You want to visit China but you don’t know where to start? This guide shows you all you need to know on how to plan your first trip to China.
China is a place that everyone should visit at least once. It’s a country with rich history and culture, beautiful landscape and delicious food. But many foreigners see China as an exotic destination that’s challenging to travel to mostly because of the language barrier. Some people may also have the wrong impression of China due to the western media. Either way, China is an interesting play to travel to and I want to share some tips on how to plan your first trip to China.
Things to Know Before Your First Time in China
- You most likely need a tourist visa to visit China
- Cash is preferred in China, unless it’s a high end restaurant or shopping center then you can pay by credit card. However the local Chinese people all pay using Alipay through Wechat (China’s messaging system) and they just scan the QR code with their phone. Super convenient!
- You cannot rent a car in China with foreign licenses
- You need to carry your passport with you at ALL times in China. If you do not have a passport with you, don’t even think about traveling by train or bus.
- China blocks Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram
- Download WeChat! Everyone uses wechat in china. You can also communicate with your friends outside of china on Wechat (if they have it too) since Facebook messenger, Gchat and Whatsapp are blocked
- Not everyone in China speaks English. Find young people if you really need help. Chinese college graduates generally speak some English
- China is big so research the areas you are visiting for weather and food information
- Bring stomach pills, especially if you plan to eat on the street or try raw food. Although in recent years it has gotten better and I haven’t gotten sick eating in China
- Spring and fall are the best time to visit, especially if you are sensitive to air quality
- China is not just Beijing and Shanghai!!!
China Tourist Visa
China generally require a tourist visa to visit. If you are American (and some other western countries), and this is your first trip to China, you can get a 10 year multi entry visa beforehand. If your passport expires before the visa expires, bring your old passport (with the visa) and your new passport together. Make sure the name, sex, birthday and nationality are the same on both passports.
If you are transiting in China for less than 72 hours and have proof of on warding international flight, then you may qualify for visa free when you enter. Check the visa requirement before traveling or you may get deported like I did last time (long story).
How to Get Around in China
Assuming you fly into an international airport in China, there are a few ways to get to the city center/your hotel.
- Subway in China: In Shanghai, there is a subway (line 2) that goes directly to both the Pudong Airport and Hongqiao Airport. Cost: <15 RMB.
There is a train from Beijing International Airport to Sanyuanqiao and Dongzhimen, then you can transfer to local subways.
- Bus in China: some airports have bus service that goes to the city center, generally this information is available on the airport’s website or visitor information booth outside of luggage claim
- MagLev train in Shanghai: The MagLev train exclusively applies to Shanghai. There is a MagLev train that travels at 300km/h between Pudong Airport and Long Yang Road station (龙阳路）you can then transfer to subway 2 to city center. The ride takes you 8 min and is actually a tourist attraction in itself. Cost: 50RMB + subway
- Taxi in China: there are usually tons of taxis waiting at the airport. Make sure the taxi drivers use the meter before you get in and have your hotels address in Chinese as most taxi drivers don’t speak English
Once you are in the city center in China (such as Beijing and Shanghai), there is a very comprehensive subway system. Subways are the main methods of transportation for most people in big cities in China now. Note that for security reasons, you have to X ray your bags and luggage every time you go inside a subway station, at least in Beijing and Shanghai. This may be a surprise for your first trip to China but you will quickly get used to this procedure.
Buses are also a very popular form of transportation in many cities in China. However many local buses do not have any English signs or announcements, so write down your destination stop in China beforehand and tell your bus driver where you want to get off.
Taxis are available everywhere especially in big cities but in recent years it’s hard to flag them down on the road. The reason is the rise of apps like DiDi Chuxing (more below). It’s basically a Uber like app but it allows you to get taxis through the app. You will then pay cash to the driver.
For long distance travel in China, you can either take a long distance bus or high speed train. It’s much easier to book high speed train tickets online through websites like ctrip rather than attempting to take a long distance bus. Once you book your China train ticket on Ctrip, take down the reservation number and bring your passport with you when picking up the tickets. Even if you are traveling by long distance buses in China, security will still check your passport. This is something many people don’t know on their first trip in China.
If you want to travel between cities by bus, I find this a useful website that shows you bus route timetables, prices, and booking options. Generally for bus tickets in China, I actually just go to the bus station early and buy it in person. However there is always a risk of popular routes being sold out especially on the weekend.
Bikes have long been the main way of transportation in cities in China but more and more people are opting for subway, buses and cars. But if you want to explore the city at your pace, it’s a good idea to ride a bike! When I was in Shanghai, I saw all these yellow and orange bikes lying around. Apparently they are free to ride if you have the app and scan the QR code on the bike to unlock them. The two popular ones are Mobike and Ofo.
How to Get Directions in China
Since Google is blocked in China, you will not be able to get directions from Google Maps. Like I said earlier, China has its own version of American apps for everything so worry not! Chinese people use apps such as Baidu Map (百度地图） or Gaode Map (高德地图）feel free to copy and paste the Chinese in your App Store if you can’t find an English version. I personally used Gaode Map when I was in China as Baidu Map did not work for me.
How to Get Internet in China
Free Wifi was everywhere when I went to China. Literally every restaurant and cafe had free wifi and most of the time the password was 00000000 (8 0s) or 123123123. But feel free to ask them for the password.
Local SIM cards are very easy to get in China if you don’t have international roaming. There are 2 major telecom companies in China: China Telecom & China Unicom. They are practically the same and both offer prepaid SIM cards. The easiest way may be to get a prepaid sim card at the airport (I got mine for 400 RMB with 5 Gig of data for a month) but there are many different (and maybe cheaper) packages.
One thing to note is that if you have international roaming on your phone, then you can access Facebook, Google, Instagram, etc. If you switch over to a local sim card, you will not be able to access these websites unless you have VPN.
I downloaded VPN Master from the App Store before I got to China. It’s a free app and worked wonderfully when I was there. However VPN apps tend to get shut down quite quickly by the Chinese government so you may need to look for a different one before you go.
In Shanghai, I was recommended the app called 花生地铁 Wifi that allows you to get wifi on Shanghai subways. I’m not sure if there is an English version but this is pretty useful. Just copy and paste the app name into your App Store and you should be able to find it.
Hotels in China
Like everywhere else, there are different types of hotels in China. I’ve stayed in hostels in Beijing, small family run places in Xitang, business hotels in Shanghai and upscale hotels in Sichuan.
One important thing to note for your first trip to China is that on Ctrip a lot of hotels will have a symbol that says Chinese residents only (especially on the Chinese site, not so much on the English site). This means the hotel (or the specific room) only accepts people who are residents in China, so you cannot stay there with a foreign passport. I read that this is a way for hotels to raise their prices and charge foreigners more. This probably won’t affect you too much in big cities but when I went to smaller touristy towns like Hongcun and Xitang, I had a lot of issues trying to find a hotel that would accept foreigners.
A lot of the local hotels will also ask for a deposit of 100 RMB to make sure that you return the room key. They will give you a receipt for the deposit so make sure to not lose that slip or you will not get your money back. Wifi are generally fast and reliable at the hotels yay!
What to Eat in China
Chinese cuisine is world famous and it does not only have Kung Pao chicken or Beef chow mein. Since China is so big, each region has its own unique style, dishes and ingredients. Generally speaking, if you like noodle dishes, head to northern China (like Beijing). If you want spicy cuisine, head to Sichuan province and get the spicy hot pot. If you like sweeter taste or xiaolongbao (soup dumpling), head to Shanghai area.
American fast food like McDonald and KFC are everywhere in China but they have also adopted local flavors (I heard KFC now serves rice in China). Pizza Hut is a nice sit down restaurant in China compare to the US. International cities like Shanghai and Beijing are full of upscale Michelin star restaurants as well as cheap hole in the wall places. It’s a little hard to order at these hole in the wall places as menus tend to be only in Chinese without any photos.
Websites like TripAdvisor is quite useful for tourists. If you happen to know Chinese then I highly recommend the app 大众点评 that provides you with reviews of restaurants among other cool functions.
Useful Websites & Apps For Your First Trip to China
- Ctrip: My go to website to book train tickets and hotels in China
- Etrip: Great for bus booking & bus timeables
- Travel China Guide: Good information for each city, including transportation, attractions, map, etc
- Baidu: The Google of China
- Gaode Map (app): I loved using this map when I was in China since Google Map is blocked.
- Didi Chuxing (app): The Uber of China. In cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, there is an English version
- Ofo (app): bike sharing app
- Mobile (app): another bike sharing app
- Dianping (大众点评) (website & app): Amazing app with restaurant reviews and many more. Unfortunately it’s only in Chinese. But if you can Google translate the page, it’s amazing
- Mafengwo (蚂蜂窝) (website & app): Chinese only, but great information for different travel needs. It also has blogs, Q&A session, etc
China is a pretty safe place to visit but like any touristy destinations, take care of your personal belongings and bargain like crazy if you are shopping in local markets. It’s always good to learn some basic Chinese as locals tend to get really excited if you say hello to them in Chinese. People are generally friendly and curious, so don’t be offended if they stare at you! Take care and have fun!