First Time in China: Tips on Planning a Trip to China
First time visiting China and you feel overwhelmed planning this trip? This China Blog shows you all the tips on planning a trip to China, including practical things like how to get wifi, how to pay, etc.
China is a place that everyone should visit at least once. It is a country with rich history and culture, beautiful landscape and delicious food.
China is more than just Beijing and Shanghai, its vast landmass brings diverse scenery, culture and cuisines. There is also different climates in China due to its size, making it harder to pack if you are traveling across the country.
Many visitors are intimidated at the thought of visiting China, either due to language barriers or political believes. But I can assure you that people are friendly and helpful in China, even if they don’t speak much English.
However prep work is definitely needed before you visit China, since payment systems, phone apps and everything is different than what you are used to.
In this China travel guide, I will show you everything you need to know before you visit China, so you can have a stress free vacation, especially if this is your first trip to China.
This blog contains occasional affiliate links, where I receive a small commission on sales of the products/hotels that are linked at no additional cost to you. In addition, as an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
Practical Things to Know Before Your First Time in China
- The currency is RMB (or CNY). China does not take USD or Euros, so you need to either exchange money or use an ATM to withdraw when you are in China. You can exchange money at the airport or at local banks.
- The preferred payment method in China is Alipay or We Chat Pay. Credit cards are not widely accepted, especially foreign credit cards. Everyone in China pays using the apps and QR codes, way more advanced in most countries in the world. With Alipay, you can use your debit card or credit card up to 90 days as a tourist, after that you will need to add a Chinese bank account
- Cash still works because by law, vendors need to accept cash in China. But just because they are accepted doesn’t mean they will have changes to give back to you. Best to prepare smaller bills and pay the exact amount. Otherwise you should just use Alipay or Wechat Pay.
- You cannot rent a car in China with a foreign driver license. I don’t think you’d want to drive in China anyway, it is pretty intense.
- 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, as they will check your identification before you can go inside the stations.
- China blocks Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram. If you want to use them, you will need to have a VPN installed.
- 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. Tour guides, hotels and anything you book will communicate with you on We Chat.
- Not everyone in China speaks English. Find young people if you really need help. Chinese college graduates generally speak some English. Download Google Translate and download the Chinese language pack before you go.
- 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 but when I was younger I used to get food poisoning a lot.
- China is not just Beijing and Shanghai, there are a lot of nice places to visit that are unknown to foreigners (and I’m not just talking about Yangshuo or Avatar mountains).
Useful Apps for Traveling in China
China operates completely differently than the rest of the world, while many countries may have their own version of apps, everything for China is completely different. There is no instagram, no facebook, no Google anything. Below are some of the most useful apps you need for China:
- Wechat: This is the whatsapp of China. You can literally use WeChat for everything, from chatting to paying to booking tickets to managing “mini programs”, which are mini versions of different apps.
- Didi: This is the Uber of China. It’s very hard to flag down taxis in China, since everyone uses apps to call a taxi. You can add foreign credit cards to Didi.
- Alipay: This is how people pay for things in China (they can also use Wechat Pay). Unless you want to carry around a lot of cash and risk not getting changes back, Alipay is the way to go, even for street vendors. Alipay also has “mini programs” built in that allows you to oder taxs.
- Baidu Translate: I would not risk using Google translate in case it doesn’t work in China. You can screenshot a photo to upload to Baidu Translate and it will give you the translation.
- Dianping: This is the Yelp of China. You can search for restaurants and see ratings, reviews, etc.
- Amap (高德地图): This is the Google Map of China (you can also use Baidu Map but I prefer this one). You can use this to call taxi as well.
- Xiaohongshu (小红书): The literal translation is “little red book”. This is the Instagram of China. I find most of my food and travel inspiration for China and other parts of Asia on this app. I actually prefer this over Instagram and the screenshot above shows a ton of Japan content since I’ve been researching Japan recently.
- Douyin: Douyin is the Chinese version of TikTok (in case you didn’t know, TikTok started in China as Douyin). You can’t use the western version of TikTok in China without a VPN.
- Astrill VPN: The best VPN to use when you want to jump over the Great Firewall.
- Meituan (美团): The UberEats of China. I don’t think you will order much delivery if you are just visiting China for fun, but just in case!
- Taobao: The Amazon of China, but better. Taobao is what I use to buy basically everything, from books to clothes (sometimes dupes) to household items to accessories. I love that it can do image search, so if you see something you like on the internet, take a screenshot and search on Taobao.
China Tourist Visa
China generally requires a tourist visa to visit. If you are American (and some other western countries), and this is your first time in China, then getting a China tourist visa should be the first thing on your list when planning a trip to china.
There are several different China Tourist visa types, some are single entry, multiple entry, some expire in 6 months, some in 1 year or you can get a 10 year multi entry China tourist visa.
If you obtain the 10 year tourist Visa and your passport expires before the visa expires, when you travel to China you must bring your old passport (with the visa) and your new passport together. I did this personally and it was fine. Although be prepared that some airline workers may not know about this and might tell you you can’t do it. Ask them to check with their superior if that happens.
If you are going to bring both passports, make sure the name, sex, birthday and nationality are the same on both passports. The passport numbers will be different and that’s okay.
China has a 24 hour visa-free policy for certain foreign nationals for transfers and if they want to leave the airport, they will need a temporary entry permit.
Best Time and Worst Time to Visit China
I would be lying to you if I said every season is good to visit China. Since China is a huge country the climate within the country differents drastically from region to region.
Overall, April, May, mid September to early November are the best months to visit China. February and March are good if you plan to visit Hong Kong and Macau in the south.
In Northern China (Beijing, Inner Mongolia, etc) the climate is very similar to New York City, with cold and snowy winters and hot and humid summers.
As you go further South in China the winters generally get more mild but the summer gets even more humid and hot. For Example when I went to Shanghai one year in August, it was 40C/90F with 100% humidity, which made it feel more like 50C and 120F, I was literally drenched in sweat walking around even at night.
The air quality has been an issue in China in recent years and tends to get worse in the summer and winter.
Another reason I don’t recommend visiting China in the summer is that it tends to rain more in many regions which causes mudslides or just foggy weather, especially in the mountain regions.
The worst time to visit China is during Chinese national holidays, because the entire country gets 7 to 10 days off and everyone travels during those weeks.
Lunar New Year
Lunar New Year falls on different dates every year as the holiday follows the lunar calendar, but in general it is at the end of January or early February.
I suggest avoiding this time period because a lot of restaurants and stores close for Lunar New Year and train/flights could be a nightmare as a large number of migrant workers go back to their hometowns for the holidays. It would be difficult to find train or bus tickets for long distance traveling in China during this period.
Labor Day (May 1) & National Day (October 1)
Labor Day and National Day are when the entire China takes off a week to 10 days to celebrate. Most people don’t get much vacation time in China (Usually a week a year) and there is mandatory company shut down for Labor Day and National Day for 10 days.
Therefore these 2 weeks (starting May 1st and starting October 1st) are when the entire China travels domestically. You do not want to be traveling anywhere in China during the holidays because you will be greeted with crazy crowds everywhere.
How to Get Around in China
China is a huge country and it helps to know how to get around when planning your trip to China. I will go into more detail about getting around within the major cities as well as traveling between cities in China.
Getting to city center from International Airports in China
Most likely when you visit China for the first time, you will be flying into a major international airport in Beijing or Shanghai.
Airports in these major Chinese cities generally have good public transportation to allow visitors to get to the city center quickly. There are generally subway, train, buses and of course taxis that will take you from Chinese airports to the city center.
Subway and Trains in from Airports in China: If you are landing in Shanghai, there is a subway (line 2) that goes directly to both airports in Shanghai: the Pudong International Airport and Hongqiao International Airport. Cost: <15 RMB.
Bus from Airports in China: The major international 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. I would generally recommend buses if you have a lot of luggage since you will have to carry the luggage onto the subway yourself whereas the buses can put your luggage in the bottom compartment.
MagLev train from Pudong Airport in Shanghai: the MagLev Train exclusively applies to Shanghai. There is a MagLev train that travels at 300 km/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.
Taxi from Airports 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 hotel address in Chinese as most taxi drivers don’t speak English. You don’t need to tip the taxi drivers in China.
Riding the Subway in China
Once you are in the city center in China in most major cities, there is a very comprehensive subway system. Subways are the main methods of transportation for most people in big cities in China.
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 you if this is your first time in China but you will quickly get used to this procedure. The process is generally pretty quick and not as time consuming as at airports.
If you are staying in China for a long time, you should look into getting a transit card in the cities. However if you are only visiting each city for 2-4 days, it may be better to just pay for single fare tickets at the machine. Generally these subway fare machines only take cash so make sure you have cash with you.
The subway in China generally stops running around midnight and becomes available again around 5am. When subways are closed you will need to take a taxi to get around.
Riding the Bus in China
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.
If you can take the subway, I would recommend the subway over local buses in China.
Taking the Taxi in China
Taxis are available everywhere in China, especially in big cities but in recent years it’s nearly impossible to flag taxis down on the road. The reason is the rise of apps like DiDi.
It’s basically an Uber like app but it allows you to get taxis through the app. You can now use non-Chinese credit cards on Didi! But I would still recommend having cash just in case.
You should download DiDi app before leaving for China. Sometimes the driver will contact you (via the app in both English and Chinese) to verify the pick up location is correct.
If you somehow cannot download the Didi using a non-Chinese App store, you can just switch the region of your iPhone to China mainland and download the apps needed for China. You can do this by going to Settings -> General -> Language and Region, and change the region to mainland China. Language can still be in English.
Long Distance Travel in China
Once you book your China train ticket on Trip.com, 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 and scan your luggage through the X-ray machine. This is something many people don’t know during their first time in China.
When you pick up your long distance bus or train tickets in China, you will need to line up at ticket counters. I suggest that you also write down the city you are going to in Chinese when you pick up your ticket just for double verification.
Once you get into the bus station or train station, there are usually fast food restaurants inside (such as Mcdonald’s or some Chinese chain). Once it’s about the time you board the train/ticket, there will be gates that you have to go to.
I suggest you ask the counter people (any counter people) just to see what gate they tell you to go to. There usually will be a “queue” but in reality many people just try to flood to the front of the queue so be prepared for some pushing and crowding.
Bike Sharing in China
Didi Bike and HelloBike are the two dominant players in the China bike sharing market. You should be able to access them from the Didi apps.
Occasionally they shift service areas for the bikes, so there may be days that they don’t show up on the apps at all then suddenly show up the next day.
If you have Alipay, then you can use the blue ones. So it depends on what city you are in, then you have different options.
How to Get Directions in China
Since Google is blocked in China, you will not be able to get directions from Google Maps. China has its own version of American apps for everything.
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. These map apps in China will tell you public transportation directions also.
How to Get Internet in China
Free Wifi 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.
Getting a Local SIM Card in China
China 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.
The two companies are practically the same and both offer prepaid SIM cards. The easiest way may be to get a prepaid sim card at the airport.
If you didn’t get a China sim card at the airport, you can also go to the official China Telecom or China Unicom stores in major cities to get the sim card.
I find it much easier to get the sim cards at airports in China as they just take your money and give you the sim card. When I got a sim card in stores in Shanghai, it took quite a long time because they had to verify my passport information and fill out forms on the computer.
One thing to note is that if you have international roaming on your phone, then you can access Facebook, Google, Instagram, etc in China. If you switch over to a local sim card, you will not be able to access these websites unless you have a VPN in China.
Does eSim Work in China
eSim is not a thing in China because phones in China (including iPhones) can’t use eSim. HOWEVER, if you have an iPhone purchased outside of China, eSim actually can work (according to my friend, I haven’t used it myself in China).
How to Get VPN in China
VPNs allow you to bypass the Great FireWall of China and this is how people get on Google, Instagram and other western websites and apps. I can’t go to China without getting a VPN since I essentially live on Google.
You should download Astrill VPN from the App Store before you go to China. Other VPN services include Shadowsocks, NordVPN and Let’s VPN.
Astrill is the most expensive out of the ones I mentioned above, but it is also the one that works the best.
Booking Hotels in China
Hostels in China
Luxury and Medium Price Hotels in China
In general when traveling in China, you should use the following 3 websites to find hotels:
All 4 sites work well and have a large collection of hotels in China. My advise would be to see which one gives you the lowest rate.
One important thing to tip for your first time in China is that on there are hotels in China that only allow Chinese citizens to stay. You may find more of these on Ctrip instead of the other 3 sites. Therefore, when searching for hotels on trip.com or Ctrip.com, you need to go to “Policies” under each hotel to see if they accept “guests from every country/region”.
Another tip for planning a trip in China is that a lot of the local hotels in China 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 is generally fast and reliable at the hotels in China so yay!
Airbnbs in China
As with most countries, you can book accommodation through Airbnbs as well. But I haven’t actually done that myself.
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 cuisine with different cooking styles, ingredients, and completely unique dishes.
Generally speaking, if you like noodle dishes, head to northern China (like Beijing).
Fast Food in China
American fast food chains like McDonald and KFC are everywhere in China but these chains have also adopted local flavors in China (I heard KFC now serves rice in China).
Pizza Hut is a nice sit down restaurant in China compared to the US and TGI Friday is considered quite nice in many cities.
You can definitely find fast food everywhere in China, but be prepared that all these fast food restaurants are fancier than what you are used to back home.
Upscale Restaurants in China
International cities like Shanghai and Beijing are full of upscale Michelin star restaurants and Michelin Star recommended restaurants. you will need to make a reservation ahead of time in order to eat there. While eating, most of the time you won’t even remember you are in China anymore.
Street Food in China
Most people don’t go to China to eat at Michelin Star restaurants or McDonald’s. The charm of visiting China is trying all the cheap hole-in-the wall places as well as Chinese street food.
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 so I suggest you do some research online ahead of time to know what to eat and what to order, or you can simply point to the food you want.
Tip: Download Baidu Translator and use photo translation function to translate the menus. Although I can’t guarantee the translation is 100% accurate.
Some of the most popular street foods in China include Jianbing (Chinese crepes), Chinese donuts, lamb skewers, lamb burgers, Malatang (food boiled in spicy broth), stinky tofu, etc. The type of street food you can get in China also depends on the region you are in so it’s hard to tell you exactly what to order.
Chinese Restaurant Review Websites
Websites like TripAdvisor are quite useful for tourists but I generally don’t trust those reviews on restaurants in China. Also TripAdvisor might not list all the popular local restaurants so you end up getting recommendations to tourist traps.
If you use Google Chrome browser, then sometimes an option will pop up asking if you want to translate the website to English. If you click on that you will be able to understand more of the website.
Is China Safe?
China is generally a very safe country even for solo female travelers. Crime rates are low in the cities and most crime you encounter (if you encounter them) would be pickpockets.
There are a lot of police at popular places and tourist sights and in the subway station so it’s perfectly safe to walk around at night even alone. There are also security cameras EVERYWHERE, so rest assured even if something happens they will be able to catch the person really soon.
But in general, I wouldn’t worry about safety at all in China. But of course, exercise normal caution as you would when you travel somewhere else.
How to Exchange Currency in China
The official Chinese currency is Renminbi (RMB), the literal translation means People’s Currency. The exchange rate for the Chinese currency is generally pretty stable (~6.5 – 7 RMB = 1 USD) because the Chinese government controls the exchange rate instead of letting it float as other countries do.
I will spare you the details and not get into macroeconomics but don’t expect the exchange to fluctuate too much.
There are several places that you can exchange money in China: airports, hotels, and banks.
Airport Currency Exchange
The easiest and fastest place to exchange currency in China is at the airport. These currency exchange counters at the airport are owned and regulated by the Chinese government and they usually charge a fee of RMB50 (sometimes more) per transaction.
If you prefer to be hassle free during your trip then I highly suggest exchanging your currency at the Chinese airport.
You need to have your passport available to exchange at the airports.
Hotels for Currency Exchange
Not all hotels in China offer currency exchange and generally the large chain hotels do. In general, the fees for currency exchange is higher at hotels and the rates are not as good.
But for convenience purposes, if you really need to exchange at hotels, you have the options to.
Currency Exchange at Banks
Banks are people’s go to place for currency exchange in China because you will rarely find kiosks and random stores that offer currency exchange like you do at Times Square in New York City.
The Chinese government has a tight control and regulation on currency exchange, especially converting RMB to Dollars or Euros or Pounds.
When you go to the bank for currency exchange make sure you bring your passport with you.
Taking Out Cash at ATMs in China
If you are American then I want to point out one thing that may help with your trip planning to China. Brokerage firm Charles Schwab has a world-wide ATM fee free debit card if you open a brokerage account with them.
This means that you can use that debit card to take out money at Chinese ATMs without fees (you pay the fee and Charles Schwab reimburses you later). This was super useful when I was in China so I avoided the hassle (and fees) of exchanging money and also the ATMs (and credit cards) generally give you a much better exchange rate.
Best Places to Visit in China For First Time Visitors
Most foreigners only know Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai when they first start planning a trip to China, but China has way more beautiful places to see than those 3 cities. See below a list of places you should see in China:
Cities in China That You Must Visit
Xi’An was the ancient capital of China, and it is known for Terracotta Warriors, museums, the most well preserved city walls in China as well as its cuisine.
Xi’An is often on first timers’ China itinerary due to its historical significance.
Chengdu is a major city in Central China and it is most famous for its pandas. There are a few panda sanctuaries in Chengdu where they are well protected and raised. Visitors can go to these panda research bases to see pandas.
Outside of Chengdu, you also have access to a couple of famous national parks in China as well as day trip options to the Leshan Giant Buddha.
Chongqing is another large city in Central China and in fact, it is not that far from Sichuan.
Chongqing itself is a great city to visit but it is best known for its proximity to mountains, rivers, waterfalls and other natural sceneries. Its proximity to the famous Yangtze River and Wulong Karst make it a great base for those that enjoy nature.
Guilin is a city in southern China known for its dramatic landscape of limestone karst hills, rice terraces and amazing scenery. There is a Chinese phrase that says there is no landscape prettier than the one in Guilin.
Due to its proximity to Hong Kong, Guilin is oftentimes visited along with Hong Kong and Shenzhen. The most famous area of Guilin is called Yangshuo where all the photographers and Instagrammers go. The scenery there is truly out of this world and worth seeing.
Hong Kong is one of the largest financial centers in Asia and it is a special region in China. In case you didn’t know, Hong Kong used to be a British colony that was returned to China in 1997.
Hong Kong is famed for its amazing skyline, the Giant Buddha statue, its busy city life and it offers a vibrant city life, beautiful hikes, amazing food, cheap shopping (or designer shopping) and island hopping experiences.
I studied abroad in Hong Kong for a few months and truly enjoyed exploring this beautiful city and its lesser known places.
Once a Portuguese colony, Macau was returned to China shortly after Hong Kong.
Macau is the only city in China where gambling is legal, therefore many of the largest casinos and hotels are in Macau (think about the ones that you can find in Las Vegas).
Macau can easily be done as a day trip or weekend trip from Hong Kong and it’s famous for its Portuguese egg tarts.
Mountains in China That You Must Visit
China has one of the best natural sceneries in the world, thanks to its vast land mass. Most first time visitors to China do not know about the famous mountains and national parks in China. But if you do have a lot of time in China, you should explore at least a couple of them (hint: one was an inspiration for the movie Avatar).
Yellow Mountain: Rumored to be the most beautiful mountain in China and I can see why. Most Chinese paintings have mountain ranges after Yellow Mountain. Located about 4 hours from Shanghai by train, Yellow Mountain is a must visit if you are in the area.
Zhangjiajie: If you’ve seen Avatar then you would recognize Zhangjiajie. The landscape is so unique that Hollywood decided to use this mountain range as an inspiration for its movies.
Huashan: Labeled as one of the most dangerous hikes in the World, many visitors hike through the treacherous trail to get to the tea house on top of Huashan.
JiuZhaiGou: Not necessarily a mountain, but it’s a collection of beautifully colored pools of water. Unfortunately there was a massive earthquake in 2017 that destroyed some of the pools.
Other Beautiful Places to Visit in China
Yunnan: High altitude but unique and beautiful scenery
Zhangye Danxia: located in western China, this is China’s “rainbow Mountain”
Tibet: Located in western China, Tibet is always alluring and intriguing with its history and religious significance. Although it’s a bit hard for foreigners to visit Tibet and you will need an organized tour to visit.
Feng Huang: Located about a 4 hour drive from Guilin in central China, this ancient town receives numerous visitors everyday.
Hong Cui: Located about an hour from Yellow Mountain, one of the most famous ancient towns in China thanks to the movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
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