Things to know before going to China – Your Ultimate China travel tips

China – Its exotic culture and traditional habits and customs can seem quite strange for us in the first place. But especially this was a reason why I was so interested in going to China and see all these things with my own eyes. And so I found myself, with just 20 years old, in China for an internship as my first solo trip. Little did I know that there are so many things to know before going to China.

Quite early, I realized that my prior one-year Mandarin University-class couldn’t prepare me enough for this culture shock that was awaiting me in the “Kingdom of the Middle”. However, China should become one of my absolute favorite destinations worldwide and a return is on top of my bucket list now.

Together with my good Chinese friend Zihan I sat together (unfortunately, you can’t take this literally as he is too far away) and created this list of China Travel Tips. This way, you can hopefully feel better prepared for your trip to China than I did some years back.

China Facts

  • The full name of China is actually Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó
  • It’s the most populous country in the world (1.379.302.771 Inhabitants in 2017)
  • The 4th biggest country on Earth
  • Founded on the 01.10.1949
  • Country Code +86

Best time to visit China

Since the People’s Republic of China is such a huge country that includes different climate zones, a visit to China is possible in every season. It actually depends on what kind of vacation you are looking for.

The summer months can be quite hot in many parts of China and are maybe not ideal for every traveler. On the other hand, in the winter months, the air is usually even more polluted than during summer, especially in Beijing. It is recommended not to leave your accommodation without a mask.

Moreover, you should check the Chinese Holidays, as, on those, the points of interest in the country will be even more crowded than they usually are.

For more information about the different seasons in China check this website.

Holidays in China

01.01. New Year

February Chinese New Year / Spring Festival

02.03. Lantern Festival

04.04./05.04. Qingming-Festival

01.05. Labor Day

18.06. Zhonghe Festival

17.08. Chinese Valentine’s Day

25.08. Spirit Festival

24.09. Mid-Autumn Festival

The first week of October: Golden Week

17.10. Double Ninth Festival

Important Words

Hello – Nihao

Goodbye – Zaijian

Thank you – Xiexie

Excuse me – Bu Hao Yi Si

Toilet – Cesuo

Here – Zheli

Delicious – Haochi

Fish – Yu

Chicken – Ji Rou

I don’t want – Bu yao

Money

temple of heaven, china, beijing
The Temple of Heaven in Beijing

Currency

The currency in China is the Renminbi, which is indicated in the unit Yuan. Colloquially, the Yuan is also called Kuai. One Euro equals 7,73 Yuan and One USD equals 6,3 Yuan (April 2018)

Withdrawing Money in China

In the tourist areas in big cities, such as Beijing and Shanghai, you can find many ATMs, from which you can easily withdraw money. It can get more difficult to find ATMs in more remoted and less touristic places. You might rather always have some cash with you, just in case.

Paying with credit-card in China

In China, Cash is King. Even though the payment with credit-card is more and more adapted into the Chinese lifestyle, the payment in cash is usually preferred. In some places, foreign credit-cards are not accepted. The Chinese usually pay with UnionPay. Better always carry some cash with you. Nowadays, more and more Chinese actually pay by smartphone, via the applications WeChat or AliPay.

Money exchange in China

If you want to exchange money while being in China, usually any bank will do it. But keep in mind that exchanging money can cost quite some time since you have to fill out several documents and they will do some copies of your passport.

Prices in China

In comparison to most Western countries, China is an affordable country. Especially, the food is not pricey at all, if you don’t eat in a tourist restaurant.

Tipping in China

While being in China, you should definitely avoid giving tips as people can consider giving a tip as insulting.

Food in China

Food China, Baozi

Together with Malay and Polish Food, Chinese Food is my favorite.

You can choose from so many different dishes and even vegetarians don’t have to stay hungry here at all. Tofu (and I am not talking about the paper-flavored kind of tofu that they sometimes sell in Western Countries) is a big part of Chinese cuisine.

However, keep in mind that the hygiene standards, especially in street food stands, can differ from the standards of Western Countries. Just check where the locals are eating, and you should be ok. While being in China the only time I got sick from the food was actually after eating at McDonalds.

Only eating dog meat? I guess, that dog won’t hunt

I guess every Westerner has heard this prejudice of Chinese regularly eating dog meat. But are they actually doing that?

Yes and no. The truth is, there are still places, in which you can buy and eat dog meat. On the other hand, there are more and more young Chinese against that old tradition. Actually, most people I’ve met in China have never tried dog meat and don’t feel like it either.

But don’t worry. No one is gonna try to secretly mix dog meat into your food as basically, the dog meat costs more than regular meat, such as pork and chicken.

Eating with Chopsticks

In China, it is common to eat with chopsticks. 

Sometimes, even the soup. (The solid ingredients are eaten with your chopsticks while the brew gets drunken directly from the bowl afterward)

In case you have never eaten with chopsticks before, it might take you some days to get used to it. Don’t worry, it’s actually not that difficult. Anyway, in many places, the foreign guests get offered a fork as well.

Please note: The chopsticks should never be put upright into the rice as this is just done in a death ritual. So better just place them on top of your bowl.

Smacking is not necessarily bad

From an early age on, my parents taught me to eat as quiet as possible, not to do any noises while eating, and especially not smack.

Anyway, in China, smacking is completely normal. It can even be seen as a compliment to show that the food is good. 

The only problem may occur if you bring your newly learned Chinese smacking habits back to the Western world. 😉

A vain attempt to find fortune cookies

I have to admit before going to China, I added “Eating an original Chinese fortune cookie” to my China Bucket list. But when I asked my new Chinese friends about the fortune cookies, it turned out that they don’t even exist in China. Say Whaat?! One of my Chinese friends explained to me that he actually knows what fortune cookies are after seeing them in the movie Freaky Friday. Well played, America…

And there is more. Another common prejudice we Westerners have about Chinese food is that they eat a lot of Spring Rolls. On a positive note, yes, spring rolls do exist in China and are eaten there. But actually just in spring. (Makes sense, right?) Obviously, when I visited China in summer, it was pretty hard to find some, to at least cross one of my naive China goals from my to-do list. In the end, my Chinese roommate and her friends brought me to some Fast-Food-Chain to try some spring rolls and other Chinese snacks. It turned out Chinese Fast-Food spring rolls actually taste the same as in Europe.

Eat all the food! Or not?

For a long time, it was considered unpolite finishing all the food you’ve ordered when being in a Chinese restaurant. It shows wealth if you left some food on the plates. Nowadays, you are not considered rude anymore finishing your plate as Chinese also have an understanding of food being wasted.

Drinking water in China

First things first: You shouldn’t drink tap water in China under any circumstances. The Chinese tap water includes Chloride which is not good for the human body.

You can only drink the tap water after boiling it. That’s one of the reasons why Chinese like to drink their tap water hot (Even in summer). On the other hand, the warm water is much healthier for your body than drinking ice-cold water. (One of the things I’ve learned in China).

Therefore, please only drink bottled water or boiled water.

Another option to make Chinese tap water drinkable is the so-called Lifestraw. With this gadget, you can filter the tap-water in order to make it drinkable. Just check the latest price and more information by clicking here.

Visa for China

Skyline of Shanghai, China
The famous skyline of Shanghai

Important: There is no such thing as a Visa on Arrival for neither European nor US-Citizens. That means you have to apply for your visa before your departure. (Around 1 month beforehand). For your visa application, you have to fill a form providing information about yourself and your travel plans. Moreover, you have to provide copies of your accommodation bookings and flights. (I.e. You have to book them before you apply for your visa)

More information about the application process can be found here (US-Citizens) and here (EU-Citizens).

Author’s note: Please note that information can change at any time. Please make sure that information is correct by contacting an official source before your trip or applying for your visa. This post is just for general information and I can’t guarantee or be made responsible for any changes or exceptions.

Transportation in China

Forbidden City, Beijing, China
The Forbidden City in Beijing

You can use any kind of transportation in China. But keep in mind that the traffic, especially, in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai can be quite chaotic. Furthermore, the security standards are not the same as they are in most Western Countries.

In the big cities, the Buses and trains can be extremely crowded, especially, if you use them during the rush hours.

When I took a bus in Beijing, near the Forbidden City, it took me 3 more stations than originally planned to get out of the bus again, because I just couldn’t make it to the exit as there were too many people.

Taking a taxi in China

If you want to avoid the crowded Metros and busses, you can as well take a taxi. Anyway, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you will be faster as the traffic can be pretty crazy as well.

Taking a taxi in China is usually quite affordable. Anyway, many taxi drivers don’t speak English. Therefore, it can be useful to have your destination written down in Chinese characters. This way, you just have to hand the address to your driver and he knows where you want to go to. (Tip: Always carry a business card of your accommodation with you with the address on it)

The taxi drivers usually realize directly if you are not local. (For us Westerners, it is usually not that hard to tell in the first place) and take advantage of that by taking some detours in order to make more money. My friend Zihan explained to me that even Chinese get scammed like that if they are not local in that area.

The same happened to me during my time in Beijing. What should have been a 5 minutes drive became 20 minutes and the driver pretended not to understand me when I asked him to stop the car. Neither when I told him to do so in English nor in Chinese.

Another thing Zihan told me is that some taxi drivers sometimes take other customers that are going in the same direction in order to make more money for the same trip. However, that doesn’t happen frequently.

Infrastructure

china landscape, temple

Big cities like Beijing and Shanghai offer, in general, a good and modern infrastructure. The streets and institutions are usually equipped in the newest state of the art.

Hospitals can be visited without any further concerns. Anyway, it might be advisable to bring someone to translate if possible as many doctors don’t speak English.

Chinese Floors

Chinese landscape, green

In Europe, most houses start with the Ground level floor, while in China houses usually start with Floor 1.

If you are walking up the stairs one time, you will, therefore, find yourself in floor 2 and not in floor 1, the way it would be in Europe.

Anyway, when taking a lift in a building in China, you might realize that some buildings don’t have a 4th floor. Thus, after the 3rd floor will follow the 5th floor right away. The reason for that is the same as why in some building in Western countries we don’t have a 13th floor. The 4 is considered unlucky in China. The reason for that is simple: The pronunciation for 4 (Si) is similar to the pronunciation of the word for death in Chinese.

Security in China

shanghai china pollution
Is it clouds or pollution in Shanghai?

China is not considered an unsafe country. I have never felt unsafe at any time, even though I was often traveling alone. I remember Chinese to be extremely friendly and helpful people.

In almost every public building, there is a security check. Therefore, you should always have your passport with you.

Even before taking the Metro, they will check your belongings.

However, since China is extremely crowded, you should always have an eye on your belongings, especially, when taking the public transport. The crowd provides an easy game for pickpockets.

VPN

While in ancient times, China was protected by the Great Wall of China, nowadays the Great Firewall of China is blocking everything that is not approved by the Chinese government. Therefore, services like Google, Facebook, Instagram, Wikipedia etc. are only usable with a so-called VPN.

What is a  VPN?

VPN is the abbreviation for Virtual Private Network. For example, if you are using a VPN of the US, the servers “think” that you’d be in the US right now (even if in reality, you are in China) and you can use every online service that you can use from a normal US-Server, even if they are blocked in the place you actually are at that moment.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to install a VPN from China, so make sure to check your options before your departure.

Make sure to also check those 10 must-have Apps for China.

Air Pollution in China

Pollution, China, Tianamen Square
I took this picture on the famous Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the early afternoon. You can clearly see how polluted the air was that day

China is known to be one of the countries with most polluted air worldwide. There are different applications that let you check the pollution of the air day by day and give warnings if necessary.  If you want to be sure, you can always wear a mask before leaving your accommodation.

In summer, you should wear sunscreen even if the sky is grey. Because a grey sky doesn’t necessarily mean that those are clouds, it can as well be pollution.

Communication in China

The communication in China is not always easy. The English-Level here is quite low, especially in the countryside. A (free) dictionary app can be useful. For example Pleco or Google Translator.

In big cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, many information and signs are also translated into English, or at least displayed in the PinYin (Spoken language displayed in Latin Letters).

Many restaurants are offering either English menus or menus with photos. So, you can see what you order.

Chinese menu, Picture, chicken
What can be wrong about ordering chicken? … Good thing there was a photo on the menu…

Paleness is beautiful

Westerners laying in the sun for hours trying to get a nice summer tan. Meanwhile in China: Especially girls are trying to avoid sunlight on their skin as much as possible.

Therefore, if you see Chinese walking around with umbrellas, it doesn’t necessarily have to rain. This is just how they protect themselves from the sun, especially the Chinese ladies.

If you want to buy shower gels, lotions, etc. in China make sure that they don’t include any kind of whitener or bleach.

Gifts in China

Sunflower, no present in china
The sunflower: A not quite appreciated present in China

Everyone appreciates small gifts. But take care as in China there are some things that you should never give to someone as a present: a yellow flower, a clock or a fan. As those things are considered to bring misfortune if given as a present to someone.

Travel Insurance for China

When you go to China (or anywhere else) you should always have travel insurance. Simply for the reason that you never know what is going to happen during your trip. The most popular travel insurance nowadays is the World Nomads Travel Insurance. Check their prices and conditions here or below.

 

Have you also been to China? Which things do you wish you had known before going? Let me know in the comments below.

Where to next?

Make sure to check those 7 tourist destinations and those 24 best places too visit in China besides the Great Wall before you go.

How about visiting Guilin in the Guanxi Province?

Want to know some more  Fun Facts about China? Make sure to check out this post about China Fun Facts by Karolina Patryk.

About me

Vicki

Hi, my name is Vicki. Here you can accompany my boyfriend Eduardo and me on our way through different countries of this world. Let's travel together!

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Things to know before going to China – Your Ultimate China travel tips
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6 thoughts on Things to know before going to China – Your Ultimate China travel tips

  1. Excellent post! I thought you did a very thorough job of explaining everything. I think it is really challenging to prepare someone for their first trip to China. It is such a magical country, but also so different from many others.

  2. Great effort in writing. While reading the article I felt like I was in China for some time. Very Nice. You have gathered all the information.

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