Every year, millions of people visit China. For those making their first trek to the red giant, it can be overwhelming. Between applying for a visa and coordinating flights, some might start to think it’s not worth the hassle. The bad news is that the preparation is only the half of it. The good news is that China is a place unlike any other, and it is always worth your time.
Get your visa early
Unless you’re from Singapore, Brunei, or Japan, you will need a visa to stay in China more than 72 hours. Contact your local Chinese consulate directly, or use a third party visa company for added ease (and added fees). The process for obtaining a tourist visa differs from country to country, but you should plan on it taking up to a month.
You’ll need a VPN to visit your favorite websites
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. With one, you can browse the public web from the privacy of a personal network. As of now, China blocks many popular websites like Google, Facebook, and Twitter, so if you need to access such sites during your trip, download a VPN before you go. Astrill VPN is popular among expats.
Most ATMs do accept foreign cards, but businesses don’t
Anyone who tells you that China is a cash-based economy is lying. Sure, five years ago it may have been, but today, cash has been almost completely replaced with mobile payment methods like Alipay, WeChat Wallet, and even Apple Pay. Nearly all of these apps require linkage to a local card, but don’t worry: cash is still accepted everywhere. So use your foreign card to withdraw cash when you can, and embrace being old fashioned.
There’s no need to tip
Good news! Tipping culture doesn’t exist in China. Some of the really nice restaurants in the big city may include gratuity on the bill, but either way, you don’t have to worry about leaving a few extra bills on the table.
Don’t drink the tap water
Not even Chinese locals drink the tap water, due in large part to the heavy metal particles inside. Of course, it is perfectly healthy to use a bit of water to wet your toothbrush with, but don’t start guzzling the stuff. In fact, it is not even recommended to drink boiled water. Instead, opt for the ubiquitous and cheap water bottles.
Be wary of the alcohol
On a similar note, be wary of the harder drinks in China as well. Beer and wine are generally safe anywhere you go, but liquor in many bars and clubs is often not what is advertised on the bottle. In the best case, a cheap brand was poured into an expensive bottle. In the worst case, you’re drinking bathtub moonshine. It’s unlikely that it will kill you, but you might feel like it is come hangover time.
Haggle at the markets, NOT in the shops
Some people may say that you can haggle everywhere in China, but this simply isn’t true. Of course, markets abound in the cities, and haggling is encouraged (and often necessary) there, but it is rude to ask for a lower price on a product in a brick and mortar shop when there is a price tag attached.
Bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer
In the time leading up to your China trip, it might be a good idea to practice your best squat. Yes, squatty potties are still the norm in China, and most bathrooms don’t have toilet paper or soap. If this grosses you out, bring your own. Fear not, though, your hotel will have a Western-style toilet at least.
Use your seat belt, even if the taxi driver tells you not to
Despite the chaos of Chinese city traffic, wearing a seat belt is still not common practice. Some seat buckles in taxis will even be buried deep in the cushions, but they are there. Buckle up, especially during rush hour, and don’t feel bad when your taxi driver tells you this implies that he’s a bad driver. Your safety is more important than his ego.
Carry your passport everywhere
Chinese hotels are required by law to register guests with the police, and they will need your passport in order to do so. It is also perfectly acceptable for a police officer to stop you on the street and ask for your identification. This is rare, of course, but you don’t want to be caught empty-handed if that happens. It’s best to carry your passport – or better yet, a photocopy of your information and visa pages – with you at all times.
Get ready to feel like a celebrity
Even with so many visitors a year, China is still fascinated by a foreign face. At major tourist attractions, you might start to feel like you’re the real attraction when Chinese people ask to take photos with you. This is no longer common in Shanghai, but in nearly every other Chinese locale, be prepared to say “Qiezi” and flash your best peace sign for your starring role in Mr. Chen’s WeChat moments.