This guide contains pretty much all the info that you’ll need to prepare your trip to China: VISA requirements, travel insurances, vaccinations, guidebooks, planes and trains, hotels, internet and phone cards.
Also, you’ll find tips on where to eat, what to bring to China, when to travel to China, how to avoid the most common scams and how to bargain.
How to get a Chinese VISA
If you want to travel to China you need a tourist VISA (also called L VISA). In order to get the VISA you have to apply at the Chinese Embassy or Consulate. Here you can find the closest consulate to your town.
- A passport with at least six months of validity and two blank pages.
- A recent photo of 2×2 square inches.
- An application form (you can download it from the website of the Chinese Consulate where you are going to apply for the VISA).
- Between 30 and 140 USD (the price depends on your nationality).
You may also need (check with your Consulate):
- A financial proof.
- A return flight ticket.
- An hotel invoice.
It will take between one and four working days to get the VISA. Notice that if you only plan to visit Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan for less than three months and you hold “Western passport,” then you don’t need any VISA.
The Karakorum Highway: a difficult place to reach without a guide ; )
Travel tour or independent travel?
Many people are scared to come to China without a guide. The main reasons are probably the language barrier and a culture that is perceived as completely different.
I can’t deny the fact that there is indeed a language and cultural barrier. However Chinese people are quite good at understanding what tourists want, especially if you are willing to pay!
Moreover, in the last twenty years China has built impressive infrastructures (airports, railways, subway systems, hotels) so traveling has become quite easy.
Finally, so far China is probably the safest country that I’ve visited. For all these reasons, don’t discard the “independent travel” option, if this is what you want.
However, China is a huge country and if you wish to visit several provinces and only have one of two weeks, a travel tour is probably your best bet as you won’t lose time trying to figure out how to get to the train station or to the hotel. Moreover if you want to obtain the permit to travel to Tibet you’ll have do it through a specialized travel agency.
Travel Insurance for China
I strongly recommend you to buy a travel insurance before to come to China.
Although basic health care may be cheap in Asia, if you get something a bit serious like an alimentary intoxication you will have to pay 3-400 USD (if you want to go to an international hospital where people can speak English).
Also, if you get really sick and need to stay at the hospital for several days you’ll most luckily end up spending thousands (or even ten of thousands of USD).
I recommend World Nomads insurances. Beside medical care, you’ll also be covered in the case of trip cancellation, stole luggage or evacuation (just make sure to read the terms of service before to buy!).
Vaccines and medicines
I advice you to update your diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus (DPT), poliovirus, typhoid, hepatitis A and hepatitis B vaccinations. Here you find an in-depth guide on the topic.
In any case you should contact your doctor as he knows your immunization history and can decide what’s better for you ; )
I also like to bring some medicines when I travel to Asia. There are three main reasons. First at all, communication may be difficult and you don’t want to argue in Chinese when you need an anti-diarrhea. Second, a lot of the medicines that you can find in Asia are fake. And you don’t want to buy a fake antibiotic when you need a real one.
Finally, our anti-bodies are different from the anti-bodies developed by Asian people. Hence Asian medicines aren’t the best fit for a Western guy (or girl) as they have been tested for people that have a different set of anti-bodies!
Here the list of medicines that I bring from Europe: aspirin, antibiotics, anti-inflammatory and anti-diarrhea.
Travel Guides for China
I’m not a big fan of travel guides. However I realize that many people like to have a guide when they travel. If you really want one, just get the Lonely Planet China.
Flying to China
I won’t suggest you any particular company to book your flight. Instead, visit a couple of flight search engines and find out the cheapest offer. Personally I’ve been using Go Volo since 2007 for booking all my international flight tickets as they consistently offer the best price and I never had any problem with them.
Some tips on booking an international flight to China:
- If you are traveling on a budget make sure to book your flight a couple of months before your departure or you risk to pay a lot of money for your ticket.
- Most of international flights to China land in Beijing, Shanghai or Hong Kong. China is as big as Europe so you don’t want to land in Beijing if you are going to South China (unless you enjoy to take an additional internal flight!).
- Keep in mind that if you choose to fly with a Chinese company as Air China or China Eastern the 90% of travelers will be Chinese people. And the food will be Chinese as well. I love it so I often fly with Air China (the other reason is that Air China is the only company that offers direct flights from Italy to China for a decent price). But if traveling in a huge plane with 1,000 Chinese people freaks you out, then choose another company.
- Turkish Airlines and Emirates seem to be the favorite companies of most of people. Also, they often offer quite convenient prices. So you may want to pay a special attention to them while you are booking your flight.
The Hongqiao train station in Shanghai
Hotels and hostels in China
I book all my hotels – and hostels – through Agoda Hotels. The reasons are that they have a wide choice of hotels and offer the best prices out there.
Some tips on booking an hotel in China:
- Remember to bring your passport at the check-in as it’s compulsory.
- If you want to deal with a receptionist that speaks English either book with a 3-5 stars hotel or an international hostel. I’ve stayed in a lot of cheap Chinese hotels and usually there is nobody that can speak English.
- Same for the internet connection. Cheap Chinese hotels most of the times don’t offer a connection. And if they do, it doesn’t work.
Internet and phone cards
Getting a decent Internet connection isn’t an easy task in China. The connection is slow compared to the West and many websites such a Facebook, Twitter, Youtube or WordPress.com are blocked.
You can still access them but you need to buy a VPN service. At the moment I recommend Strong VPN.
Your western phone will probably work in China (unless you bought it on 2001). The problem is that if you use a foreign phone card you’ll end up spending a lot of money. The most practical solution is to buy a Chinese sim card.
You can find a card in any news-stand that exposes the panel “China Mobile” (中国移动通信 in Mandarin). However if you want internet access on your phone you’ll have to go to a China Mobile store. You can find them pretty much everywhere. In the case you choose this second option remember to bring your passport with you.
There are different rates for activate an internet connection on your phone, from 10 to 100 RMB per month. If you just want to check emails and a newspaper from time to time, then 10 or 30 RMB per month should do the trick. Be aware that in any case the connection will be really slow and it will be quite difficult to do anything else beside checking emails or chatting.
The procedure to buy the card is quite straightforward and if you charge 100 RMB (about 16 USD) you’ll be able to communicate for about a month (unless you are planning to spend your time calling abroad).
If you want to call abroad with your Chinese sim card you’ll need to ask to the operator to enable the international service. In this case you’ll have to charge at least 300 RMB.
Money, ATM and credit cards
The Chinese currency is called Renminbi (RMB). However you won’t never hear:
“It costs 100 Renminbi.”
Chinese people use the word yuan (元) or, much more often, the word kuai (块), which literally means “piece.”
At the moment 10 yuan are worth 1.62 USD. You can use this currency converter to check the current value of the USD with respect to the RMB.
I’ve never had a problem withdrawing money with my European VISA or MasterCard from an ATM of a major Chinese bank (Bank of China, China Construction Bank, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China or Agricultural Bank of China).
Actually I’ve never had any problem withdrawing from any Chinese ATM. Also, unless you are on the middle of nowhere you’ll find an ATM pretty much at every corner. Just make sure that there is the symbol of VISA or MasterCard on the ATM.
After inserting your credit or debit card into the ATM, remember to click on “English” so that you understand what’s going on.
Shopping malls and high end bars and restaurants also accept credit cards. However in small shops or tiny restaurants you’ll have to pay cash.
China by train
I love Chinese trains. They are cheap, fast and connect all the country. Nowadays you can travel from Beijing to Shanghai in only five hours. If you considered that the train stations aren’t too far from the city centers while the airports are far away, travel by train it’s probably faster.
You can even go to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, by train. It will take about 45 hours from Beijing or Shanghai though.
Even if I prefer to travel by train, China is huge and sometimes it’s necessary to take an internal flight. My favorite flight search engines for Chinese internal flights are Ctrip and Qunar for the simple reason that they offer the best deals.
While Ctrip is in English and accept Western credit cards, Qunar’s website is in Mandarin and only accept cards from Union Pay (that is the Chinese credit and debit cards circuit).
Some tips about traveling by plane in China:
- Even if most of Chinese airports are new and quite well organized, they handle way too many flights per day. Generally speaking, in the morning the flights take off on time while after three p.m. the delays begin. At night it’s a nightmare and most of the flights are delayed due to the traffic on the airstrips. Choose the time of your flight wisely!
- The company that offer the best prices is Spring Airlines. It may be considered a little bit as the Chinese Ryanair. And, as for Ryanair, you pay for what you get. Don’t expect free food or too much space for your legs!
What to bring?
Beside the medicines, which I’ve listed above, and an universal electrical plug, there isn’t anything special that I recommend you to bring to China.
If you like to read bring enough books or buy an Amazon Kindle as it’s very difficult to find English books in China. Even in Beijing and Shanghai the choice is quite limited (Hong Kong is the exception).
Clearly if you are going to Beijng on January it will be bloody cold so you’ll need winter clothes. Conversely, if you are traveling to Hainan island you won’t need them (but in this case bring a swimsuit!).
Here you find the complete list of the things that I bring with me when I travel around China (and a couple of tips on how to pack your stuff).
When to travel to China?
As I’ve already said, China is as big as Europe. Thus there isn’t a best season to visit the country. It depends on where are you going. Here some general advices:
- Avoid Chinese holidays as Spring Festival (the Chinese New Year) or the October holidays. China has 1.? billions people and during these periods they are all traveling. Believe me when I claim that you don’t wanna be in a train station a week before Spring Festival.
- In summer it will be pretty hot everywhere (the exception is Yunnan province where there will be between 20 and 25 Celsius degree). Also, the South East Coast (from Shanghai to Hong Kong) is affected by typhoons.
- I don’t like Chinese spring. It rains a lot and in Beijing you even get sand storms! As an example, here you can see the precipitation statistics of Hangzhou (which is located 200 Km South of Shanghai).
- During the winter China may be very cold (even -40 Celsius degree on the North). In Shanghai the temperature may reach zero degrees and it may even snow once or twice per year, but it isn’t that terrible. Conversely, winter is a good season to travel around South China as it won’t be too hot.
- Autumn is probably the best time for traveling to China. There are few precipitations and the climate is temperate.
Autumn in China… pretty cool, isn’t it?
Common sense and cultural issues
- Don’t take pictures of the policemen (especially in Tibet or Xinjiang) if you care about your photo camera as they could confiscate it.
- Don’t argue with Chinese people. It doesn’t work that way. If you make them lose face they will just become more stubborn and you’ll never get what you want. Be patient and keep smiling. You’ll get there. Eventually.
- Taxis are cheap, safe and pretty much everywhere. The only problem is that the taxi drivers won’t speak English. Always make sure to write down the address in Chinese characters so that you can show it to the taxi driver.
Another good way to make sure that you’ll reach your destination is to get the phone number of the place where you are going (a restaurant or an hotel, for instance).
Call it as soon as you get on the cab and give your phone to the taxi-driver. He will understand what you are doing and the guy on the other side of the phone will explain to the taxi-driver how to get to his place. This tactic is especially useful in Beijing as the city is so big that even taxi drivers get lost all the time.
- Another good way to move around a big city is by using the subway. Chinese subways are cheap, new and well developed. Further, the automatic machines that sell the tickets are also in English. Here you find the interactive maps of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong subways systems.
- Chinese traffic is the worse I’ve seen (beside Vietnam, of course). Be careful when you cross the street! At the beginning I used to wait for some Chinese people that also needed to cross the street and use them as “human shields.” Now I got used to the traffic and I don’t care anymore.
- Don’t be surprised if a Chinese person spits on your feet, points at you and says “kankan laowai” (“look at the foreigner,” at least outside the international neighborhoods), yells at you while he’s trying to run over you with his electrical scooter on the sidewalk, pushes you when it’s time to get on the subway, “steals” your taxi (especially when it rains) or smokes on your face.
- At the same time, don’t be surprised if a Chinese person smiles to you, starts to chat with you or follows you to give back to you the wallet that you have just lost. Most of Chinese people are extremely honest and friendly.
Food and drinks
- Don’t drink the water from the tap. You aren’t Chinese and don’t have the right antibodies to cope with it. You won’t die but you’ll very luckily get diarrhea.
- Eat street food at your own risk. If you have already been to Asia in the past you have probably already developed enough antibodies and should be safe. If you have never been here, as for the tap water you are risking to get some “surprise.” If you are interested on how I got food poisoned in China read this story.
- Nobody tips in China so don’t feel obliged to do so.
- Chinese food may vary a lot, according to the province. However you don’t need to travel to Gansu or Sichuan to taste the local food as big cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou host an impressive number of immigrants from North and West China.
Nightlife in China
Chinese nightlife deserves an article on its own (coming soon!). What I can say here is that in Beijing most of the clubs are located in Sanlitun, that is the expat zone close to Dongzhimen subway station. Same for Hong Kong, where most of the clubs are located in Lan Kwai Fong (usually called LKF). As usual, Shanghai is a different world and clubs are scattered all around the downtown (the old French concession).
Scams in China
As I’ve already said, China is probably the safest country I’ve visited. Anyway, there are some common scams that target curious foreigners, especially in Beijing and Shanghai’s touristic spots such as Wang Fu Jing or People Square.
It goes like that: a friendly girl approaches you and start to ask you a lot of questions in good English (they are usually students). At some point the girl tells you that she knows a good tea house just around the corner and invites you to follow her.
You guys order something, drink your tea, eat your fruit and keep chatting. Then, when you ask for the bill, the waiter pretends you to pay some ridiculous amount of money (200 USD, for instance).
I knew several people that got scammed on this way.
Never accept to get on a black taxi, even if the queue for the taxi is long. You’ll most luckily end up paying a ridiculous amount of money.
Most of Chinese taxi drivers are honest: they will always switch on the taximeter and bring you to your destination using the shortest way. However, especially on the airport and close to the most touristic spots, you may find some fraudulent taxi drivers.
I’ve heard about:
- Taxi drivers that leave with your luggage once you get off the cab. Hence I never pay before I took my luggage out the cab.
- Taxi drivers that try to switch your money with a fake note and then pretend that you gave to him the fake note!
- Taxi drivers that take a route longer than necessary. This actually happened to me in Hangzhou. But I knew the city and told him that he was cheating me. He firstly got angry, then confused and, at last, only made me pay 20 RMB (that is an honest fare).
An effective way to avoid the most of taxi scams is to show to the taxi driver that you aren’t a tourist by talking a bit of Chinese as soon as you get on the cab. You just need to tell them:
“Nihao shifu, wo qu XXX” (it means “Hi driver, I go to XXX”) and then you tell him the crossing road where you want to go (Chinese drivers prefer crossing roads than streets’ numbers) or show them the address.
I know this seems too easy. However it works because even a lot of foreigners that had lived in China for awhile don’t know the word “shifu,” which literally means “master” but in modern Chinese is also a polite way to address drivers and other workers.
Don’t be a tourist ; )
p.s. Here you’ll find some funny story about scams in Beijing.
Shopping and bargaining
You can’t pretend to go to a shopping mall in Shanghai and bargain with the clerk just because you are China.
However if you want to buy something in a street or in a “fake” market such as the Ya Show or the Silk Market in Beijing, bargaining is required.
The reason is that the first price that you’ll hear will be inflated. Once I went to the Ya Show Market in Beijing and I asked for the price of a suitcase. The clerk answered: “1,000 RMB.”
I just started to laugh out loud and told her that I lived in Beijing and that she couldn’t cheat me like that (this was my tactic on the first months, now I speak Chinese and bargaining became way easier).
At the end I got the suitcase for 150 RMB, that is the 15% of the original price!
Don’t be afraid to bargain. Actually they will think you are stupid if you don’t!
Numbers in China
A last piece of advice. When you want to buy something you can ask for the price by using your hands. If you want to communicate that you won’t pay more than 70 RMB, just show a 7 and a 10 and they will understand that you mean “70.” However notice that Chinese people indicate numbers in a different way (the one on the photo below).
Starting from the top-left corner, we have: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10.
How to communicate in China
The best advice that I can give to you is to download Pleco, a free dictionary that works on smartphones Android and iOS. You can write the English word and show the corresponding characters to Chinese people.
Have a nice trip and don’t be afraid to ask a question on the comments below!