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 in China, there are some particular things that you should avoid doing outright.

So, if you want a smooth and stress-free trip, here’s what not to do in China.

1. Don’t drink tap water

Don't drink tap water in China

For your safety, don’t drink tap water in China. Image by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.

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 in many Western countries, 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 butt and buying bottled water isn’t nice on the planet, but that’s a fact of life in China.

2. Don’t discuss sensitive topics

Don't be outspoken in China

Don’t talk about political topics in China. Image by Nrxfly on Pixabay.

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, oppression of minority groups…

The simple rule is: if it’s controversial, keep it to yourself.

3. Don’t tip

Don't tip in China

The general rule of thumb is do not tip in China. Image by Eric Prouzet on Unsplash.

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.

It’ll just make for an awkward situation.

4. Don’t take photos without asking

Don't take photos without asking

Maybe I should take my own advice! Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

I’ve found that many Chinese people don’t like their photo being taken (which is a bit ironic, given they will secretly photograph or even film you).

If you want a snap, ask them or show them a translation on your phone. Or, be like them and take a sneaky photo from a distance!

apps banned in chinaapps banned in china

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

Don’t accept the first price at a Chinese market

Remember to haggle in China. Image by PublicDomainPictures on Pixabay.

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

Don’t rely on overseas mobile data

Use hotel Wi-Fi as well as a VPN. Image by Dongni Wang on Pixabay.

You’re crazy if you come to China and use mobile data from your home country. 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 cheap and nasty ones, have free Wi-Fi for guests. Just remember that the Chinese government blocks all the major foreign 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. Most VPNs don’t work in China.

7. Don’t expect any personal space

Don’t expect any personal space in China

Personal space doesn’t exist in China. Image by Canghai76 on Shutterstock.

For me, this is the worst thing about China.

In a land of one billion-plus people, 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

Don’t forget to bring toilet tissues everywhere

BYO toilet tissues. Image by ABCDstock on Shutterstock.

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

Don’t expect Western toilets in China

A typical Chinese toilet. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

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.

apps banned in chinaapps banned 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

Don’t rely on your credit card

For foreign tourists, cash is easier than credit card. Image by Michal Jarmoluk on Pixabay.

The Chinese use mobile payments 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. Hotels still accept foreign credit cards.

If you’re from the United States, I suggest taking a read of my article on what every American traveling to China should know. It goes way beyond credit cards.

11. Don’t touch people

Don't touch people in China

Hugging and kissing is off limits in China. Image by Linlypu on Shutterstock.

Had a great tour and want to hug your guide as a way of saying thanks? Don’t do it.

Public displays of affection (PDA) are rare in China. The local people don’t like being touched.

There are exceptions of course, like when you shake hands at business meetings, or if you were to have physical intimacy in China.

If you are looking for love in China, check out these helpful reads.

12. Don’t thank people

Don’t thank people in China

You’d say thanks for receiving a gift, but not much else. Image by Angela Roma on Pexels.

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

Don’t trust strangers who approach you in China

Beware of dodgy people at tourist attractions. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

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), Chinese people 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 has 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

Don’t be offended

You’ll probably be stared at in China, especially by older people. Image by Chermiti Mohamed on Pexels.

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. Chinese people are curious, and they may have never seen someone like you.

apps banned in chinaapps banned in china

I remember one time I was traveling with a female friend who is really tall.

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

Don’t travel solo without apps

Apps can particularly help solo travelers. Image by Pexels on Pixabay.

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 in China and you can’t speak Mandarin, I wouldn’t recommend visiting unless you’re adventurous and you 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

Don’t forget your passport

You’ll need your passport for domestic travel in China. Image by Cytis on Pixabay.

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 your passport to board.

Station staff will check it matches with the passport details you entered when you bought the ticket online.

If you forget your passport, you won’t be able to travel on the high-speed train.

17. Don’t expect people to speak English

Don’t expect people to speak English

The language barrier is real in China. Image by Mikhalchenko on Shutterstock.

China isn’t like Europe, where practically everyone has incredible English-speaking skills.

While most Chinese citizens 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.

Teacher blogger Kim has written a whole article on that here actually.

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

Don’t travel during holiday periods

Avoid traveling during Chinese national holidays. Image by Maciej Zarzeczny on Shutterstock.

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, they specialize in China travel, and they’re amazing.

19. Don’t wear revealing clothes

woman wearing low-cut shirt

Avoid wearing revealing attire in China. Image by Rodnae Productions on Pexels.

Although wearing revealing clothing isn’t illegal in China, the guys will leer at you. And that just makes for an unpleasant trip.

Ladies, avoid wearing low-cut shirts that show your cleavage, and gents, the same goes for wearing shorts so tight they show your junk.

Tank tops and sleeveless shirts are fine, except at Buddhist temples or in the Muslim areas in the far west of the country.

If you want to dig deeper, I’ve written an article on what not to wear in China.

20. Don’t fear the food

Don’t fear Chinese food

Tasty steamed buns. Image supplied by Christian Wilmsen.

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, Chinese people 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!

21. Don’t buy or do drugs

Don’t buy or do drugs

Drugs and China don’t mix. Image supplied by Mike Cairnduff.

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 major cities and small towns. 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 etiquette in China.

Getting stressed about chopsticks is definitely not something to worry about before your trip.

It’s just not a good idea not to stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice because it would resemble incense sticks at a funeral.

Apart from that, it’s free rein at the dinner table.

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 trip 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 have any questions or need help with your travel plans.

I hope you liked my list of things on 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.