What do you need to know before visiting China for the first time? China is a beautiful and enormous country. Home to your favorite spicy dish and pandas – what more could you want? There is no sugarcoating, though, that China is difficult. The language barrier is high and the culture is very different than what most Westerners are used to.
The good news is that most of the differences are simple things that are non-issues once you know to plan for them. So after about a month of traveling the country, I put together my list of things that you should prepare for on your first visit.
What to know about visiting China for the first time
Though it may be tough at first, preparation is key to making sure your first, and subsequent, visit to China is a success. From knowing how the money works to talking with your hands to which apps you need to download to how to book trains, here are the most important things you need to know to get ready for your visit.
CNY and RMB and kuai are the same thing – money
I was super confused about the money as I prepared for and entered China. In some places, prices were listed in CNY (Chinese Yuan), but in others, listed as RMB (Renminbi). Yet, when people speak, sometimes they say how much something costs in kuai. My currency converter app only has CNY, so I thought maybe RMB is an old currency being phased out? In Cambodia, they concurrently use both the USD and Riehl, so it wasn’t a totally crazy idea.
Nope, all the same thing. One type of currency. One conversion. A bunch of ways to say it.
Cash is king in China
Speaking of money, one thing you’ll always want on you is cash. Foreign credit and debit cards are accepted basically nowhere, and many ATMs do not service foreign accounts. So when you have the opportunity to get cash, get enough to last awhile. Especially if you’re backpacking in China, you’ll want cash to get around.
English is…not a thing
While you will find many government signs in English, don’t expect to hear it spoken, or for people to understand you. “I don’t know why people won’t speak English,” my new Chinese friend, Karen, said at the train station, “we learn it in school.” I always recommend you learn hello, goodbye and thank you wherever you go because it’s insane to expect people to speak your language when you’re in another country, but in China, it will help to learn a little more.
Pro-tip: learn 1-10 on your hands (not what you would think); this will go a long way on your visit and make just about every transaction easier.
You’ll want to download a few apps before you get to China
You’ll want a VPN (Verified Personal Network), Trip, Pleco and WeChat (or WhatsApp). The “before you get there” part is especially important if you have an Android device, which means the Play Store. Internet is restricted in China, blocking Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and most importantly, anything Google (basically everything fun). This includes anything you use that requires Facebook to authenticate your login.
(this screenshot cracks me up every time – and is not true)
Must-use apps to download before heading to China
VPN (needed for everything)
A VPN will get you around all of the restrictions and allow you to use your device like normal and protect your data. I used ExpressVPN and was quite happy. You can use the same account for both a phone and computer, which meant for one price, I had access with both devices. Here’s more info on using a VPN while traveling.
Trip (travel/transit planning)
Trip is a super easy app (and website) that makes planning your domestic travel cake. Search and book trains and flights directly from the app and you get hotel discounts with your bookings. It will cost you a few extra dollars for the train tickets, but then you can go straight to the ticket window at the stations and print them (with passport in hand of course). The customer service is great and easy to work with (and they have English-speaking agents).
Pleco (best for translation)
Pleco is a must-have because it not only works offline, but will show you the different translations for words you are looking up and how they change based on the context. It also has a feature that users can draw the symbol and it will translate (that’s how we found out the mystery meat on a street cart was ox tongue, thank you very much Pleco). Google Translate is also a no-brainer; be sure to download the offline package (you will need to VPN to use when online, but not offline).
WeChat (communication – you NEED this in China)
Because all things Facebook and Google are blocked, Chinese communicate via these two apps, which are not blocked by the Great Firewall (not really sure why WhatsApp works since it’s owned by Facebook and all, but hey, let’s not ask too many questions). Both require creating a new profile and you’ll have to find your friends. Having one or both of these will make it easy to communicate with others while you’re in China, and keep up with them when you’ve gone, without playing the VPN game.
Chinese trains – get anywhere, but can be pricey
China has an extensive high-speed rail system, accompanied by an even more extensive slow train system. Smoking has been restricted from the cabins, so it isn’t as bad as I would have expected in that respect. For longer journeys, you can choose between a hard seat and a hard or soft sleeper (I did a 10-hour overnight train on a standing only ticket and would definitely not recommend it). The sleepers are just fine, but a bit tight on space. You will be the only foreigner on the train, which means you’ll spend a fair amount of time playing with adorable kids who want to run up and say hello.
What I found most surprising about the trains is the price. For many of the longer journeys, in many cases, the train was more than a flight. For example from Guilin to Shanghai the train was actually $25 USD more expensive than a flight (and 10 hours longer)! Even 24+ hour trains can run you over $75 USD.
But it’s all part of the experience, right? On the long trains that I was on, we went through rolling mountains and beautiful fields and it was a great view. I heard from other travelers that they saw nothing but concrete. Bring snacks and charge up all your devices and enjoy!
You’ll need to bring your passport almost everywhere
I typically leave my passport locked up once I’ve arrived in a new country, but that’s not really an option in China. You will need it for any train travel, at every hostel or hotel check-in and in many tourist destinations. Just to enter Tien’anmen Square I had to not only show my passport and go through a metal detector, but also got grilled with questions before being admitted. When I asked the guard why, since he didn’t ask anyone else questions, he replied simply, “because you are a foreigner.”
Luckily I had just picked up a cheap wallet in Hong Kong that fits my passport, but otherwise, I would not have been equipped to have it on me at all times. Make sure whatever day bag or purse you plan to carry will have enough room for safe passport storage.
Getting a Chinese SIM card is not easy
Knowing that I had two 24+ hour train rides ahead of me, I knew it was time to cave and get a SIM card. Simple, right? Try again. I went into literally over 25 shops that sell SIM cards to be continually denied and told through translator apps to go to the next store, 500 meters away. While there are several providers and I was told that China Mobile was the best for foreigners, they refused to sell a card without a Chinese ID.
China Unicom was finally the answer, but be careful – they have city data (which only works in the city of purchase) and the deceptively named “local” data (which works in the entire country). I was given the wrong kind, despite telling them I would be traveling around, so once I got out of Beijing, I was cut off.
If you’re coming from Hong Kong, you may want to pick up a China Mobile SIM that works in both countries to save yourself the hassle.
Do you even need a SIM? Probably not. But know that in many places with free Wi-Fi, you need to be able to receive a text message to log in, so you may find your options limited without one.
Be prepared to squat (and bring tissue)
Squat toilets are not hiding anything in their name. Don’t expect to sit on a Western toilet unless you are in a Western hotel. And bring tissue with you everywhere. It is more of a surprise if a facility has tissue than if it doesn’t.
Taxis – be prepared to haggle
Taxis in China, like everywhere, have been known to rip tourists off. Avoid this by being prepared with everything you need to know about your destination – the Chinese address, the distance and how much it should cost. I needed to go from one train station to another, which I knew was 5 km away and should cost ~$5, so I couldn’t help but laugh out loud when the first price the driver came with was $50. Chinese addresses: you need to have where you’re going in its Chinese address or you aren’t going to get there. Most drivers speak zero English and have no interest in helping to figure out where you’re going (even something as simple as “train” was met with blank stares and skid marks).
The culture is different – you will get frustrated and there are things that can’t be unseen
You will see men walking around with their bellies hanging out of their pants, flinch at the sound of phlegm what feels like constantly and watch kids pee (if you’re lucky) in the streets. You will get brushed aside when you are asking someone for help and pushed aside when subway cars open. There is cigarette smoke everywhere.
Work through it. At times it will be hard, but work through it.
Beyond the differences and everything that frustrates you are warm people, beautiful landscapes and amazing food. Work through it.
People aren’t not making eye contact and smiling at you because they are being rude, but because it isn’t their culture. And it isn’t fair to judge them against ours. This was probably the most difficult for me – I tend to be smiling and say hello to people on the street, and my feelings were hurt in China when it was unrequited. I reminded myself that unfortunately, the world doesn’t revolve around me. People will take pictures of you unabashedly. Who cares? Get over it.
Put your energy into enjoying being in the culture, rather than fighting against it.
Bonus: Essentials to keep with you in China
Don’t get caught empty-handed – here’s a quick list of items that should always be in your bag.
- Your passport
- Wet wipes and anti-bacterial gel (not usually my thing, but soap is a rare gem in bathroom sinks)
- Apps (see above)
- Mask (I used mine mostly for smoke, but also on high pollution days)
- Necessary addresses in Chinese (most hostels will have business cards with their address – keep this with you)
- Water (you will find water in most places, but it will likely be hot)
- Your patience
Additional planning resources for China travel
China Highlights is a great resource for planning the trip, activities and doing your research. I think it’s the most user-friendly (best English) site out there. Stay tuned for my experience hiking the Great Wall with them.
Trip is more than the app – use this link to get to great planning resources!
Hostelworld as always has a bounty of options in China. I was more than pleasantly surprised with the selection. My favorite? Lazybones Hostel in Chengdu (don’t just stay there, eat there – the food was SO good!).
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