Last month I visited China for the first time and had a fabulous experience. Of course, China is a very different culture from my own, so it was useful to know a little about what to expect in advance. From applying for a China travel visa to how to get around, here are mine and my fellow travel bloggers tips for first-time visitors to China. Whether you are travelling independently, and I know plenty of people who have, or as part of an organised tour group, I hope you find these China travel tips useful.
Important Note: Due to the ongoing Covid-19 crisis around the world, China is not currently open to tourists. Please check with government websites for up-to-date information.
Table of Contents
China travel tips: Things to know before you go to China
When to travel to China
1. The best time to travel to China
China is a vast country, so do check out what the weather is likely to be like for the part of China you will be visiting. In general, spring and autumn are the best times of the year to travel to China, avoiding the extreme heat of the summer and the cold of the winter.
April, May and June are probably the best months to visit just about anywhere in China.
2. The worst time to travel to China
Never go to China during a Chinese public holiday. The dates of these vary from year to year as they follow the lunar calendar. Still, it’s worth checking them out as on a public holiday, shops will close, prices will be higher, getting train tickets will be impossible, and every China landmark will be overrun with visitors from all over the country.
I travelled to China just before a major holiday, and my guide said he’d taken the week off work and wasn’t going to leave his house throughout the entire holiday as everywhere would be packed solid with people.
Also, in July and August, the schools are on holiday so everywhere will be busy and prices for hotels and flights will be at their highest.
Applying for your Chinese visa
I applied for my visa through the Chinese Visa Application Service Centre at the London office, and the following is based on my experience, however, I believe the process is similar for most other countries including the US. The cost of the visa in total was £151* plus my train fare for travelling to London twice. Frustratingly everyone now has to apply in person. You can no longer apply for a Chinese Visa from the UK by post. There are four centres in the UK, London, Manchester, Edinburgh or Belfast.
I didn’t use an agency to apply, but I did find the process rather stressful, partly because I didn’t know how the process worked, what information I needed in advance and how long it would take. I hope this mini-guide to completing your Chinese visa application form will remove some of the stress for you. Please do keep in mind though that this is based on my experience. I highly recommend that you also read the Chinese Visa Application Service Centre Step by Step Guide (London). That link is for the London office guide, follow this link for the relevant guide for your application.
*The cost of the visa varies greatly depending on where you are applying from. Apparently, if you apply in Hanoi in Vietnam, it’s only $30!
3. Who needs a China travel visa?
Most foreigners visiting China, whether for business or pleasure, will need a visa. There are a few exceptions which you can read about here. If you are travelling to a major Chinese city for a flight layover of a couple of days, you may be entitled to a 72-hour transit visa exemption. You will need proof of your onward flight, including a seat allocation as well as documentation of your hotel booking while in China.
4. Filling out your Chinese visa application form
You need to apply for your Chinese visa, about six weeks before your departure. If you apply too soon your visa may run out before your trip (they generally last three months). If you apply too late, you may not get your visa in time.
Allow an hour to fill out the form IF you have all the required information to hand. Be sure to do it carefully as once you have submitted it, you will not be able to amend it. If you’ve made a mistake, you will need to start the process again and rebook an appointment to submit your application. If you need to pause the application process, that’s no problem, you can save the information you’ve already filled in and return to it later.
What information do you need to complete your Chinese visa application form?
- Your flight numbers, departure and arrival airports
- The hotel name and addresses of where you’re staying in China
- A letter of invitation OR proof of your flights and hotel booking (you’ll need to take this with you when you submit your Chinese visa application)
- If you have booked a group tour, you will need the agency you are travelling with
- Your educational history
- Your work history
- Your parents’ names, dates of birth and job titles
Once you have submitted your visa application, you will be able to make an appointment at one of four offices in the UK. When I applied, the first available appointment was a week away, which was cutting it rather fine. At peak times, it’s advisable to apply for your visa appointment at least 20 days before your departure.
5. Visa appointment
If your appointment at the visa office is at lunchtime be prepared to queue. Once you have been allocated a number wait in the seats to be called for interview. I found this quite straight forward. Your fingerprints will be taken, and your application checked. Assuming your visa is accepted, you will be given another number. Head downstairs and wait to be called again to pay for your visa. You will need a debit card (not a credit card) to do this. Allow a couple of hours for the whole process.
You can either elect to have your passport returned by post (which costs an additional £30 and takes a few days longer), or you can come back and collect it in person. You will be given a receipt for your passport when you pay for your visa which you will need to collect your passport. It takes four working days to process your application.
6. Collecting your visa
You do not need to make an appointment to collect your visa and you don’t need to queue! Go straight to the front desk, show them your collection slip and they will issue you a number. Take this downstairs and wait for your number to be called. Again, it can take a while around lunchtime.
Useful apps for first-time visitors to China
Before I left for China, I asked my fellow travel bloggers for advice, and several phone apps were repeatedly recommended.
“WeChat is a messaging and social networking app that is used frequently in China. You can link your bank account and use it to pay for anything from taxis to a meal in a restaurant and much more.” Steve, The Trip Goes On
Initially, I had trouble connecting to WeChat — it appears that you need to be invited by someone already using it. However, it seems that everyone in China is using it, for both business and socially, so I’d highly recommend it.
“Trip.Com* is an app for booking hotels, flight, and most importantly trains in China. You can order your train ticket up to a month in advance and then collect at the station using the code.” Steve, The Trip Goes On
Booking your hotels in China
10. Paying for your hotels at check-in
You will need a list of all the hotels you are staying in during your visit to China when you apply for your visa. However, if you want to keep an element of flexibility, there are several booking sites that do not require upfront payment of your hotels. This means that if you need to change your travel plans at the last minute, you can cancel one hotel and book another without losing any money.
11. Paying for your hotels in advance online
Alternatively, you may prefer to pay upfront for all your hotels. While more and more businesses in China are now accepting credit cards, in particular, large hotel chains and upscale restaurants, many still will only accept cash so paying for your hotels in advance will save you having to worry about this.
When using Trip.com* on your laptop, you can search for hotels to suit either of the above preferences by selecting the appropriate filter from the lefthand sidebar.
Don’t travel to China without…
12. Travel insurance
I never travel overseas without insurance. From losing your luggage to breaking your leg, there is plenty that could go wrong while you are away or something may happen that could stop you even taking your trip, such as a family bereavement. When something awful happens, having travel insurance from a reliable company will save you a lot of time, stress and money.
My travel insurance company of choice is World Nomads. It’s designed for adventurous travellers with cover for overseas medical, evacuation, baggage and a range of adventure sports and activities* from air guitar to spelunking! Many of the sports and activities that are covered as standard are not commonly included in other insurance policies. You can buy and claim online*, even after you’ve left home. Travel insurance from WorldNomads.com* is available to people from over 130 countries.
13. Travel adaptor
In each hotel I stayed at in China I had a different combination of plug sockets in my room, so I’d recommend taking a variety of travel adaptors or one universal adaptor. This Worldwide USB Travel Adapter* or this one are both great for UK travellers* wherever you travel or buy this one if you are a from the USA*.
*These are affiliate links so if you click on them and go on to make a purchase I may make a small commission at no cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
14. An umbrella
Umbrellas that both keep the rain off and protect you from the sun’s harmful rays are popular in China. I was given one as a present when I arrived and it was a fabulous way to keep cool in direct sunlight. If you happen to be travelling somewhere remote in China, as my friend May from Eat Cook Explore told me, you may also find an umbrella useful to hide behind in public toilets which can be open plan, although I didn’t see any like that.
15. Learning a little Mandarin
If you are only travelling to major cities such as Shanghai or Beijing, you’ll probably get by in English although learning a few words in Mandarin will go down well with the locals. Seeing people’s faces light up when you simply say hello in their language “Ni hao” or thank you “Xie xie” is one of the simple pleasures of travelling for me.
If however, you are travelling away from these major cities, you will find learning some Mandarin invaluable. There are many great apps and online courses, such as Rosetta Stone*, which is one of the most popular.
Save 50% today*! Rosetta Stone – Learn the language, not just the words!
16. A pocket-sized or earbud translator
Have you tried any of the translator earbuds or pocket-sized devices that are now available? I only recently discovered them. I’m thinking of getting this one* for Christmas. The thought of being able to speak to almost anyone, anywhere in the world amazes me. They vary greatly in price and most of them don’t have many reviews as yet but I’m going to keep an eye on them. Frustratingly, you need an internet connection for them to work which is a shame. If you’ve tried one, I’d love to know how you found it.
*This is an affiliate link so if you click on it and go on to make a purchase I may make a small commission at no cost to you. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
China Travel Tips: Things to know while visiting China
Arriving in China
“Getting through customs and border clearance when you land in a totally new country can be challenging. To keep it stress-free, look up the Mandarin for the visa type you have and keep a picture of the characters on your phone. If you need more English-speaking assistance, you’ll find any border desk marked ‘diplomats’ in the airport or port usually speak the best English. Always have the name of your hotel with you too. This is where you will be registered as a visitor with the authorities if you are on a visa-free layover in Beijing. You will need proof of your ongoing flight.” Danielle, Live in 10 Countries
Transport Tips in China
“China has an excellent rail network, so don’t take internal flights. You can take the fast (bullet) train to most major Chinese cities or for more of an adventure take the overnight train and wake up refreshed at your destination.
When travelling by train ensure you arrive at the station one hour early. Train stations are similar to airports in the west, and you will need to go through many security and passport checks which can take a little time.” Steve, The Trip Goes On
“Without doubt, the easiest way to get around the larger cities, like Beijing in China is by using the really impressive metro. China’s equivalent to the subway or underground is super clean, very efficient and doesn’t cost much to use at all. A one-way ticket to any destination will cost between 3 and 5 CNY. All the ticket systems are in English, and so are the stations – so if you’ve ever used a subway before, it is incredibly simple.
There is also a convenient app to help you navigate Metro Man (Google/Apple), which has all Metro lines for 36 cities is in English and gives you journey options, times along with access to maps.” James, the Travel Scribes
“Taxis in China are inexpensive and convenient. The cars are easy to spot and ones waiting for a fare will have a red light in the window on the dashboard. There is a minimum fare of around 10rmb depending on the city, and then usually 1.5rmb per km after that.
When taking a taxi from the station, ignore all the people shouting “taxi” as they will be private ones where there is a high chance of being ripped off. Walk to the taxi rank (there is one at every station) and take a metred taxi, or to the road and flag one down.” Steve, The Trip Goes On
“As soon as you get to your hotel, take a couple of their business cards from the front desk. These cards will have the hotel’s address in both English and Chinese. You can show them to taxi drivers who will not speak any English. If you are in a smaller hotel in a huge Chinese city, always keep one of these cards with you, if you lose everything else, you’ll at least be able to get home!” Sam, Worldwide Wilbur
“Unfortunately, Uber is no longer available in China as they were sold in 2018. In all honesty, if you don’t speak Mandarin, you wouldn’t be able to use Uber anyway as drivers call you right after you book, so it didn’t work as well as it does in other countries.
China has its own ride-sharing app called Didi Chuxing or Didi* for short. Just download the app, enter your credit card, and use it the same way you would use Uber.” Nicole, Travelgal Nicole
*Several people recommended Didi, but I wasn’t able to find the English version on my phone here in the UK. Frustratingly, I’ve since found out, it’s only available in the USA. Grrrr!
“Traffic is a little crazy in China. Don’t rely on the green man when crossing the street and pay attention to everything around you, particularly the silent e-bikes which can be on the pavement/sidewalk or road.” Steve, The Trip Goes On
22. Shared Bikes/Ebikes
“Shared bikes and scooters are a great way to travel around the city. You will need WeChat (see point 5 above) to operate these. Simply scan the code on the bike and follow the steps to unlock.” Steve, The Trip Goes On
General China Travel Tips
23. Tipping in China
“Tipping is not a common practice in China, and it can make people feel uncomfortable. If you leave money behind, chances are they’ll chase after you to return it to you believing you’ve forgotten it. Tipping can also be seen as an act of charity, or superiority (because they supposedly need that coin more than you do), thereby hurting their pride. Although tipping no longer causes offence in touristy areas like Beijing, it’s better not to encourage this new norm.” Sophie, Bitten by the Bug
24. Toilets in China
“Toilets in China can be the most beautiful, the cleanest, the best in all aspects but of course, as anywhere, they do vary. The most typical toilets are of the squat-down style. However, many public toilets feature one or two western toilets. Look out for the signs on the door.
Once you get into the remote areas of China, the toilets become a lot more basic, and you won’t always be granted privacy. Toilets can be shared, latrine-style. It helps to use an umbrella to create an impromptu cover.
Remember that in China, you’re supposed to toss the used toilet paper into a bin that’s right next to it and not inside the toilet bowl as this will cause a blockage. And it’s a good practice to always carry tissues with you since toilet paper is not always provided. There are currently machines being tested in Shanghai, which give out free toilet paper to those who allow having their face scanned first!” Veronika, Travel Geekery
I’d also like to add that I have never been anywhere with so many public toilets and virtually all the ones I used during my travels were of an excellent standard. Plus, if the cubicles had a picture of a squat toilet on the door, you knew that there would almost certainly be one with a western-style toilet as well. You just had to look at all the doors to find it.
Not many public toilets provided soap so I’d also recommend taking hand sanitiser.
25. Haggling in China
“Before your trip to China, it’s useful to brush up on your negotiating skills. Haggling is part of Chinese culture, and you won’t offend anyone if you don’t accept the first price you’re offered. Most vendors expect a bit of bartering, especially if you’re shopping in street markets, local shops, and even some larger stores. You should haggle if you’re buying anything from souvenir stalls outside any famous landmarks in China, such as the Great Wall of China and around the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. If you’re unsure about when to haggle, the rule of thumb is any item that doesn’t have a visible price tag is fair game. Start by offering 30% of the asking price and work your way up.” Christina, Travel2next.com
26. Get used to being photographed
“If you travel anywhere outside of Beijing or Shanghai, it’s likely that some people will want to have their photograph taken with you. No, they haven’t mistaken you for a celebrity, but as foreigners are a rarity in smaller Chinese cities, it might be the first time in real life that many people have seen someone from the West.” Steve, The Trip Goes On
I indeed found this to be the case in Hunan, and I loved it. On numerous occasions, people asked to have their photos taken with me. Occasionally, I’d even spot someone photographing me surreptitiously. When I noticed, I really didn’t mind and simply smiled at the camera.
27. Backpacking in China
If you are backpacking in China then I’d recommend checking out this comprehensive Backpacking in China Guide.
China food and drink tips
28. Drinking water in China
“For most parts of China, the tap water is not drinkable (even if boiled), but bottled water is inexpensive and can be purchased in many shops and restaurants. Make sure to check that the seal is not broken. Most rubbish bins in China have a recycling section and some people also collect plastic bottles to sell to recycling plants, so at least you know your plastic bottles are likely to be recycled.” Shalini, Eager 2 Travel.
29. Reading a Chinese menu
“There is a great course on Memrise about learning to read a Chinese menu which is incredibly helpful. Even if you don’t have time to do the course, try learning these few characters, chicken 鸡, cow牛, meat 肉, noodles 面 rice 饭 though as that will help a lot.” Sarah, Sarah’s Sojourns
30. Using Chopsticks
“For first-timers to china, it’s important to consider chopstick etiquette. It will be a big part of your daily routine in any must-visit city in China. Remember to never stick your chopsticks vertically into your bowl as this resembles incense used to honour the deceased — it’s seen as extremely impolite. If you are done with your meal, leave your chopsticks on a bowl or the table. Of course, most restaurants nowadays will provide forks and spoons, though this might not be the case for hole-in-the-wall places!” Daisy, Beyond my Border
I’d highly recommend practising using chopsticks before you go if you don’t already know how to use them. A number of people told me they’d never seen westerners use chopsticks before and were delighted that I could eat with them (to an extent at least!).
31. Join the queue
“Chinese people are crazy about food. You will likely see long queues stretching into the street from popular food-stands. It’s fun to join in and see what the fuss is about, and you will usually not be disappointed. As with everywhere, if there are lots of locals eating somewhere, it’s usually a safe bet!” Steve, The Trip Goes On
Tips for business travellers
32. Exchanging business cards
It is respectful to give and receive business cards with two hands. Always pause for a moment to look at a card given to you and if seated at a table, place it on the table in front of you.
33. Formal meals and the tradition of “Gan bei!”
My visit to China was very different from the usual press trips I attended. I was with a group of businesspeople, and while they were in meetings, I was able to explore the local area. Several times I joined them after their meeting for a formal meal.
It was a fascinating experience, in particular, learning about the tradition of “Gan bei!” which literally translates as “dry cup”. Each time I joined one of these formal lunches or dinners, the host made numerous toasts throughout the meal. Firstly, to the whole group and then to each individual, in turn, moving around the table.
Typically, your host will welcome you and thank you for visiting. You will then clink glasses saying “Gan bei”, down your drink in one and then clink glasses again with a small bow. You should, of course, return the gesture during the meal by approaching your host, drink in hand and thanking them. Better still, follow this by going around everyone at the table and offer a toast to each person individually.
From what I’ve heard, it’s all or nothing. You shouldn’t swap from toasting with alcohol to a soft drink halfway through the gathering. You either have to explain from the start that you do not drink alcohol at all or go with the flow. Be sure to pour only a small amount of alcohol into your glass as you’ll be amazed by how many toasts there are.
Four drinks were available for toasting at this meal, two non-alcoholic and two alcoholic. From left to right these were tea, red wine, a seriously delicious banana milkshake and rice wine. The later is the traditional drink used for making a toast in China and it’s typically 20 to 25% ABV. A very cute little glass was provided to drink it from. Red wine is becoming more popular and having a lower ABV is probably a good idea. Mind you, rice wine is very good and I had my own jug which was kept topped up throughout the feast!
One of the reasons behind this tradition is about forming bonds between potential and existing business partners. Alcohol encourages people to speak more freely, showing their genuine personalities and enabling the Chinese businessperson to discern whether you are trustworthy.
34. Giving and receiving gifts
While I was in China, I was given a number of beautiful gifts including a China tea caddy and an illustrated book about Hunan, it’s many attractions together with relevant stamp collections inside. Of course, gift-giving isn’t restricted to business travellers and travel writers, as Rai explains here.
“The act of giving and receiving gifts is common in China, even for travellers, and there are a couple of things to note about the process. Learning the nuances would make for a good impression. Gifts from your home country are always welcome and appreciated and are usually given when visiting someone’s home, when being invited for dinner, or on major holidays. Never offer a gift that consists of four items, as this number is related to death. It is also customary to leave the gift unopened until you part ways. Lastly, don’t be surprised if the recipient declines your gift at first. This is done so as not to appear greedy. Insist until it is accepted.” Rai, A Rai of Light
Wherever and whenever you decide to visit, I hope you find these China travel tips useful. If you can travel with an open mind and easy going attitude you will get so much more out of the experience. If you have any tips or advice you’d like to add to this list, please do let me know in the comments below.
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