China travel tips: what to know before traveling to China

Last updated on May 24th, 2019 at 09:53 am

  1. The Ultimate half day Guide to Forbidden City, Beijing
  2. A 48 hours guide to Macau, China
  3. A weekend spa getaway to St Regis Macau
  4. China travel tips: what to know before traveling to China
  5. Qingyuan China: 7 things to do
  6. Shenzhen from Hong Kong: day trip + weekend guide
  7. Shanghai water town: Zhujiajiao vs Qibao
  8. Shanghai Itinerary 5 days for first time visitors
  9. Best restaurants in Shanghai and what to eat

Traveling to China for the first time? While cultural shock is real, the other thing is that it’s like a completely different ecosystem. With Google, Facebook, Instagram and many websites blocked, there are other apps and websites in their place. As someone from Hong Kong – often refer to as China Lite – this applies to me too and so I decide to write a guide for you:

What to know before traveling to China

yuen yuen shanghai china - Laugh Travel Eat

The official language in China is Mandarin, though in many places the older generation will only speak the local dialect. For example, in Guangdong province, many will speak Cantonese only. But generally, the younger generation all speaks Mandarin, though don’t expect the English level to be good.

  • Most big cities in China are now very developed, queues can still be unorderly and the concept of personal space non-existent.
  • People might seem rude but are generally friendly, although if you don’t speak their language, they’ll still talk to you in Mandarin.
  • If you are Caucasian, you might get your photos taken or ask by people to take photos with them.

Swimming hats required

Crystal Bay wing swimming Nusa Penida Bali Indonesia
Only int he pool, not in the sea!

By Go Live Young

If you plan to swim in China then take a swimming hat with you. Swimming hats are required in all public swimming pools. We wished we’d known this before visiting China as we had to buy five swim hats to be able to swim! It’s also worth noting that spitting is customary in China, even in swimming pools.

Take a Filter Water Bottle

by Sarah Carter,  ASocialNomad – see her recommendation for filter water bottle here

None of the tap water should be drunk in China, it’s not potable.  This means that you shouldn’t clean your teeth with it either! So instead of buying bottles of spring or drinking water, you should take a good quality filter water bottle with you.  And then you can fill it up from the tap and drink it safely.

Filter water bottles work by using a filter, or a combination of them to remove bacteria, microorganisms, chemicals and bad tastes from your water.  Most of the top water bottles with filters on the market in 2018 have replaceable filters. The best filters use carbon to remove tastes like chlorine too.

Filter water bottles let you fill up with any source of fresh (i.e. not salt) water – so you can save your pocket and NOT buy bottled water and save the environment by not throwing away plastic bottles!

Add earplugs or headphones to your China Packing List


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by Elisa from World in Paris

One of the hardest things of traveling around China is the continuous noise, coming mainly from the locals. People in China like to speak loud and it seems that they don’t care if they are disturbing other people around. This is especially hard on night trains, hostels or hotels with thin walls when you are trying to sleep and people keep talking loud or watching the TV too loud until late at night. If you want to isolate yourself from the noise or just to have a long, good sleep, I recommend bringing earplugs or using headphones with your favorite music.

China is big


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Get your sim cards in advance

by Jo from Wander with Jo – see her guide to Guangzhou here

Buying a sim locally can be a real pain and almost impossible without a translator/ local person/ id and formalities. When I was in Guangzhou, I met a Chinese girl in the hostel. I was lucky she was with me when we went out and I decided to buy a SIM card. She had to give her local ID and address and we had to even return the SIM later after use. It’s a lot of hassle and took over 30 mins (That too coz I had her with me). It’s way better to pre-purchase SIM from your own country/ online prior to arriving in China. Completely hassle-free that way.

Make sure your external charger’s wattage mark is clearly visible

It’s not uncommon for security guards to throw away external charger whose wattage mark is blurred or unavailable. They don’t care even if it’s a tiny one, if the wattage isn’t marked clearly, they are likely to confiscate and throw it away at the airport.

Visiting China for the first time: download these apps

Key hack: buy a phone card from Hong Kong that allows you to break through the great firewall of China and access the apps and websites you normally can’t. I’ve done that several times and it works quite well depending on the connectivity. For example, it worked great in Shanghai which is a big city but less so in Qingyuan since it’s much smaller.



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WeChat is the Whatsapp, social media, online shop all roll into one. It’s the mega app that most people use to communicate so it’s best to download it! While it has many functionalities in China, as oversea users, our usage is limited. However, it’s best to have the app so at least you can communicate with the locals.

Note: they do accept foreign credit cards since 2018 but there are reports that it doesn’t work too well. If you want to use WeChat payment still, Swapsy is a solution (I have never used it before but it seems useful).

Pro tip: in the scanning function of WeChat, they also offer photo translation from Chinese to English for FREE!

Download on Appstore or Google Play


Another commonly used digital payment method is Alipay. Most places that accept WeChat Pay in China would also accept Alipay, and the two are pretty similar.

However, if you set up Alipay in Hong Kong, it’s different to the one in China and is not interchangeable (they are slowly rolling out the use of HK Alipay in China, as of May 2019 you can use HK Alipay in the Big Bay area)! And you might not be able to add your foreign credit card either.

Download on Appstore or Google Play

Download a Map


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by Kaila from Nomlist

Google Maps was not allowed to bring their services to China, so Tencent Maps came in and filled the hole that remained. The maps are really great, though you can get them on PC or mobile, so a laptop, tablet or phone can help you navigate.

The maps are part of the QQ family of chatting tools, so if you are familiar with that platform, you will certainly enjoy these maps. They are up to date and one of the most widely-used map services in China, so there is no fear of getting lost.

And with the Street view option, you can see where you will be going.

Download on Appstore and Play Store

Note: if you can read Chinese, I recommend 高德地圖

Nam, Laugh Travel Eat

Offline Map

If you are worried about connectivity, OSMAnd is a great app with offline maps you can download – you can get 5 maps on the free version.

OSMAnd: Appstore and Google Play



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The Tripadvisor and Groupon all-in-one app, Dianping is a great place to search for restaurants and attraction. The best thing is that you can buy discount groupons on the app to use, though be sure to read all the terms and conditions!

Note: they supposedly have an English version but I can’t seem to figure it out in app. You will also need to tie your bank card to purchase the groupons in app.


Also – multiple users reflect that the app runs on the background and drain the battery as well as posts on wechat without authorization.

Download on Appstore and Google Play


Whether you have a firewall cracking sim card or not, downloading a VPN app will at least make sure you have another way to upload your Instagram stories or Facebook status. There are several free ones you can download for free, personally, I use VPN Proxy Master free version and it works pretty well in Big Bay area.

Of course, if you want better service, it’s best to get paid ones. Express VPN is highly recommended by a lot of my friends in China.

Note: sometimes the speed slows but just change swap server location.

VPN Proxy Master: download on Appstore or Google Play

Translation App

Chinese isn’t exactly an easy language, so getting an offline translator app is essential. Google Translate is a safe bet, but it’s worth having another one just in case it doesn’t give you want you needed.

Google Translate: download on Appstore or on Appstore



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by Cara from Crawford Creations

Pleco is an incredible Chinese/English dictionary app for your phone that will pump out the most accurate translations of Chinese words and phrases on the go. It’s completely free to use, and the entire dictionary is loaded onto your phone so you don’t need internet to use the app, a huge plus when out and about in China.

With Pleco, you can type English, Pinyin, or even draw Chinese characters to cover all your translation needs. And, since it’s a dictionary instead of a translator, your results are always accurate so you don’t have to worry about poor translations or phrases coming out in “Chinglish”. Even after living in China for almost 4 years I still use Pleco on the daily to look up words when I’m out and about. I wouldn’t want to live my life in China without it!

download on Appstore or Google Play

China Train Booking App


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By Erin and Ryan from Down Bubble

If you want to explore China for less you may want to consider travel between cities by train. Bullet train and old-fashioned sleeper train options are available at varying levels of cost based on the class of carriage. But how to purchase your train tickets if you speak no English? With the China Train Booking App! Available for both Android and iPhone you can search, book and pay for train tickets with China all in English and using your foreign credit card for online payment! Once paid for you can simply pick your tickets up at the train station or time-dependent even have them delivered to your hotel room! Cheap China travel hacked!

Download on App store or Google Play



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Cara & Justin 🗺️(@crawfordcreationstravel)分享的貼文 張貼

by Cara from Crawford Creations, see more of her China tips here.

Use Ctrip’s English website, for all of your booking needs in China. Ctrip can book everything from planes to trains to hotels and as a Chinese based booking site, they always find the best deals on transport and accommodation in China. You can book either through their website or download the app on your phone, both of which work without a VPN.

Ctrip also has incredible customer service, so don’t worry if things go wrong on your trip. We’ve had canceled flights and hotels that wouldn’t accept foreigners and both were rectified seamlessly through Ctrip’s customer service. They’ll even track your flights for you right on their site so you can check for delays, check-ins, and gate numbers. Ctrip is our one-stop shop for bookings when traveling in China.

Download on Appstore or Google Play

Didi Chuxing


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by Kaila from

Who wants to fumble around with taxis and rental cars when you could be enjoying your holiday away in various cities in China? Just like you do everywhere else, get out your phone and get a ride from Didi Chuxing.

It’s safe thanks to new security systems, and at about 23 cents per kilometer, it is definitely cheaper than a cab!

Just like Uber, there are plenty of rides to choose from if you need a 6-passenger van, you can get that or if you’re feeling fancy, get a premium luxury ride. Economic cars are available for those on a budget, too.

Use their Fare Finder to estimate your cost.

Download on Appstore or Play Store

China travel tips

I’m not done with the travel tips yet! Here are some little things that are worth knowing/doing:

There will be security checks everywhere

At every metro station and every museum, there will be security check. Unless you are not carrying any bags, the security will ask you to put your bags into the scanner. It can get quite busy at the metro station and at the airport, but it’s mandatory.

In fact, I had gone through 4 security checks before I even made it to immigration! Once into metro, once into airport, once to go into immigration, and finally the usual security check you get worldwide.

Pro tip: if you are carrying a tote, sometimes they are happy to just look into it and then let you past. Occasionally, they didn’t bother with my tripod either.

Wash your cutleries and appliances


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e l l e n . e-s(@talkandspoon)分享的貼文 張貼

It’s common for the locals to wash the dish, bowl, and teacup etc with the hot water or tea at the table before eating. Unless they come in plastic wrapping with a label saying that it’s been clean and treated properly.

Of course, if you are going to a high-end restaurant, then you can skip the step.

Squat toilet usually no toilet paper


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Nicole Stitch (DeJoseph)(@nicdejo)分享的貼文 張貼

Squat toilet is the default in China, and toilet paper usually isn’t provided, especially in public ones. So arm yourself with toilet paper and wipes/hand sanitizer.

Note: in some provinces, it’s common for there to be a charge to use the bathroom

Strict seatbelt rule on highway


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Kedai Online Kak Nang(@kaknang2)分享的貼文 張貼

If you think traffic rules are lax in China, you are right but you are also wrong! Some highways have a strict patrol on the highway, such as Shenzhen, and the seatbelt rule is tightly enforced.

Everyone is a photo whore


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For one reason or another, the Chinese love taking photos WITH everything and anything. If you happen to strike a pose that they love, they’ll stand next to you and copy that pose. It can be frustrating if you are trying to get your shot without people – sometimes telling them that works, sometimes it doesn’t, just be prepared!

Passport is needed for train travel inside the country


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Raymond Mok(@0481666_ray)分享的貼文 張貼

Your travel documents are required to purchase train tickets! We almost didn’t make it because my friend didn’t have her passport at the train station. You can always use the app mentioned earlier to purchase a ticket but be sure to have your documents ready, even if it’s just a quick day trip to another city.

Massage chain you can trust


By Travels With Talek

I worked in China on and off for about 8 years. It was a wonderful experience and I came to think of China as a second home. While there I would frequent a chain of massage spas called “Dragonfly.” The massages there were excellent and very reasonably priced. They have branches in all the big cities and some cities, like Beijing and Shanghai, have multiple locations. I loved these places so much that one day I had a massage in one place then went across town to have the same massage in another location because I didn’t want the staff in the first place to think I was a massage addict.

Get all addresses in Simplified Chinese for Taxi Drivers


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by Lexi from A Scenic Find

Being a tonal language, chances are that the taxi drivers may not understand your pronunciation of the destination. Even more so, most taxi drivers are older and only seem to understand written Chinese characters (known as simplified Chinese).

If you want to have the most luck with taxi drivers you can do one of three things:

  1. Try to find the Chinese character version of the name online (Have a look at Wiki sites, or a major Chinese sites aimed at foreign travelers.
  2. Show the receptionist of your hotel where you want to go and ask them to write in Chinese (simplified).
  3. Type the name in English / Pinyin into your translator app and get it to translate into Chinese (simplified).

I used this tip when I traveled during Cherry blossom season in China and it didn’t let me down.

Show a picture of your destination when asking for directions


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by Sylvia from Wapiti Travel

Not many people speak English so it’s easier to show a picture of where you’re going to ask for directions. Some travel guides contain the names of touristic places in Chinese.  We tried to point at these first but that didn’t really work.  Maybe because there are at least 10 different Chinese dialect groups and over 50.000 different Chinese characters.

There is 2 ways to write Chinese regardless of the dialect spoken: simplified and traditional Chinese. It can be that the locals just simply don’t recognise the name. Pictures are better than a thousand word!


Random Temperature Checks in Airports


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Ahmet ASLAN(@aslan3838)分享的貼文 張貼

by Barbara from Lets Go Mum (more on travelling to China with kids on her blog)

Beware random temperature checks at airports in China, as well as seaports (such as trips over to Macau by ferry). Random travellers are chosen as they disembark to have their temperature taken by medical staff in a separate room. My eight-year-old child was chosen and luckily had a normal temperature. Our guide later informed us that if you do have an elevated temperature, you are then taken off to a medical clinic for further investigation or treatment.

Traveling to China for the first time? While cultural shock is real, the other thing is that it’s like a completely different ecosystem. With Google, Facebook, Instagram and many websites blocked, there are other apps and websites in their place. As someone from Hong Kong - often refer to as China Lite - this applies to me too and so I decide to write a guide for you: #china #tips #chinatips
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Written by Nam Cheah

Hi, my name is Nam. I am 24 and spent half my life in Hong Kong and the other half in UK. I believe there's endless experience and beauty in the world and this is me chronicling how to experience the best at the best price.

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