Don’t fret – traveling in China without speaking Chinese is possible.
You’ll find a bit of English in the major cities like Beijing and Shanghai.
In fact, if you spend all of your time in the touristy areas or you’re on a package tour, you won’t need any Mandarin for a short trip.
But once you go outside of those areas, the English level will drop sharply.
In a lot of cities, you’ll find young people who speak very broken English because it’s a part of their school curriculum.
Unfortunately, their pronunciation can be difficult to understand and their phrasing hard to follow. Chinese people are also pretty shy and may be afraid to speak up.
This can be a barrier on longer trips, particularly if you want to interact with the locals or order food.
But if you’re thinking of travelling to China for a short vacation and you’re worried about surviving without any Mandarin skills, it actually isn’t as difficult as you think.
You just need a few simple tips to help you.
1. Get the address in Chinese
When you visit China, chances are that you’ll first encounter the language barrier on the way to your accommodation.
Don’t expect your taxi driver to speak English. And depending on what city you’re in, you probably won’t find many public transport signs in English either.
So, when you book your accommodation online, print out your confirmation or save it to your phone. Make sure it has the Chinese address in both pinyin and the Chinese characters so you can show it to your taxi driver.
If you’re headed to China on a package tour, you’ll probably have someone waiting for you at the airport. This is great as it takes the stress away.
But I’d still recommend having your Chinese accommodation details handy just in case you can’t find your bus or tour leader at the airport.
2. Get a hotel card
If you’re checking into a hotel, get a card from the front desk that has the name of the hotel and the address in Chinese characters. There’s often a map on the back too.
Take a photo of the card with your phone, and slip the hardcopy into your purse or wallet.
You can show these cards anytime you’re lost, and chances are that someone will be able to help. Taxi drivers are generally pretty good in China.
3. Look for restaurants with pictures
When you’re eating out in China’s touristy areas, you won’t have too many problems deciphering the dumplings from the ducks’ tongues. This is because the menus will have English, or you’ll be able to get help from your tour leader.
If you get off the beaten track, however, you’ll need to rely on restaurants that have pictures in their menus.
Some places will also have pictures on the shop windows to tempt people in, or even on the wall above the counter.
Don’t be embarrassed to point, gesture, and get the dish you’re looking for. Body language goes a long way when you’re traveling in China!
The whole procedure can be a bit embarrassing sometimes. You’ll find yourself pointing up, down, sideways, back, and forwards in an effort to get the waitress to point at the right dish.
But in the end, it’ll be worth it.
How do you order a certain number of things?
This is an easy one. If you’re at a street food stall that sells delicious buns, for example, hold up a finger or two to indicate how many.
Chances are they’ll laugh at you, but they’ll also give you your food.
The Chinese have totally different finger gestures for numbers six and above.
So, unless you can demonstrate these, pull out your phone and point to the number you want.
How do you order what someone else is eating?
If you’re really hungry and have no other choice, you can point at other people’s food.
Just take your waitress to someone else’s table as discreetly as possible and point.
Everyone will look at you funny. But if you’re in a city that doesn’t see enough tourists to have picture menus, they’ll probably be looking at you anyway.
4. Download the right apps on your phone
Language translation apps are one of the best tools for traveling in China without speaking Mandarin. Download a few apps on your phone and see which one you like the best.
Google Translate is one of the best travel apps for China.
What’s more, you can use it offline so you don’t need to be connected to your hotel’s Wi-Fi. Same goes for Pleco, another great translation app that you can use for free.
If you’re keen on using Google and other Western apps in China, make sure you use a VPN like this one.
Or, read my review of the best VPNs that work in China if you need a bit more information.
If you don’t have a VPN in China you won’t be able to access all your favorite websites and apps. This could make for an unpleasant trip!
Just make sure you download the VPN before you arrive in China, otherwise you’ll be stuck.
5. Learn the Chinese characters for certain things
Some travelers don’t like using apps or technology. Some don’t even know what an app is (like my parents!).
If this sounds like you, try learning some Chinese characters for the things you want to eat or buy in China, or even for the things you want to avoid.
This activity is guaranteed to kill a few hours on your long-haul flight!
As an example, Chinese people eat a lot of different meat. You’ll find the usual offerings like chicken and beef, but things like intestines and brains are also widespread.
It can be a bit of a shock to get your dinner and realise that it isn’t the meat you thought. But if you learn the Chinese characters for some common meats, you can at least be sure about the kind of food you’re eating.
6. Use a calculator
The shopping in China is first rate. You’ll find everything from designer goods to knock-offs, kooky souvenirs, custom-made clothing, and a bewildering array of toiletries and makeup.
In big stores, you shouldn’t have a problem communicating as every item has a set price. There’s no haggling. And products have bar codes exactly like you’ll find back home.
However, this isn’t the case when you shop at markets. At these places you need to haggle to get a good price. And that can feel impossible if you don’t have any Mandarin skills.
In some markets, you may find people who speak a little English. Unfortunately, they’re also very likely to have learned those skills while selling confused foreigners overpriced, fake designer goods.
To get a good deal in these places, you’re going to have to learn to bargain a little when you don’t understand each other. Fortunately, this is simpler than you think.
Every market stall you go to will have a calculator. This applies to pop-up fruit stalls in local neighborhoods as well as shops in bigger markets. The shopkeeper will use the calculator to show you the price.
And you can use it as well to suggest a lower price. Whatever you do, don’t accept the first price you’re given!
7. Use a phrasebook
Yes, walking around with a phrasebook can look silly, but it can also be immensely helpful.
Plus, some people aren’t comfortable carrying their smartphone around in case it gets lost.
I’ve survived in China using a good old-fashioned phrasebook and guidebook.
I remember many years ago I was traveling in central China and all I had was The Rough Guide to China in my bag.
Late one night I went to check in to a place that was meant to be a cheap youth hostel. But the elaborate foyer and suited-up staff just didn’t make sense.
The man at the front desk explained that the accommodation had recently been given a massive makeover. It was now a full-priced hotel!
I digress a little. The point I’m trying to make is phrasebooks and guidebooks can be handy, just be aware of their limitations.
8. Use empty packages
I love this tip for traveling in China without speaking Chinese. (I have to admit though it’s not my own idea – I found it here.)
If you’ve run out of something, simply bring the empty package to the store. If the package is from back home, bring it to an equivalent store in China.
This is especially good for medicines. Showing a person at a pharmacy an empty box is usually a lot quicker and easier than struggling with them not understanding what you’re asking for.
You’ve also got a much better chance of getting the right thing.
9. Get help from others
If you don’t speak Chinese and you have limited time in China, then you are going to miss things. There are places and experiences that you just won’t be able to find or access.
That is, unless you get help.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you’re in China, because chances are that the people you do ask will be more than happy to help you have a great stay.
Hotel staff are there to assist you. And if they work on the front desk, then they probably speak a little English.
Ask them what to see, where to eat, and the easiest way to see top attractions. The hotel or hostel probably has tours that you can join, so ask them about that too.
They can also book you a taxi and tell the driver where you want to go.
Your tour guide is also a valuable resource. You’ve paid for your tour, so get as much help as you can from your guide.
They can even help you haggle.
Have a great time traveling in China without speaking Chinese
You can still have a great trip to China if you don’t have any Mandarin skills. You just need to be a little more creative in how you interact with people.
If you’re staying longer, try to learn some of the language. It will take time, but it will immeasurably improve your interactions and relationships with the local people.
And that’s what travelling is all about.
What do you think of my tips for surviving China without speaking Chinese? Have I missed any? Let me know in the comments below. I’ve also written a blog on the best souvenirs in China – there are some tacky ones but also a few cool ones!