in Chinese characters.
I always have it written down too, just in case my phone dies or I can’t bring up the information.
Without it, your taxi or Didi (China’s Uber) driver won’t know where to go. The name of the hotel won’t be enough, as Chinese cities are huge and there are countless places to stay.
28. Bring masks
Even though you don’t need to wear masks in China for COVID-19 anymore, it’s worth bringing a few in case you’re traveling around China during a fresh wave, or there’s a bad season of flu.
As I mentioned earlier, China is a crowded place and many people don’t cover their mouth when they cough and sneeze.
You could also invest in a proper anti-pollution mask if you’re headed for China’s smaller cities where the pollution can be nasty.
29. Travel in your preferred season
Most so-called China travel experts will tell you to come in spring or fall, regardless.
My advice is to travel in the season that you prefer. I personally prefer cold weather over hot weather, so I’d never aim to arrive in China in the middle of July.
Equally, tourist attractions aren’t as busy in the winter season (except during Lunar New Year), which is definitely an advantage to travel in this season.
Of course though, the best time to come in terms of pleasant or moderate weather is early spring or autumn.
But it’s ultimately your choice – the Chinese will welcome you (and your fat wallet) in any season.
30. Catch the train
China’s high-speed train network is insanely good. It’s clean, modern, and trains run perfectly on time.
Usually, it’s cheaper to take the train than fly domestically if your cities are relatively close. Plus, some of the high-speed train stations are connected to the city’s underground subway network.
So, it makes getting to your final destination easier and cheaper.
There are both first- and second-class carriages on the bullet trains. The difference is first-class passengers have more room – both legroom and chair width.
I’ve traveled on both first and second. If you have the money, I say go first-class (but I’m tall and I appreciate the extra room, so I’m probably a bit biased).
You can buy high-speed train tickets for China here.
31. Take extra care on the roads
I touched on this point earlier.
Chinese drivers are a law unto themselves and zebra crossings are not necessarily safe. Try to cross the road in a large group, or tailgate someone.
And it sounds silly to say, but look in every direction when you cross the road. Vehicles don’t follow the rules you’re used to like, like obeying one-road streets, for example.
32. Try to let things go
You’ll experience people cutting the queue right in front of you, and you may think people aren’t respecting your personal space.
This is China, and personal space doesn’t really exist.
If you can, try to let it go. It’s definitely not personal.
This is easier said than done (but if you’re living in China, you might get used to it).
33. Master chopsticks
Well, not really master them, but at least try and get used to them before you arrive.
You won’t find knives and forks at restaurants in China, unless you happen to stumble upon a steak restaurant.
You can buy cute little travel cutlery sets if the thought of using chopsticks gives you nightmares.
34. Choose your restaurant wisely
Lots of restaurants in China have photos of the food, either on the board or in the printed menu.
This makes it so easy for foreign travelers. You simply point at the dish you want.
If you’re a fussy eater, or you really want to make sure you’re not eating something gross, then pull out your translation app.
35. Prepare for spice
Chinese food is God damn spicy!
While big cities like Chongqing and Chengdu in Sichuan province are known for their spicy dishes, I’ve found that restaurants in so many other places love serving up food that burns your mouth.
Tell the waiter “Bù yào là” (不要辣) and the chef will go easy on the chili. If you’re not confident saying that, just show them on your translation app.
Just note they won’t always follow your instructions. Sometimes the chef will insist that at least a bit of chili is included. I’ve been served bright red broth even though I said no chili.
36. Get your jabs
The only mandatory vaccination for China is yellow fever. But this only applies if you’re arriving from a country known for the disease.
This means there are no mandatory vaccinations for most people, including those flying directly to China from the USA, UK, Europe and Australia.
However, there are some recommended vaccinations for all travelers, as outlined here.
I also suggest staying away from animals, even stray dogs and cats. I’ve been scratched by a feral cat in China. The last thing you want is rabies!
37. Bring multiple cards, and tell your bank
It’s a big risk if you only bring one ATM card to China. You could lose it, or a machine could swallow it up.
I always bring multiple cards when I’m traveling to China. Even when I’m flying there, I put one card in my locked suitcase, while the others are in my wallet.
This is just in case I lose my wallet (it’s happened before).
I’ve traveled with friends in China – some of whom have only come with one card – and they’ve had to rely on me when they left their card in the ATM!
Also, tell your bank you’re visiting China, because they could put a block on your card if they see all these Chinese transactions (and yep, that’s happened to me before too).
38. Consider your SIM card
If you need or want to make phone calls from China back to your country, do a little research before you arrive.
Here are some options:
- Use your phone like you normally would – by far the most expensive option
- See if your phone company has an option to make cheaper calls while you travel
- Buy a travel SIM before you go, and put it in your phone (your phone must be unlocked)
- Buy a local SIM in China (your phone must be unlocked) – a good option if you’re in China a while.
Unless you really need to talk, I recommend using a messaging app like WhatsApp, which you can use for free by using your hotel’s Wi-Fi.
Just remember to get your VPN before you arrive, as there are issues using messaging apps in China without a VPN.
39. Haggle at markets
Chinese people are born hagglers, and never accept the first price they’re given in places like markets.
If you’re not happy with the price, simply walk away and the merchant will usually come chasing.
Don’t worry if you can’t speak a word of Mandarin, the merchant will show you the price on their phone’s calculator.
40. Travel respectfully
It goes without saying, but don’t be an idiot in China.
Be respectful of the local culture, don’t drink too much, and don’t say anything silly.
And, just like you would in other countries, be respectful if you’re entering holy places. So, keep quiet and don’t take photos of monks.
If you’re headed somewhere like Xinjiang and want to step into a mosque, you’ll need to take your shoes off.
They’re my China travel tips, all wrapped up
Wow, that was quite the list, wasn’t it? I hope it didn’t overwhelm you.
At the end of the day, as long as you’ve got your passport, wallet, phone and VPN, then you’ll be able to do anything you want.
Let me know in the comments if you have any helpful suggestions of your own.
You’re going to have a great time!
I hope you learned a thing or two from my list of China travel tips. Now check out the best China travel apps so you’re digitally ready to go.
Main image credit: Supplied by Mike Cairnduff.
FAQ about traveling to China
Do I need a China travel vaccine?
The only mandatory vaccination for China is yellow fever, but it only applies if you’re arriving from a country known for the disease. This means there are no mandatory vaccinations for most people who visit China. However, some vaccines (e.g. typhoid, malaria) are recommended depending on where you’re going in China, as well as the kind of activities you plan on doing there.
How do I get a China travel visa?
Many countries now have a China Visa Service Center they can attend in person, or by applying through the post. For countries that don’t have a service center (e.g. USA), you need to apply at your nearest Chinese embassy in person or via a visa agent.
China travel: is it safe?
Yes, China is very safe for foreign tourists, especially when compared to other countries. China has a really low crime rate, and crimes against foreigners are practically unheard of. There’s an insane amount of surveillance cameras in China, too.
Can you travel China without a guide?
Yes, you can. The only exception is Tibet in Western China, where you need to be on a group tour. This is due to the historic sensitivities regarding Tibet.