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  • Martina

Complete Travel Guide for First Timers in China

Updated: May 16




Market stall in Xi'an, China


China has one of the richest cultures in the entire world and is an unmissable destination for anyone interested in unravelling the many faces of Asia - it had a huge impact on its neighbour countries and can be the perfect starting point for your discovery. Or you can go there for the amazing food or the infinite landscapes and views!


Anyway, if you decide to visit China and it’s your first time, you may need some advice. Here, in this complete guide thought for first-timers or for anyone who visited a few years ago, you will find everything you need for a safe and enjoyable trip: VISA, documents, health and medicines, transport, VPNs, hotels, restaurants, and much more.


➜ Note that I will always try to keep this guide as updated as possible and to regularly check the information included here. Should you notice anything outdated or incorrect or just wish to ask any further questions, you can contact me at any time here.

In need of some further inspiration? Here you can check my memories as a first-timer in China!


 

In this article:


Complete Travel Guide for First-Timers in China

 


PLANNING YOUR TRIP: BASIC INFO AND FIRST STEPS


Whether you have been dreaming of going to China for years or the destination was perhaps the fruit of genuine curiosity, planning your trip will require a bit more preparation than for most other countries in Asia.


This is why vacations in China cannot normally be a last-minute idea or the best option if you like improvisation - most of you will need to work on your documents for a while.


That said, in this guide I will go through all the essentials for a safe and comfortable trip through China, based on my own experience and with hindsight - to be honest, since I was going to travel with a local and native speaker, I neglected to adequately check many of the points I will cover here, and thinking about it now, I could have managed my time better if only I knew some of these things! Hopefully, this will help you enjoy your stay.


Now let's start with some general and basic information to visualize the trip in your mind (realistically):


First thing first - check your passport expiration date! If this latter is due in a few months, go book your spot to obtain a new document. In most cases you will not be eligible for a VISA if there is any (even minor) issue with your passport.


Start planning everything at least 2-3 months before your departure: obtaining a VISA is not a super quick process, as you need to prepare the documents, book an appointment, then wait for your VISA to be released. All this may take more or less time depending on the country you are applying from and demand.


Do you come from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Switzerland, Ireland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium or Luxembourg? Until November 30, 2024 you can travel in China VISA FREE for 15 days! Check the Official Website of Chinese VISA for the latest updates!


Decide if you wish to refer to a travel agency or plan it all by yourself: the first scenario is easier in terms of bureaucracy and trip design, but it can make your vacation more expensive and your experience might overall feel as "for foreigners", whereby planning everything by yourself would require a bit more effort and be at times less comfortable, but feel more authentic. This is something you should decide at an early stage, since if you opt for a travel agency they can help you with your VISA as well.


Choose your destinations carefully: China is enormous and the main cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Shenzhen, Xi'an and Guangzhou are not exactly close to each other. If you are planning to move around a bit and change regions, keep in mind that this will take time. Personally, I started from Guangzhou and gradually moved towards Beijing, which was my last destination. To do this, I was in China for 3 weeks and I did not manage to reach the east side of the country, or I would have spent half of my time on trains or planes.


➜ If you have around 1 week to spend in China, my suggestion is to remain in the same region (choosing one city as your base) and maybe plan 1/2 day trips.

➜ If you have 1 to 2 weeks you may visit 2 regions with their main cities.

➜ If you have 3 weeks to 1 month you can opt for 3 regions, but be prepared to focus alternatively on cities or on exploring the country, as there won't be enough time for everything.


My suggestion is to always prefer quality over quantity - every region in China (as in any part of the world) has its beautiful story to tell and you won't be able to grasp it if you move too fast.


When should you visit China? If you can, avoid the summer months. Chinese people love to visit their country in summer and, as you may imagine, this means huge crowds everywhere and hard times finding tickets and good hotel deals. I did not have much choice so I was there in July/August, but my suggestion and that of my Chinese friends is to avoid the period between late June and August and the national holidays such as the Chinese New Year (January-February) and the Mid-Autumn Festival (between September and October). Pretty much the same as in every other part of the world.


China changes its rules and procedures often and fast. I have very recently been there, so what I am writing now should be pretty much up to date. While I will check all the information from time to time and ask my friends in China to confirm it (you can check when I last updated this post), in case you notice anything incorrect or outdated, do not hesitate to let me know!



VISA AND DOCUMENTS


➊ Do you come from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Malaysia, Switzerland, Ireland, Hungary, Austria, Belgium or Luxembourg? Until November 30, 2024 you can travel in China VISA FREE for 15 days! Check the Official Website of Chinese VISA for the latest updates! ➊


As mentioned, if you come from most of the world, you need a VISA to enter China.


The best way to start is to check the Foreign Office's official website of the country where your passport has been issued, which normally includes a page dedicated to travelling rules and requirements for each foreign nation. Anyway, here is an overview:


  • Africa: VISA for travel purposes is always required, Mauritius (60-day VISA free) and Seychelles (30-day VISA free) excluded.

  • Asia: citizens of Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan can travel freely in Mainland China, while Armenians enjoy a 90-day VISA-free period. Several countries such as Mongolia, Kazakhstan, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Singapore and others are allowed a 60/30/15-day VISA-free stay. All remaining countries need a VISA.

  • Australia: everyone is required to hold a VISA, with very few exceptions (Fiji Islands and Tonga, with a 30-day VISA-free period).

  • Central and South America: VISA for travel purposes is required almost everywhere, except for a few places such as Ecuador, Suriname and Barbados (30-day VISA free).

  • Europe: if you come from Europe, you most likely need a VISA. The only exceptions are San Marino Republic and Bosnia and Herzegovina (90-day VISA free), then Serbia and Belarus (60-day VISA free).

  • North America: except for the Bahamas (30-day VISA free), all countries in North America, including the United States and Canada, require a VISA to enter China.


Since I once prepared invitation documents and letters to help people come to the country I was working in, I know that the required documents and the steps to obtain a VISA may vary from country to country, and it is always best to check your reference country's related website.


However, based on my experience, this is an overview of what obtaining a VISA for China can mean:


1. If you have a valid regular passport (normally meaning that it is not going to expire in the next 6 months after you depart from China) or any evident irregularities, you can book an appointment at the office dedicated to Chinese VISA procedures (find yours here). These can be located right in your hometown or, as it was for me, you may have to travel to another city. Documents must always be delivered in person, even if you rely on a travel agency.


2. Before you can book an appointment to hand over the required documents, you will be asked to fill out a (looong) form with your personal details, contact, travel and practical information. This can include: addresses, work and family, travel plans, flights data, if you are going to rely on a local friend of yours, on a travel agency or plan everything on your own (in the first two cases you will need to share the contact details of your friend/agency, in the latter provide evidence of your stays/transports having been booked), etc. Since your photo must be attached to the form, know that you will most likely need to use a very specific photo format (2x2). More details are normally provided by the VISA system itself. Travel agencies normally prepare and submit this form on your behalf.


3. On the day of your appointment, you will be asked to fill out a few more forms, be fingerprinted (not all countries require this passage), and have some more photos of you taken. After 10-15 days from that day, you should be informed that your passport with the VISA is ready to be collected, or you can decide to have it delivered to you. If you rely on a travel agency, they should be able to collect it for you.


 

The entire process took me around 6 weeks, but this really depends on the country you are applying from and on the availability of the offices. You must also consider any issues, even minor, that may arise. The VISA offices themselves suggest starting the procedure at least 2 months before departure.


Unless you request a multiple-entry VISA, you will not be able to visit Hong Kong, Taiwan or Macau and re-enter China afterwards (regardless of what your passport allows you to do in those countries).


Do you want to visit only one city and don’t plan to be in China for more than 5 days? You can opt for the 144-Hour-Visa-Free-Transit! This is an option that allows you to enter China without a VISA, but it is mandatory that you leave the country within 144 hours and you must prove that you are traveling to another country after the 144-hour period expires, otherwise your stay will be considered illegal.

➜ Despite its name, know that not all countries are eligible for free transit and that only some cities can be visited (but all major ones are included!). You can read more about this here.



BOOKING YOUR STAY: HOTELS


The VISA process is maybe not the best part of your vacation, but a few of the other pre-departure steps can be more exciting! Among these is the choice of where to stay and the booking of your hotel rooms.


This is not the first and it won't certainly be the last time you will read this here: how you can book your hotel stays in China depends on whether you know or not the Chinese language and if you are traveling alone, with an agency or a local.


➊ Where can you book your hotel stays if you don't speak Chinese? The best options are the same websites you would use for every other part of the world (Booking, Trip.com, etc). Services such as Airbnb do not exist in China (they have their own), but on sites like Booking you can find options for the main destinations and you should be sure to be accepted as a foreigner (but it's better to always double-check).


➜ If you book via foreign websites, expect higher prices - pretty much aligned with Western ranges - and you can pay in your currency (while hotels would cost much less if booked through Chinese media).


➊ Where can you book your hotel stays if you speak some Chinese or one of your Chinese friends can do this with you? In both cases, you can opt for where the Chinese book their stays, which are basically Chinese versions of Booking. My friend would check a few places before choosing and used primarily 去哪儿旅行(Qunar) (Apple - Google Play - Website) and 携程旅行(CTrip) (Apple - Google Play - Website). Here you can find hotel rooms, apartments and other options.


➜ If you book through Chinese apps, make sure the hotel you selected accepts foreigners - most of the hotels in China don't. There is always a flag you can select when filtering your options. International hotel chains normally accept foreigners, so this is the safest bet.


Always check when a hotel was built - I traveled in 2023 and my Chinese friend considered best options hotels built between 2019-2023, while 2018-2017 still fell in the range of decency. This is definitely something many of us wouldn't check but I was told in China it may affect the quality of your stay.


Read the reviews: Chinese people love to leave feedbacks and are often even rewarded when they do, so they learnt the art and there is so much you can do to avoid bad surprises by reading the reviews!


If you can, avoid booking too much in advance: in China, the closer your stay when you book, the higher the chances you have to find better options, and there is always some availability (choices are infinite, but mostly on Chinese media). We often booked the nights for our next city 3-5 days before the arrival and have always found good offers.


➜ To book via Chinese apps, you must have an active WeChat or Alipay account (with a valid, functioning registered credit card or enough credit). If you couldn't get any of your cards accepted, don't have a Chinese bank account or have any problems paying with these apps, ask a Chinese friend to help you (as we did - my credit card was registered on Alipay but got often rejected because international).


➊ Do you have to book all your nights before your arrival? Not necessarily. If you are traveling with an agency, they may take care of this for you or advise you to book everything beforehand, but if you are traveling alone or with locals, you have other options. Since I was traveling with a local, I did not need to show proof of my bookings to obtain my VISA and when I arrived I only had 3 nights booked, the others we managed once there. If you are planning everything on your own, you must declare where you are staying to obtain a VISA, but you may change plans later if you book rooms with free cancellation.

 

➜ Regardless of where and how you book, you will always be asked to provide your passport details - this will happen so often that at the end of your trip you will know them by heart!


You don't need to worry about air-conditioning: all hotels in China have it, even when it is not expressly specified. I have honestly never found a place (transport, hotel, restaurants) without it.



VPNs - WHAT, WHY AND HOW


You may have heard of Google, Instagram, Netflix, Amazon, Facebook, etc not being available in China and of the need to use a VPN to get round this problem, and maybe you are asking yourself if this is indeed a thing - well, it is.


The moment you enter China and your phone realizes where you are, some of the actions you would be normally able to perform with your device will not be available anymore. But don't worry, I promise not only you will definitely survive this situation, but also that there are many solutions.



The Great Firewall

Over the years, China has come up with Chinese versions of basically every app, social media or service that you can think of and that is used all over the world.


A Chinese version means an alternative app, website or store that provides the exact same services as the one we know (sometimes with adjustments and additional features thought for a Chinese audience) but that comes exclusively in Chinese, therefore preventing virtually everyone who is not Chinese or knows Chinese very well to use it. Sometimes English versions are available but are rarely complete.


Having a Chinese version is pretty much needed in a country that has decided to isolate itself from the rest of the world (informatically) and block the usage of several foreign apps thanks to a capillary system of censorship, restrictions and bans - this is known sometimes as the Great Firewall (in Chinese 防火長城). The Great Firewall not only blocks external websites and apps, but also slows down every non-domestic connection, and this is why foreigners in China usually need a local SIM Card and a VPN.



What is working and what is blocked in China

Let's start from the basics: if you have an Apple device, you have some advantages, while if you are an Android/Windows owner you might face more restrictions. This is because Apple products are extremely popular in China and widely sold all over the country, and Apple itself benefits from a good partnership with the Chinese authorities (today less than yesterday tough). Any other foreign tech brand is far less present if present at all.


➜ While you will still notice some differences and find many apps to be blocked, Apple users can still access and use iOS/OS apps such as:

  • Apple Maps

  • Apple Store (+ you can download apps)

  • Apple Translate

  • FaceTime

  • iMessage

  • and all other Apple apps


Many apps/services are blocked in China, no matter the device you are using. These are the most popular:

  • Google Maps

  • Gmail

  • Play Store (+ you can't download any app)

  • and all Google services

  • WhatsApp

  • Telegram

  • Instagram

  • Facebook

  • YouTube

  • and all other Meta apps

  • Snapchat

  • TikTok

  • Wikipedia

  • Spotify

  • Pinterest

  • Amazon

  • the list could be much longer and include news media, magazines, blogging platforms and many more.


➜ Services such as Netflix, Disney+, and Skype technically exist and can be downloaded and used, but are highly unreliable (Skype) or simply of no use (Netflix has no available catalogue for China). You can use any browser, including Chrome and Safari, but cannot access any blocked website.



What is a VPN and why use it in China

A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a way to create anonymous, private and secure connections in conditions where this would normally not be possible. A VPN conceals the IP address associated with the device you are using to browse the internet and assigns it another one, making your phone or laptop untrackable. By using a "fake" IP address given to you by a VPN you can easily make the internet server believe you are browsing from another country.


That said, of course, this kind of expedient turns very useful if you are in China and facing the Great Firewall blockade. If you have a VPN turned on and working well, you can browse the internet in China with a Hong Kong/American/German/etc IP address and therefore use all apps available in that country.


Chinese authorities know well that all foreigners and many Chinese now use VPNs on a daily basis, and while this practice is normally allowed within certain terms, some VPNs can suddenly become obsolete or all VPNs can be blocked for a short time on the occasion of national celebrations, important foreign relations events, and other politics-related circumstances.


➜ During my stay in China, I had a VPN turned on all the time and was able to use my phone as I would in Europe! Of course, since many apps were not officially "usable" in China, there was no point in using them there, even with a VPN - this is the case with Netflix but also Google Maps (which shows no transport/traffic data at all in China) and Amazon (you can't have anything delivered).


Best VPN options: 3 suggestions

When I was preparing my stuff for China, I did some research and looked for good VPNs that could allow me to communicate and stay updated once in China. I downloaded two but personally used one, while my company either did the same or chose differently.


Here is what we used (options are updated May 2024):


LetsVPN was my final choice and I used it from day one and until my departure. This is not a free service but its prices were pretty fair and I found them to be quite affordable for the highly reliable service offered.


There are two types of subscriptions (Platinum & Standard) and several options: 1 week costs 2,99€/USD (Platinum) or 1,99€/USD (Standard), 1 month is 9,99€/USD (Platinum) or 6,99€/USD (Standard). I purchased the 1-month Platinum package and was able to navigate with no issues at all. All plans come with data restrictions and limits, but I never reached them or had my overall experience affected.


While LetsVPN is turned on you can use your phone as a hotspot (VPN is not sharable via hotspot) and the connection will still be good. Also, you can share your account with a friend (at least with the Platinum subscription).


➜ Once you download and open the app for the first time, you start your 72-hour free trial. Especially if you have a non-Apple device, make sure to download the app at home, then open it once in China, so you will be able to use the trial to set up your subscriptions.




I downloaded AstrillVPN and was ready to use it in case LetsVPN had failed me, but this did not happen so I did not purchase any subscription and did not actually try it. However, a member of my company did and had an overall good experience.


AstrillVPN is more expensive (30 USD per month, more convenient if used in the long term) but reliable and guarantees a high degree of protection. This is a solution I would recommend if you plan to work and use a business laptop or access company's software, if you use heavy/data-consuming programs or if you stream a lot.


When I went to China this was known as one of the most expensive but best-functioning VPNs, but I have read of some recent issues. I will keep checking for updates.




UrbanVPN is free and relatively new. I haven't tried it, but I was told it was doing its job, although the connection was slower than mine.


I would recommend opting for UrbanVPN if you plan to use your phone occasionally during the day and are ok with the possibility of your VPN not working at 100% rate all the time.


 

Among the VPNs that I heard of and would not recommend (bad experiences, not working at all, too many ups and downs, too expensive for their service) are: ExpressVPN, NordVPN, Surfshark, VyprVPN, UltraVPN. I am aware that some of these were among the best options since recently, but unfortunately all VPNs can be suddenly targeted by the authorities and stop functioning correctly.


For this reason, remember that it may be possible that my suggestions, which were working well while I was there, could stop working properly in the future. While I will always try to update the information here, my suggestion is to download at least two options before leaving home, then use the free trial to assess them.


These suggestions are thought for travellers who would likely limit their normal usage of the internet, not for those who are temporarily or permanently moving to China.



How to use a VPN

Normally, using a VPN from your phone or your laptop is quite easy: there should be a downloadable app that you can install on your device.


Once downloaded the app, all you need to do is to open it and follow the instructions or figure it out by yourself which, in my case (I used LetsVPN) was a piece of cake - tap the bottom "Connect" and let it choose the best server automatically, or select the preferred country for the new IP address and connect from there. This last option may mean a slower connection but is useful in case you plan, for example, to watch the TV of your country or need an app to see you as if located in a specific place (this normally doesn't work for services like Netflix that can detect VPNs!).


However, I know that not every VPN is as easy as mine was to set up! In this case, my suggestion is to always refer to the VPN's official website, which often includes a step-by-step tutorial.



ARRIVING IN CHINA


Now that you have your passport, VISA, luggage and VPN all set, it is finally time to land in China!


Supposing you are arriving via plane, this is what you should expect once at the airport:


Keep your passport in hand! Before you can reach the baggage claim there are a few security controls you must pass and documents you must fill out. Expect to fill out a few papers with more or less the same information you provided to obtain your VISA. After that, it is time for fingerprinting and VISA check, then you are good to go!


If someone is picking you up, note and let them know that from the moment of your landing, it might take you 1+ hour to exit the airport.


Do not expect anyone to speak English, not even there, at the airport. If you are lucky you may find someone, but this wasn't our case. This also applies to taxi drivers, baggage claim personnel and policemen!


If you can, avoid exchanging currencies at the airport - it is more expensive. However, note that if you are heading to the subway or taxi, you might need cash to pay for that, unless you have Alipay or WeChat set up already.



CASH, CREDIT CARDS AND QR CODES


Cash and payments were one of the trickiest parts of our very first days in China, and it took us a while to figure out how to manage everything money (and we were always accompanied by Chinese people!), so here is all I know and that I hope may help you!


The currency in China is the Yuan or RMB, which is still fairly accommodating for foreigners in terms of exchange rates, especially if you come from the Eurozone, the US, or the UK. 1€ is roughly 7,90RMB, $1 is ca. 7,25RMB, 1£ is 9RMB and 1AUD, is 4,5RMB. Also, prices are generally lower than in Western countries, so you can buy food, groceries, transport and museum tickets, hotel stays and more for less money than at home.


The real issue in China for foreigners is finding a way to actually pay!



Market stall in Chengdu, China
A market stall selling vegatable and showing off its green and blue QR codes

China has recently become a country where virtually everything can be paid via apps and QR codes so very few Chinese use cash and even fewer use credit cards. Unfortunately, for foreigners this means having their international cards often rejected (or refused because the vendors have no POS!) and experiencing many issues while trying to set up the most popular payment apps such as WeChat and Alipay. Luckily, a solution can always be found.



Cash

Cash is still widely accepted in China and you can use it to buy any kind of groceries, at restaurants, museums, subway stations, and more - this is good news. However, withdrawing cash might be harder than using it.


As you will see, in China there are several banks, all named after some aspect of the social sphere (e.g. People's Bank, Agricultural Bank, China Construction Bank, Bank of China, Commercial Bank etc) and state-controlled. There is no actual difference for you between one or the other, except that not every bank will let you withdraw cash.


My suggestion is to just try a few (the Agricultural Bank was the one for us!) or to ask an exchange center, which will however charge you a commission (adding up to your bank's own commissions). If in need, this latter is definitely the best solution.


Since commissions are always included and may vary according to your bank, it would be better to withdraw once or max. twice, although unfortunately many banks impose a daily limit.



Credit Cards

Forget about the credit cards in your wallet while you are China.


While I was there, I have never seen anyone use their physical credit card to pay and very few vendors have POS that accept international cards.


Still, there are two things that you can do with your credit card: first, withdraw money from the bank, and second, use it to set up your Alipay or WeChat accounts.



WeChat and Alipay

I will never forget the moment when I deleted the Alipay app from my phone - I felt so nostalgic and it was then that I realized I had left China. In fact, after a few days in China, you will get used to the sight of QR codes everywhere, and especially green and blue ones.


Green QR codes allow you to pay via WeChat and blue ones via Alipay: these are the two most popular payment methods in China right now and used by literally every single person in the country.


WeChat is a sort of Chinese Whatsapp+Facebook+Instagram and includes several add-ons (MiniApps!) that can be installed if needed. People can send money over the app, pay with it, every institution has its own WeChat account and several restaurants or cafés let you leaf through their menus on WeChat, where you can also place an order and pay. External apps are also connected to WeChat payments and sometimes solely accept it as payment method.


Alipay is more a service provider than a social media, and there you can find all sorts of sections for transport, hotels, taxis all together (+ its own Mini Programs). Except for that, it works pretty much like WeChat and is usually always accepted as payment method.


To use these apps you would need to create and then set up an account, providing your passport and contact details, photo and credit card info. This is also valid if you are already using WeChat as a messaging platform (I was before going to China) - paying with it requires creating another account.


Unfortunately, this process of setting up an account is not easy and not all credit cards are accepted. Also, even if they are, they are not always accepted by the vendors (this is very random, I got mine rejected when I least expected it) and only owners of Chinese bank accounts can access specific features such as the wallet.


Once your account is all set, you can either pay by scanning the QR code of the vendor or by having yours scanned by them (they will tell you). Both options are immediately accessible from the app.


Alipay has a "Scan" page and a "Pay" one:


Alipay screenshot
Image taken from the Alipay app - by tapping on "Scan" you can scan the QR code of the vendor, while by clicking on "Pay" you can have your code scanned


WeChat has a "Me" section, where you can find "Services", then "Money":


WeChat screen
The "Services" section on WeChat where you can MiniApps and access payments

English versions are available in both cases but are not always complete and any additional feature will be in Chinese.


That said, if you are traveling with a Chinese friend or have Chinese friends in general, let them help you, especially when setting up or purchasing things such as hotel rooms or ticket trains. If you don't, prefer Western platforms when you can or opt for cash.


➜ Both WeChat and Alipay are unblocked in China, so you can download them there. However, don't forget that you won't have access to the Play Store without a VPN.


Things are changing for the better for foreigners in China! WeChat and Alipay are getting more and more foreigner-friendly and more international credit cards are being accepted. It is possible that you won't have any problems setting up your accounts if traveling in the next months.



SIM CARDS AND DATA


Let's start with some very good news: China has Wi-Fi everywhere!


You will likely find one at the airport, then in every hotel, often in restaurants, trains, cafés, malls, so this is not bad and they work well with VPNs too.


However, having some available data is still important, since you will need them to pay and might need them to find directions, book taxis, use the metro, purchase tickets, etc.


In my company, we decided to purchase one SIM card every two people, plus we traveled with one or more Chinese friends (one of them had two phones!), so managing all tasks was quite simple even if not everyone had an always-connected phone. Keeping your SIM card and using roaming data is definitely something I would not recommend because it would cost you much more than purchasing a Chinese SIM card!


➊ Chinese SIM Cards can be easily purchased in any mall (there are many in every city), where you will likely have 2-3 alternatives to choose from. We had our Chinese friend help us but they will easily understand what you need once they see foreigners in a phone/carrier shop. Don't expect anyone to speak English, you will find a way, use a translation app if needed!


My offer included a China Unicom SIM Card, unlimited traffic calls, and some 100GB. I paid around 250RMB or 30€/$35/27£ and didn't have to pay more until I finished my data. It was definitely enough for 3 weeks and would have been for more. I couldn't find my offer online. I heard plans change often, so it's better to check with them directly. Here is a simplified English website of China Unicom, and here the Chinese one.


➜ To purchase and activate a Chinese SIM card you must share your passport details, have them take a few pictures of you with your passport (that will be fun), and sign some documents. This is also required for Chinese citizens.


➜ Once you put your Chinese SIM card in your phone, if this latter does not support a double-SIM system, do not forget to use your Chinese number when setting up WeChat/Alipay accounts, making reservations, signing up in new apps, etc.


Keep your SIM card, you can use it if ever in China again (at least if you come back in a few years)!


You can also opt for an eSIM Card, a virtual SIM that can be purchased online and connect with the local carrier without the need to buy a physical SIM in China (so keeping yours). An eSIM usually comes with a pre-paid package that includes data, and sometimes SMS and an integrated VPN. Initially, I was going for this option myself, then I did some research and asked a few friends and found out that, while eSIM would work in China, traffic would be much slower, VPN not always function and the experience overall hampered, so I opted for a Chinese SIM (however, don't forget that I had Chinese people helping me, so an eSIM might be the best option for you if you haven't!).


Here are a few options for eSIMs that have packages for China (all you need to do is to buy a package, then follow the instructions to use it, which are normally quite easy): Holafly (1 month costs 69€/$64 + VPN is included), Airalo (1 month is $16,50 with 5GB included, $28 with 10GB, $49 with 20GB), Nomad (various offers ranging from $15 to $30 and more).



USEFUL APPS AND WEBSITES


We have often mentioned the fact that in China there is a Chinese version of basically every app and services we know, and that these latter often don't work in China, so it is vital to know how to move around while there, since many Chinese apps don't have an English version.


Here is a brief list of useful apps and websites, do not forget that to download any app from the Google Play Store you would need an active VPN, so do it at home if you can! Some of them have a downloadable Android APK (installation file) in case you need it, but just in case.


Essentials:

  1. Alipay (Apple Store - Google Play Store): the most popular payment method, includes a section to call a taxi, to buy metro tickets, book hotels, etc.

  2. WeChat (Apple Store - Google Play Store): Chinese WhatsApp+Facebook and most popular payment method, includes many MiniApps (for specific actions) and you can find the page of virtually any public institution/shop/brand, etc. Note that if you book a guided tour, your guide will likely text you on WeChat.


Transport:

  1. Metroman (Website): super useful if you have an Android/non-Apple device, it can help you calculate your trip and choose the right line and stop when taking the subway! Google Maps doesn't work in China without a VPN and, even if you have one, the app does not provide any transport/traffic info.

  2. Autonavi or 高德地图 (Apple Store - Google Play Store): the Chinese version of Google Maps. Not available at all in English but super useful, it includes an augmented reality version where you can see the directions in real-time, with your camera turned on.

  3. China Railways (simplified English version - Chinese version): this is where you check the availability and buy train tickets, plus

  4. China Train Booking (Apple Store - Google Play Store): I tried it but never purchased a ticket because here, as in the English version of the official website above, prices are higher!

  5. DiDi Rider (Apple Store - Google Play Store): this is the most popular taxi-hailing service in China, and is also included within Alipay. An English version is available, but at least if you use it within Alipay (as I did) not everything will be translated.


Travel and Hotels:

  1. CTrip or 携程旅行 (Apple Store - Google Play Store - Website): much like our Booking, here you can find hotels, flights, and experiences. It's all in Chinese, but if you use it from your laptop it may be manageable.

  2. Trip.com (Apple Store - Google Play Store - Website): or the global version of CTrip, so in English. You can find hotels, flights and experiences in China there too, but prices will be bit higher (because will come in your currency).

  3. Qunar or 去哪儿旅行 (Apple Store - Google Play Store - Website): same as per CTrip, it is basically an alternative option.

  4. GetYourGuide (Apple Store - Google Play Store - Website): here you can book your guided tours and experiences, or find museum/attractions tickets in case normal media are all sold out (commissions are charged, of course). Available in English. Note that some of the services on GetYourGuide are not available for Chinese citizens.


Restaurants and Delivery:

  1. DianPing (Apple Store - Website): what we have here is The Fork+TripAdvisor+JustEat+Amazon all combined together, but the Chinese way. It's all in Chinese, but here you can find all the reviews and feedback you need to find the very best deal and the best food in town (we mentioned before that Chinese people love leaving reviews).

  2. Meituan (Apple Store - Google Play Store): basically an alternative to DianPing, very multitasking with food, shopping, restaurants and many more services. Partially available in English.

  3. Sherpa's (Apple Store - Google Play Store): a good English-available alternative for your food delivery, although it may have some issues locating restaurants and shops.


Miscellaneous:

  1. Pleco (Website): this is THE dictionary app for Chinese, and you can also use it as with Google Lens, scanning a text with your camera and having it translated.

  2. Taobao (Apple Store - Google Play Store): or the Chinese version of Amazon/Aliexpress (Aliexpress is in fact a smaller version of Taobao). It's affiliated with Alibaba, so works best with Alipay. No English version available but if you search in English you may find something. Note that the Chinese buy literally everything online and like to get their stuff fast, so don't be surprised if you get your package delivered in hours (a Chinese friend of mine got one delivered at their hotel from a friend who ordered it minutes that same morning).



TRANSPORT


Transport in China is reliable, fast, cheap and efficient and calculating your trip is easy once you know exactly where you are heading! Also, cities in China are enormous, so expect tons of subway lines, infinite buses and taxis driving everywhere.


Let's take a look at all available options:



Metro

The metro is definitely the transportation service you are going to use the most when in China. All main cities have their lines and some cities have so many that virtually every spot seems to be covered.


During my stay, I tried the metro service in 4 different cities and found it excellent all the time, the cars always clean, new-looking and air-conditioned (there was even the possibility of choosing the degree of cold you preferred, some cars were colder, some warmer, but never hot).


To use the metro in China you need a ticket, which price depends on the ride. The more stops/changes, the higher the price. Anyway, do not expect Western countries' fees, subways in China are super cheap and a ride can cost you 50-80 cents to 1,50€/$1,70!


To calculate your trip and know what your stop is, use Metroman if you have a non-Apple device or Apple Maps if you have one. Apple Maps will automatically calculate your subway trip.


To buy your ticket you have several choices: if you pay in cash, go to the dedicated totems you will find close to the main entrances. Choose English, select your final line and stop, then choose cash as payment method. You can also pay with WeChat or Alipay. ➜ If you can (it wasn't working for me in Beijing, but worked in Xi'an and Chengdu), activate the metro card of the city you are visiting (it's free and super easy, just go to the "Metro" section of Alipay and select the city) and scan the QR code when heading to your platform, then scan it again when exiting - the final fee will be charged automatically. ➜ In case you have any problems, you can ask the subway staff, who can be normally found in a kiosk close to the entrance.


Know that each time you get on a metro you have to pass some security checks, including a baggage check.



Bus

Buses are trickier if you don't have a good navigation app that includes traffic/transport info because it's not easy to understand which bus to take and where you should take it. If you don't have one, ask the hotel staff or try to tourist info points (although they normally don't speak English).


Apart from that, if you know which one to take (Apple Maps tells you), the ride is easy and super cheap. One ride can cost you only a few cents (1-3RMB), vehicles are clean and efficient, and always air-conditioned.


Buses are a very good option when and if you plan a day trip outside the main cities and don't wish to be accompanied by a guide or be part of a tour (which can be much more expensive) - we did it once and the experience was smooth and nice.



Taxi

If you come from Europe or North America, taxis in China will look like dreams on wheels - omnipresent, fast and CHEAP.


You can get on a taxi the old way, waving your hand on the streets to call one, and this can work outside airports and train stations. Otherwise, the best and fastest way to taxi-hail in China is via DiDi (Apple Store - Google Store - Website), an app that can be downloaded on its own or found within Alipay. Thanks to this app, which is partially available in English (I could use it without any aid), you can choose your preferred car (including brand and model), number of seats you need (up to 7), and monitor your driver all the way through from the moment you call them until they leave you at the destination.


Once you insert your destination, DiDi will give you an estimate of the final cost, which is usually reliable. You can follow the fee going up while you ride. In general, prices range from 3-5€/USD to 15-20€/USD for very long rides. You can pay directly with WeChat or Alipay (Alipay is mandatory if you call a taxi through DiDi on Alipay) or sometimes in cash, but better warn the driver beforehand to make sure they can accept it. Always keep some cash anyway, as sometimes Alipay rejects international cards (it happened to me).


You often need to insert the Chinese name of your destination to find it on DiDi but sometimes English is fine and the system recognizes it. If it doesn't, just look on the internet for the name, it is normally quite easy.


You can chat/call your driver all the time but don't expect them to speak English, we took several taxis and never found a driver with whom we could talk. Therefore, be careful to insert the right address so they won't have to call you.


Taxis (like any other transport service in China) come with about 4 cameras each, which will record the ride. This is something you must accept before you can book a taxi.



Trains

Trains in China are efficient and usually arrive on time, but I have heard of exceptions from my friends.


I traveled on trains a lot while in China but always took high-speed trains and had all my tickets booked by my Chinese friends. Anyway, we frequently discussed trains and the railway system while there. Here is what I learned:


Seats are limited and some rides are more popular than others, especially in summer. If you need to reach some of the big cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, make sure to book your seats at least 2-4 days in advance. If your ride is regional and goes outside the main cities, there are usually no problems finding a seat.


Tickets can be bought by non-Chinese speakers either on the simplified English version of the China Railway website, with the China Train Booking app (Apple Store - Google Play Store) or on websites like Trip.com - however, note that prices are normally higher and not all rides are available. If you speak Chinese, have a Chinese friend who can help you or are willing to challenge yourself with the Chinese website, here you can find it: China Railway.


Once you have your ticket, make sure to reach the railway station at least 1 hour before departure: stations are gigantic (they look like veritable airports) and you need to pass some security checks (including baggage checks) before you can reach the main hall. Once there, you may struggle a bit to find your platform (all boards are in Chinese), then you must wait until about 30 minutes before departure for your platform to "open" - when it does, you must put yourself in line and show your passport (be careful and ask someone to help you if unsure, foreigners must not wait in the same line as the Chinese).


When at the platform, try to position yourself in relation to your seat on the train - trains are always crowded and it won't be easy to move around. Once seated, prepare your passport and give it to the train personnel when asked. If you exchange seats with a friend, you will have to explain this to the staff, just saying. This happened to us and was such fun - as usual, no one normally speaks English.



Domestic Flights

Since China is enormous, flying from one place to another may sound reasonable to avoid spending too much time on trains. However, this is something my Chinese friends have always discouraged us from doing.


When we set off and started our journey back home, my Chinese friend who had accompanied us all the way from Guangzhou to Beijing decided to fly her way back. She was supposed to reach the destination by late afternoon, but it took her much more. Security checks, adverse weather conditions (such as typhoons, which are the norm in summer), and other minor issues delayed her flight by several hours.


On top of that, for foreign travelers the experience can be even more time-consuming if we consider VISA controls, bulky luggage and security checks.


➜ If you are planning to be in China for several weeks or months, this can be the solution for you, but if you are traveling non-stop for a few weeks, definitely prefer trains!


➊ The booking of domestic flights can be done via the same websites you used for your trip to China!




MUSEUMS, HERITAGE SITES AND ATTRACTIONS


As you may imagine, China is bursting with all kinds of heritage sites and cultural attractions, and this is even more true if you visit the main cities.


A few places are simply unmissable (like the Temple of Heaven in Beijing) and some others can be included in your plan according to your personal preferences and available time. In any case, here is how it works:


Museum and attractions tickets can be bought on the spot, with the exception of a few major spots such as the Terracotta Army in Xi'an and the Forbidden City in Beijing. These are so crowded and popular that trying to secure your place by going there directly is basically of no use.


➊ If you plan to buy your tickets in place, try to go there as early as possible. This is especially valid in summer when tickets can go sold out in the very first morning hours. In case you don't manage to get your tickets for that day, you are normally allowed to pre-purchase them for the next. We did that a couple of times. This might not be necessary during low season or for less prominent/very spacious sites. If you buy the tickets in place, you can pay in cash.


You can purchase your tickets in advance via official channels: you can visit the official website of an attraction (most likely all in Chinese) and look for the right section or their WeChat page/channel. Normally, any institution has its personal WeChat channel where you can find a dedicated section for tickets.

➜ The process will likely be done completely in Chinese. You might have to use a translation app (I screenshotted my way through it and used an image-to-text translator) but it's manageable.

➜ Tickets purchased this way must be paid with WeChat or Alipay, so make sure you have an active account! My international card got always accepted on these occasions.

➜ In many cases, tickets get only available 7 days in advance and may finish very fast, so you really need to have a flexible schedule.


If you don't manage to secure tickets for a place you don't really want to miss or just can't go through the booking process in Chinese, you can have a travel agency help you or you can buy an experience on platforms like Trip.com or GetYourGuide.

➜ Some sites are simply too requested and tickets are all gone before you can even figure out how to purchase them. It happened to us for the Terracotta Army and the Forbidden City (but don't forget that we traveled in summer, this might not happen at other moments of the year). If this is your case too, referring to agencies or travel platforms is the best way to proceed.

➜ Travel agencies and platforms always charge a commission but since all attractions are quite affordable in China, the final cost is still much lower than any site in the West.

➜ You can sometimes have an agency help you with your tickets only, or you can choose a more complex experience that includes transportation and a guided tour. This is especially useful for places located on the outskirts of a city (like the Great Wall of Beijing or the Terracotta Army) and/or if you don't have a good written/printed guide - you won't find much there and audioguides are not always available or available in English.

Here are a few options you can check for your guided tours/experiences: GetYourGuide, Trip.com, Travel China Guide. The services they provide are meant for foreigners, so are fully in English and can be bought with your credit card. However, by choosing this option know that the experience will be thought for a non-Chinese audience and will feel less authentic.


➊ During high season (so especially in summer), China is very crowded, and popular attractions get literally assaulted by tourists. When you visit any place, expect huge crowds and expect to be served the Chinese tourist approach, which consists of pushing the way to the best view. This can be particularly uncomfortable in places where the visitors' path is clearly designed, like at the Terracotta Army, because there will be hardly room for everyone and the pushing aspect will become very evident. In other places, like the Forbidden City or the Summer Palace, or in other less touristy cities, this won't be a huge deal.


➊ Do not be surprised by propaganda-driven tour guides or very state-oriented labels and texts in museums. Also, not every text will be historically accurate (the way we mean it) but will be a clear result of the Chinese way of intending history: all this will happen a lot and is part of the Chinese culture. If you can, try to see it this way and be respectful. I’ve heard foreigners pursuing inflamed debates with their Chinese guides about politics and society in China, speaking like they knew better. Undoubtedly, some may see flaws or negative aspects in the way China manage itself and its people, but there is not always the need to proclaim it.


➊ Museums and heritage sites rarely include English texts or translations. Sometimes they do, but this can be limited to very short summaries or even just titles. If there is one, opt for an English audioguide (it is available in many places in Beijing and a few in Xi’an): the content is not very extended but it gives you some context. Do not expect to find any printed guide in English or book either (I failed to find any even at the International Bookshop in Beijing).


READ NEXT: Since you won't find much to help you historically and culturally contextualize what you are visiting, check this a travelers' guide to the dynasties of China - a must-have!



EATING OUT IN CHINA


China is famous all over the world for its tasty and multifaceted cuisine, which flavours set us immediately on a journey to Asia and sometimes define our concept of Asian cuisine – despite it being incredibly rich outside China as well.


If you visit China and are a fan of Chinese cuisine, you won’t be disappointed!


The Chinese love some good food and you can find them eating at literally any time of the day. Being it a family restaurant, a street food kiosk, a market stall, or a posh café, you will find people there, always.


Street food in Xi'an
A stall selling street food in Xi'an - on show are the blue and green QR codes to pay with Alipay or WeChat

The choices are veritably infinite and every meal can be the right chance to try something new – however, do not expect to find much in terms of international presence: the Chinese prefer Chinese food. Big names such as McDonald’s, Starbucks, Burger King, KFC, etc are quite spread and you can find at least one in every station and in a few squares or malls in all the main cities. You can also find the Chinese version of some brands or some other Westerner-friendly options, but mostly Chinese food, which I personally found to be amazing. I had waited for years to be in China and 3 weeks of Chinese food were not enough for my cravings, I would have surely lingered there more.


➊ If you have any specific intolerance, allergies or are a vegetarian or a vegan, definitely opt for market stalls that sell fresh fruits or vegetables, for supermarkets, for big-name fast food chains or restaurants, or for fancier-looking spots (there are many in every major city) that clearly specialize in vegetarian/vegan food. This is because finding a menu in English is virtually impossible and they don’t follow our rules anyway: not all ingredients are listed and it is not always clear what you are going to order, even if you use a translator. When a dish is written in Chinese characters, these can have a meaning that a translator is not able to convey but which sounds immediately clear to native speakers. Also, even if you order stir-fried vegetables, vegetable soups or other similar options, they can still come with a meat-based broth or cooked with meat.


➊ Communicating may not be super easy: people don’t really speak English (not even in places like McDonald’s, Starbucks, etc) and menus are only translated at big international chains. However, the staff will most likely be super friendly and happy to have you, and will do their best to help you – you will find a way to order, just don’t expect to understand exactly what you are eating!


In restaurants, cafés, market stalls, and supermarkets you can normally pay in cash. Of course, you can also pay with Alipay and WeChat (accepted everywhere, all market stalls have their QR codes) and may try with credit cards, but they will be 9/10 rejected by the payment system.


➊ Expect lower prices than in any Western country – you can eat at a normal to fancy restaurant and spend around $50-70 for 5 people, buy two full bags of groceries for $25, and drink a coffee for $1. Prices are higher (but never as high as ours) in Western chains such as Starbucks, but there are so many Chinese good alternatives that finding a more inexpensive one will be easy.

➊ There is no perfect method to choose your restaurant: I have honestly never regretted a choice in China and while the food was not always extraordinary, it was never bad. Also, finding the local specialities is super easy, almost every place will have them on their menu. If you have a Chinese friend, let them check the reviews online for you on apps such as DianPing!

➜ If you see a very long line outside a restaurant, avoid that place unless you have 4-5 hours to spend queueing. We got curious and asked the staff a couple of times and the waiting time was always 4+ hours. These are likely places that got recently viral on Chinese social media.


Tipping is not required in China: the Chinese don't tip but, that said, I don't think they will complain if you leave a few bucks on the table. However, this is not customary in general and no tip is added to the final bill nor is asked. In case you wish to tip anyway, I would suggest doing so when paying in cash in small restaurants or street food stalls.



HEALTH AND MEDICINES


Hopefully, you will never get sick during your stay in China. But just in case you experience some mild illness or face an emergency, these are a few important things that you should know:


➊ Check the China-dedicated page on your country's Foreign Office to see if you must get any additional vaccinations before departure. Normally, the mandatory coverage is enough, but extra actions might be needed if you come, for example, from certain areas of Africa or South America that are known to be subject to tropical diseases.


➊ If you can, opt for a health insurance included in your flights/tour. In China, you can find several international clinics (VIP Clinics) where doctors speak English and that can assist you using Western medicine practices and drugs. Unfortunately, these clinics are normally far more expensive than Chinese ones (where, sadly, no one would likely speak English) and, especially if you come from Europe where much of health assistance is covered by the national health service, this can have quite an impact. Travel insurance may partially cover these expenses and therefore allow you to visit an international clinic.


➊ If you have good health and no specific conditions, bring your usual non-prescription drugs from home (you can store them in the check-in baggage) and use them for diseases such as flu, headache, sore throat, low blood sugar, etc. In the major cities you may find pharmacies that sell Western or non-Chinese drugs, but finding them might be time-consuming and explaining your requests to the staff can be a tiring task. Most places will only have Chinese drugs and you may have trouble understanding their components.


➊ If you have chronic or recurrent diseases, ask your doctor at home for advice and let them give you a written document stating what you are taking (make sure they include the active components of each drug) and bring an extra supply with you. The written document can be useful both at the airport in case of controls and in China, should you be in need.


➊ In case you need to call an ambulance (hopefully not!), the number you should dial is 120. Make sure to check where you are and to be ready to provide the correct address. ➜ Also, upon your arrival in a new city, check for the closest VIP clinic in case you have an emergency but don't speak Chinese. As mentioned, assistance provided by these clinics can be very expensive, but unless you have a Chinese-speaking friend, it can be extremely useful in case of emergencies.


​Congrats on getting to the end of this guide, you should now be ready to travel to China! Do you have any further questions or need any information I could not cover here? Contact me and I will be happy to help you! 



 


Wondering what to read next to find some inspiration?

 Complete guided tour through the Temple of Heaven in Beijing   Complete guide to Beijing's Hutongs

History Essentials: the Dynasties of China







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