Think you’re a seasoned traveler?
China is a bit different to other countries. While it’s an amazing travel destination, there are quirks and nuances you won’t find anywhere else.
And, as a tourist, there are some particular things that you should avoid doing outright in China.
So, if you want a smooth and stress-free time in China, here’s a list of 20 things you shouldn’t do there.
1. Don’t drink tap water
Even if you’re staying in the best hotel in town, don’t drink the tap water.
China’s sanitation system isn’t the same as what you’re used to, and if you drink the local tap water you could get very sick.
You don’t want to get sick in China because this means a trip to the hospital (they don’t have doctor’s clinics) and potentially time out from your likely packed travel schedule.
Either boil the water in your hotel room and let it cool down, or buy bottled water instead.
It is a pain in the you-know-what, but you’ll get used to it. Because you have to!
2. Don’t talk about the Three T’s
Got a big mouth? Well, best you zip it in China.
The famous Three T’s which you shouldn’t talk about openly are Tibet, Taiwan and the Tiananmen Square protests.
Beyond the Three T’s, there are plenty of other things you shouldn’t discuss in China, like sex, religion, politics, Xinjiang, Hong Kong freedoms…
The simple rule is: if it’s controversial, keep it to yourself.
3. Don’t tip
The locals don’t tip, so why would you?
The only exception is if you’re on a private tour and you want to tip the driver and tour guide.
Definitely don’t tip taxi drivers, restaurant staff or anyone else. It’s not part of the Chinese culture.
4. Don’t take photos without asking
I guess this one is universal, but I’ve found that many Chinese don’t like their photo being taken.
If you want a snap, ask them (or show them a translation on your phone). Or, be a sneaky stealth-photographer and do it from a distance!
I love this photo I got of a Chinese security guard asleep on the job.
This might be a fireable offence where I’m from (I mean the worker sleeping, not me taking the photo!).
5. Don’t accept the first price at a market
The country is full of bustling markets with clothes, household goods, gifts and Chinese souvenirs you can bring home with you.
Ask for the cost of the item and give a counter-offer of around half or two-thirds. The main thing is not to accept the first price you’re given.
If you have zero Mandarin skills, that’s okay, just punch in your offer on the calculator that all stall holders have, or use your phone.
(If you do want to learn Mandarin in China, check out this page for all the top schools.)
6. Don’t rely on overseas mobile data
You’re crazy if you come to China and use your mobile data from home. It could cost you a fortune.
(But if you’re on a business trip and work is paying your expenses, then lucky you!)
All hotels in China, even the most cheap and nasty, have Wi-Fi for guests (mostly free). Just remember though that the country blocks all the major websites and apps.
So, if you want to access all your favorite sites like Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Google, Gmail, and so many more, you need a VPN app.
Check my review of the best VPN for China. Not all VPNs work well in China.
7. Don’t expect any personal space
China is the land of a billion-plus people, and that means you’re gonna get squashed, squished and herded like cattle wherever you go.
My pet peeve is lining up and having someone stand so close behind me that I can literally feel them breathe down the back of my neck.
This is something that I’ve never gotten used to in China.
8. Don’t forget to bring toilet tissues everywhere
Public toilets in China don’t have toilet paper. So you must bring your own.
There will also be times on your trip when even the most popular restaurants won’t have any. So I repeat, you must bring your own toilet paper.
There’s no need to stuff your suitcase with paper though. There are convenience stores on practically every corner in China, and they all sell the soft white stuff.
9. Don’t expect Western toilets
While we’re on the topic of clean bottoms, let me fill you in on Chinese toilets.
Otherwise known as the squatty potty, these holes in the ground reign supreme in China.
Sure, there are Western-style toilets in places like hotels and airports, but don’t expect them everywhere.
If you’ve never used one before, I recommend reading this great article about navigating Chinese toilets.
10. Don’t rely on your credit card
The Chinese use apps on their phones to pay for everyday stuff, and some people still use cash.
The most popular payment apps are WeChat Pay and Alipay (you can read more about the top apps in China to learn more.)
Credit cards never really took off in China, and you’ll struggle to find places that will accept yours, unless you’re making super-expensive purchases in high-end places.
11. Don’t touch people
Had a great tour and want to hug your guide as a way of saying thanks? Don’t do it.
The Chinese don’t like being touched. In fact, they hate it.
There are exceptions of course, like intimate partners, but I doubt that will be you in China!
If you are looking for love in China, check out these helpful reads.
12. Don’t thank people
I wouldn’t worry about learning the word for ‘thank you’ in Mandarin (which, by the way, is xièxiè or谢谢).
Why? Generally speaking, the locals don’t use this word a lot, unless the person has absolutely gone out of their way to do something nice or kind.
For things or behaviors that people expect, like when a waiter leaves food on your table, you don’t say ‘thank you’.
This is quite different to Western culture and can take time getting used to. Me personally, I love this little quirk and am quite happy not to thank people unnecessarily like I do back home.
13. Don’t trust strangers who approach you
Whether you’re in Suzhou or Fuzhou, or anywhere in between, don’t trust anyone who approaches you.
You may be surprised I’m saying this. But let me explain…
When it comes to strangers, especially foreigners (or ‘laowai’ as the locals say), the Chinese are pretty reserved. They generally don’t approach strangers or people they don’t know, unless they have to.
In my opinion, this makes China a much better travel destination than somewhere like Thailand, if you like being left alone.
So, if someone were to approach you near the Imperial Palace in Beijing (this is the city’s major tourist attraction), and ask you to accompany them to a nearby teahouse for a tea ceremony, this is a major red flag.
You’ll be forced to pay an exorbitant amount for tea after you’ve drank it. It’s the classic tourist swindle in China, though there are a few others to be wary of too.
I honestly think I’ve been approached only twice ever in China, and I’ve spent a lot of time there.
The first time – I was young and naïve. I was approached at Shanghai Airport by a suave-looking guy offering a taxi service.
He locked my suitcase in a private car, then told me the exorbitantly high price. I was royally f*cked!
The second time – I was older and wiser. I was approached by a ‘tour guide’ outside the Imperial Palace who was offering an English tour of the compound.
Although I politely declined (lesson learned!), some of these guides are legitimate. If you do happen to accept the offer, agree on an amount upfront, and only pay it after the tour is finished.
Some locals can be shifty with money, so I’d even agree to the amount in writing, i.e. show it on your phone.
Verbally, the Chinese numbers for 4 and 10 can be confused as they sound similar.
14. Don’t be offended
If there is something unique about you (in the eyes of the Chinese), you’re going to be stared at. A lot.
So, if you’re very tall, fat, or have red hair – and these are just a few things – you may find it a little uncomfortable in China.
Try not to be offended though. The Chinese are a curious people, and they may have never seen someone like you.
I remember one time I was traveling with a female friend who is tall even by Western standards.
She was secretly photographed by a Chinese guy in the waiting lounge at Qingdao Airport. The guy used a newspaper to try to cover the phone while he took snaps on the sly.
In this case, my friend was offended, and rightly so – no one deserves this kind of treatment.
We moved away from him as soon as we knew what he was up to. Looking back, we probably should have said something.
15. Don’t travel solo without apps and confidence
Definitely don’t visit China without having all the apps you need on your phone, especially if you’re traveling alone. From translation apps to transport apps, they’re going to help you have the best trip possible.
So, when you have a moment, check out all the best travel apps for China here.
Also, if you’re a solo traveler and you can’t speak Chinese, I wouldn’t recommend China unless you’re adventurous and like a challenge.
But if you do happen to make the trip, I guarantee you will have an awesome time and you’ll find China is nothing like you see in the media. So do it!
16. Don’t forget your passport
This one’s also for the solo and adventure travelers.
If you want to catch one of the bullet trains to take you to another city or even one of the many provinces in China, you’ll need to show your passport as a form of ID to purchase the ticket.
In fact, your name and passport number will be copied from your passport and entered into their computer system.
If you forget your passport, you won’t be able to travel on the train.
17. Don’t expect people to speak English
China isn’t like Europe, where everyone has incredible English-speaking skills.
While most Chinese learn English in school, their ability to speak the language isn’t great, or in many cases they’re just too embarrassed to make a mistake.
If you don’t have a tour guide, or you get off the beaten track, you might struggle finding someone who can understand you.
Again, download a translation app on your phone and be prepared to point at pictures in restaurants.
18. Don’t travel during holiday periods
If you’re planning a trip to China, try to avoid traveling during the national Chinese holidays.
This is especially the case for the longer holidays, Chinese New Year and Golden Week, when domestic travel ramps up and crowds can get hectic.
Prices for accommodation may also be higher during these periods.
By the way, for hotels in China I recommend Trip, because I’ve used them a lot and they’re good.
19. Don’t fear the food
Real Chinese food is absolutely delicious. It’s different from the Chinese food you’re used to in your own country, like spring rolls and honey chicken.
You’ll quickly get used to the local food because it’s fresh, fragrant and tastes so good. It’s certainly nothing to be afraid of.
Yes, the Chinese do eat things like boiled blood and chicken feet, but it doesn’t mean you have to. Just eat what you want to eat.
You can read up on the most popular foods from China before you go, so you know what tasty dishes are in store for you.
Or, freak yourself out and read about some of the gnarly things Chinese eat!
20. Don’t buy or do drugs
This last one should be self-explanatory.
Don’t buy or do drugs in China, even soft drugs like marijuana.
If you get caught, it can result in fines, deportation or jail. This would be a horrible way to end a trip in China.
Things others say “don’t do” but I say “who cares?”
You’ll find so-called travel experts warning you not to use unregistered or unlicensed taxis in China.
I’ve traveled in countless ‘black taxis’ across the country, in big cities and little cities. I think they’re fine if you know what you’re doing, you’re able to bargain, and you can ideally speak a little Chinese.
After all, they’re just private cars driven by guys for a living (I’m yet to see a female driver).
Unless you skimmed this article, you would have read in point 13 that I was swindled by an unregistered driver.
Like I said earlier, I was young and naïve, and didn’t know that these things existed. I was told I was being escorted to a taxi, so I believed it.
As long as you know that unregistered taxis exist in China, and you follow my advice, you should be fine.
I wouldn’t go so far as saying I recommend them, but I would say they are definitely one of the options you can consider when traveling around (sometimes they might be the only option).
Another thing that so-called travel experts talk a lot about is chopstick use in China.
Getting stressed about chopsticks is definitely not something to worry about before your trip.
You wouldn’t stick your knife in a steak and leave it there, standing up, so why would you do that with chopsticks?
Many locals will have a giggle at the way you use (or abuse) chopsticks, so just do the best you can when eating the local food.
Have an amazing time in China!
China is an amazingly fun and crazy place, and you’re going to love it.
There are just some things you shouldn’t do, and I hope I’ve laid them all out clearly for you.
If you do happen to stuff up, try to learn from your mistake and move on. And remember, it could make for a funny travel story when you return home!
And, as always, don’t forget to get your VPN for China before you leave home.
Please let me know in the comments if you’ve got something to add.
I hope you liked my article about what not to do in China. Along the same lines, I’ve written articles about things you shouldn’t bring to China as well as food you shouldn’t bring to China. They’re both worth a read.
Main image credit: Marekuliasz on Shutterstock.