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Visiting China for the first time can be pretty daunting.
Although it’s an amazing and fascinating country to explore, it’s safe to say that as a westerner it is probably one of the largest culture shocks you’ll ever experience while travelling.
Based on my first trip to China last year, followed by a subsequent two months in the country, I’ve put together this list of 20 useful things to know before visiting China for the first time…
Things to know before visiting China
BEFORE YOU GO
1. Get your visa in advance
Residents of most countries will need to apply for a visa in advance before arriving in China.
This is definitely the case for British citizens. To get a visa in advance, you’ll need to fill out a detailed application form and attend a meeting at the Chinese embassy. The visa application ideally needs to be started at least a month before you intend to travel to China.
How to apply for a Chinese visa:
First, you will need to fill out the application form on the website.
The application form is pretty extensive and you’ll need to provide information including your passport details, education history, current employment details, family information, flight details, accommodation confirmation, your travel itinerary while in China and proof of forward travel. You’ll also need an appropriate recent colour passport photo.
Once you’ve completed the form and submitted it online you’ll be able to book a time slot for an appointment at your nearest Chinese Visa Application Centre (there’s one in London close to Bank station). It will most likely to take around a week to get an available slot (some quieter centres operate on a walk-in basis when means the process will be quicker).
You’ll need to have your passport, a printed application form and any other documents you might need with you when arriving at the Chinese Visa Application Centre. Walk in, take a number then take a seat and wait for your number to be called. When called, approach the window, give over your documents and get your photo and fingerprints taken. You’ll also be issued a payment slip.
As long as everything is okay with your application, you’ll have to leave your passport there and return in 4 days to pick it up along with your visa (you can also pay to get it delivered by post if easier).
2. Purchase a VPN before you go
In the whole of mainland China, many websites and social media sites are blocked for Chinese citizens, including Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp, Netflix, WordPress and many more. In order to be able to still access these while in China, you’re going to have to install a VPN.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network and allows you to create a secure connection to another network over the Internet, meaning you can bypass regional restrictions (don’t worry, it’s legal).
And remember, the websites of companies offering VPN’s are also blocked in China, so you’re going to have to purchase and install it before you go.
3. Download WeChat for messenger and payments
WeChat is the largest messaging and social media app in China and is used by locals for pretty much everything.
The best way to describe WeChat is as a mixture of WhatsApp messenger and the Facebook timeline, with other useful features such as mobile payment and their own version of maps.
WeChat Pay is the most common method of payment for locals in China (followed by Alipay which is a similar concept), whereby you quickly scan a QR code to pay. You’ll be sure to notice the QR codes at every attraction, restaurant, shop and event street vendor you come across (pretty high-tech right?).
Up until recently, WeChat pay was exclusive to those with Chinese bank accounts, however since November 2019 the app is now compatible with Visa, Mastercard and American Express too.
Another great feature of WeChat is that it has a translate tool, so if you really need to speak to someone who doesn’t know English you can still communicate with them via the app (especially if your VPN isn’t working as you can’t access google translate).
It’s also entirely likely that locals that you meet will ask to add you on WeChat. Seeing as the app is used like a social network (much like Instagram in the UK), it’s not strange to add new people or even strangers (if you choose to do so). Your new friends might even come in handy if you have questions or need advice.
WeChat’s QR scanner feature is also used for more than just mobile payments. You might see QR codes in places such as tourist attractions and museums around China, and if you scan it you’ll be able to access additional information on your phone.
4. But always carry cash around too
The one downside of WeChat Pay is that if your phone dies or gets lost, or you haven’t got internet, you won’t be able to pay for anything.
Plus, the majority of shops, restaurants and vendors in China won’t accept western credit cards, and that’s even if they accept cards at all.
Therefore it’s important to always carry around some cash with you.
My advice would be to get out a decent amount of cash before your trip (you may have to order in advance as not everyone stocks the currency). Then if you need to get more while out there, try international bank ATMs in the larger cities rather than regional Chinese ones.
Things to know before visiting China
5. The language barrier will be a problem
One of the major difficulties of visiting China is probably the language barrier.
If you’re visiting one of the major cities such as Shanghai or Bejing it’ll be easier to get by with English, however, once you head off of the tourist trail to smaller cities or more remote areas, you’ll find that very few locals can speak any English at all.
Similarly, in the more touristy areas you might find that some signs and menus are translated into English, but in a lot of areas of China this is also rare.
There are a few ways to make the language barrier easier.
- Learn a few words in Mandarin – I don’t mean learn a whole new language for one trip but a few words here and there such as ni hao (hello) or xie xie (thank you) won’t go amiss.
- Have google translate on your phone – this isn’t a perfect solution as some local dialects are quite different from ‘Chinese’ on the app, however it is better than nothing.
- Use google maps to point to the location you want to go to when getting taxis – this managed to get me to the right place every time.
- If in doubt, try the younger generations first – while most older people speak no to very little English, children and young adults are beginning to learn the language so are more likely to be able to help you out.
6. You’ll feel like a celebrity
If you’re particularly western looking, and by that I mean light skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, tall etc, be prepared to get a lot of attention almost everywhere you go.
Particularly in the more remote areas (although it still happens in the big cities) you won’t find many international tourists at all and many locals might not have ever seen a westerner in the flesh before.
This leads to two types of people; those who will approach you for a photo or selfie, or those who try to slyly take photos or videos of you from a distance (it’s always obvious!).
As long as you’re comfortable with it, just embrace your new found fame! Sometimes it does feel like there’s paparazzi on every corner but eventually you’ll just get used to it.
The main thing to know is that the majority of people are doing it out of admiration. Many Chinese people see western features as signs of beauty, so don’t be surprised if you get a few compliments thrown your way too.
7. Spitting and burping in public is normal
One of the most obvious cultural differences you’ll notice in China is that some things that we find gross or rude are seen as perfectly normal, such as spitting on the floor, burping at the dinner table or even children openly weeing on the side of the street.
These things are completely fine in Chinese culture so as a foreign visitor to the country you’ll just have to get used to it.
8. You’ll see more men with crop tops than women on hot days
I guess this isn’t something you need to know before going to China, but it’s a fun little observation to keep an eye out for.
During the hot and humid summer months, middle aged men in China have a tendency to roll up their shirt into a sort of crop top and have thier stomach exposed to keep cool. More so than you’ll see any women or girls in the country wearing crop tops.
This mens style has even entertainingly been nicknamed the ‘Beijing Bikini‘.
Things to know before visiting China
9. Don’t ask, just eat
One of the first things you should know before visiting China for the first time is that Chinese food in China is very different from the Chinese food you get in England and other western countries.
It’s hard to generalise what constitutes real Chinese cuisine as it greatly varies from province to province. All I can say is to be prepared for lots of unusual ingredients and flavours which you may have never even heard of before.
You will be able to find some more familiar dishes such as vegetable fried rice, noodle soup or dumplings most places you go, but be sure to embrace the local culture by branching out and trying something new during your trip.
Most local restaurants and street food vendors will probably only have menus in Chinese, meaning unless someone there speaks English (unlikely) you’ll have to order using your eyes and guesswork alone. This might be a gamble with what will end up on your plate but you never know, you might enjoy it! Just like haggis in Scotland, sometimes it’s best not to ask what’s in it anyway.
10. Sharing is caring
A key thing to know about eating in China is that it’s extremely common to share rather than having your own individual dish. The Chinese love a communal feast, with multiple dishes being brought out for the whole party to share.
The food usually continues to come until you physically have to say no more.
In China you’ll find eating styles such as:
- Dim Sum – bite-sized portions of food such as dumplings served on small plates to share
- Chinese BBQ – plates of meat and vegetables which you cook yourself over a hot stone or grill in the middle of the table
- Hot Pot – a simmering pot of soup in the middle of the table in which various types of meat, vegetables and noodles are boiled
11. You’ll easily be able to find home comforts
Many people who have never visited China before seem to have the belief that they won’t be able to find anything familiar whatsoever. But this is a common misconception.
In the majority of Chinese cities you’ll be able to find all sorts of western chains, with McDonalds, KFC and Starbucks being three of the most popular. There are also many other international restaurants, from Mexican cantinas to American burger joints and even trendy brunch cafes.
If you’re a fussy eater or just get a bit bored of eating Chinese food, you certainly won’t find it hard to get your hands on some home comforts.
12. If you want your water served cold you’ll have to ask
One thing I quickly learnt while in China is that if you ask for a glass of water it will be served hot unless you ask otherwise.
Why do the Chinese drink hot water?
This is a habit which dates back hundreds of years and is believed to have its basis in Chinese medicine. One of the main principles of Chinese medicine is that the body has two energy sources, Yin and Yang, and they must remain balanced.
Drinking cold water is believed to upset this balance within the internal organs. Hence why most Chinese will only drink hot water.
Hot water is also a particularly common beverage to drink with meals because of a strong belief in China that it is good for your digestion. This is supported by the scientific evidence that hot water stimulates and eases the digestive process, as opposed to cold water which solidifies oils present in food.
13. Don’t leave small change as a tip
In China, you’re not expected to tip at all. In fact, leaving small change on the table at a restaurant may actually offend the waiters. Therefore it’s better to leave nothing rather than ‘a little something’ for good service.
Things to know before visiting China
14. Be prepared to squat when you use the toilet
If you’ve never used a squat toilet before, this is what they look like…
Squat toilets are far more common in China than their western counterparts, so get ready to squat!
15. And always carry a pack of tissues
For some reason, toilet paper isn’t all too common in public toilets in China.
So to be safe, always carry around your own pack of tissues.
Things to know before visiting China
16. Don’t be afraid to take the metro
Many Chinese cities have their own metro system which are clean, safe and fairly easy to use so don’t shy away from them.
While the bigger cities have more extensive metro systems, many smaller cities still have a few lines which will take you to important destinations such as the central train station and airport.
Remember that Chinese cities are huge, especially the likes of Shanghai and Beijing, so the metro is probably the cheapest and quickest way to get around.
Station names tend to be written in Chinese symbols and often English letters too so when navigating the metro language barrier shouldn’t be a massive issue. Stations are also well signposted and are one the few places in China you will often find English translations.
However it might be useful to have your destination written down in both English and Chinese so you can ask for directions or help if you need to.
17. Taxis are cheap
Taxis in China are another super cheap and safe way of getting around big cities.
Either hail one down on the side of the road (make sure it’s an official taxi company in the city you’re in) or get your hotel to call one for you.
As I mentioned previously, you’re highly unlikely to find a taxi driver who speaks English, so try and have your destination written down in Chinese (which hopefully you’ll be able to find online) or have it ready on maps so you can show them where you’d like to go.
18. Get to the train station early
Trains are a convenient way to travel between different cities or provinces, but one thing you need to remember is to get to the train station early. Larger train stations in China can be more like an airport than the quick and convenient train stations we’re used to at home.
Firstly, foreigners can’t use the automatic gates to enter the station for which you need a Chinese ID card, so therefore you’ll have to queue for a window or find a member of staff to get through.
Then there’s the airport style security you’ll need to pass through with bag and body scanners to enter the train station itself.
Finally, most stations are massive and signs will probably be in Chinese so it may take you a while to find your way to your gate.
Ask for help by showing a member of staff your ticket and they’ll know what to do, even if they can’t speak English.
19. Be aware that you can’t take certain items on trains
As mentioned in the past point, Chinese train stations have airport style security so you’ll have to scan your bag when entering.
Also similar to airports, these scanners are looking out for dangerous and prohibited items. This shouldn’t be an issue for most people travelling in China. However, it’s also worth noting that some items you’re only allowed limited quantities of, including…
- No more than two small boxes of safety matches
- No more than two ordinary lighters
- No aerosol spray cans or bottles of mousse, hairspray, air freshener etc. over 120 ml
- No nail polish or hair dye over 20 ml
20. Have a native speaker help you when booking internal travel
When booking more significant travel between cities or provinces via train or internal flights, it’s useful to have a native speaker to help you.
Even though there are English websites to help you book travel in China, don’t be too surprised if you encounter issues which they won’t be able to help with fast enough.
Having missed one long distance train and had 3 short haul flights cancelled on me, it was extremely useful to have a native speaker be able to phone local transport or booking companies to sort things out quickly on my behalf.
Read more of my China travel articles:
21. Book hotels in advance and don’t expect them all to take you
Unfortunately for tourists visiting China, different cities and towns have their own regulations on accepting foreigners in hotels, meaning it’s not uncommon to find quite a few hotels for Chinese nationals only.
While in most countries it’s fine to turn up in a destination and find accommodation when you arrive to allow more flexibility in your itinerary, China is a country where you’re ideally going to want to book in advance for a better chance of finding somewhere suitable.
To guarantee you find a hotel which accepts foreigners, stick to international brands or use booking sites such as booking.com (they specify restrictions on each place).
22. Just have an open mind about everything!
As Anthony Bourdain once said on ‘Parts Unknown’…
‘The one thing I know for sure about China is, I will never know China. It’s too big, too old, too diverse, too deep. There’s simply not enough time.’
My cousin and I have developed our own joke that whenever we see something strange or that makes you want to scream ‘WHY!?’ we now just look at each other and say ‘because China…’
So my number one piece of advice for people travelling to China for the first time is to embrace this same mentality and accept that some things simply have no other explanation other than well…