China is one of the world’s most exciting and rewarding places to visit, but can be intimidating even to experienced travelers, who might struggle with communication and lack of familiarity with rules and customs. Here’s a handful of practical tips to help make sure your trip to the world’s most populous country is smooth sailing from start to finish.
The good news: Those annoying and expensive single-entry visas are a thing of the past. Americans can now apply for a 10-year, multiple-entry visa from the Chinese Consulate. Download the form from the embassy website, type up the application and bring copies of your travel itinerary to your local consulate or embassy (depending on your location). Several days and a $140 fee later, you should be all set. There are also visa services that, for a fee, will take your application to the consulate for you.
One other important note: Passport and visa expiration dates rarely line up exactly, creating situations where a passport might expire while a visa is still valid. I found myself in this exact situation before my last trip — would I have to go through the whole costly and time-consuming application process again? No. You are allowed to travel on a valid visa that’s in an expired passport as long as personal details like name and date of birth match up exactly (bring both passports).
You’ll notice blue and green QR codes at nearly every business in China, from the glitziest boutique to the most humble dumpling shop. WeChat Pay and Alipay are gradually turning the Chinese economy cashless: Simply enter the amount you want to pay, scan the business’ QR code, and boom, you have paid directly from your bank account. It’s something of a revolution — one that you, as a tourist, will not be a part of.
Cashless payment in China requires a Chinese bank card, which you can’t get unless you’re a citizen or resident. Don’t count on businesses accepting your foreign credit card, either — you’ll frequently find yourself out of luck. So load up on cash when you can. Fortunately, I’ve never had trouble finding ATMs in Chinese cities, and withdrawing Chinese currency with my American debit card has been trouble-free. If you want to play it safe, you can exchange for some at your local bank before you go.
Ride Hailing, With a Hiccup
While you probably won’t be participating in the cashless revolution, you will be able to use Didi Chuxing, the Chinese version of Uber (the company, in fact, purchased Uber’s operations in China in 2016, forcing them out). I found Didi to be inexpensive and as reliable as Uber is in the United States, with one caveat: paying by credit card. Didi wouldn’t accept my Chase card, but did accept one from my credit union. Then, unfortunately, my credit union repeatedly flagged the charges as suspicious, leading to several long phone conversations with the fraud department. While not foolproof, you can set a travel notification on the card you plan to use before you leave. You can also enroll in text notifications for fraudulent activity, which allow you to verify the veracity of charges right away.
Speaking of phone conversations, I found the best way to cheaply make calls was through the WeChat app. A $9.99 credit (which comes with a $2.50 bonus), purchased within the app, lasts a long time. Calls to the United States are only a penny per minute, and the sound quality is decent. Texting on WeChat is easy, and I was also able to use iMessage without issue. WhatsApp is blocked in China.
While you should always remain alert, China is remarkably safe for foreigners. In total, I’ve spent over a year in China, and have never felt in danger or threatened while walking around, no matter the hour.
Chinese traffic, however, can be horrendous, and navigating streets as a pedestrian is always an adventure. Buckle up when in a vehicle, and be extremely careful when crossing the street: Cars do not necessarily yield to pedestrians, and motorcycles and scooters do not seem to yield to anything — not even red lights.
While you won’t be able to buy a SIM card for your phone that includes a Chinese phone number, data plans with 4G speed are available for foreigners. Check at the airport (I bought one in a convenience store), or at the hostel or hotel where you’re staying, and be ready to show your passport.
Wi-Fi is everywhere in China, from the pricey malls of Shanghai to modest mom-and-pop restaurants in the smaller cities. The bad news is that you won’t be able to access it some of the time, as it frequently requires you to enter a local phone number to receive a Wi-Fi access code.
There are ways to circumvent this. Having a WeChat account will grant access to certain Wi-Fi networks. I also use a Google Voice number to receive internet access codes, which works part of the time. But wait — isn’t Google blocked in China? That brings us to ...
Virtual Private Networks
The Chinese government does a fairly thorough job of censoring websites and traffic from sources it deems potentially unsavory or damaging to the ruling Communist Party. Say goodbye to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, any Google-related services (including Gmail) and even (gasp!) The New York Times.
There are, however, a few holes in the Great Firewall, as it is called. Virtual private networks, or VPNs, essentially function as tunnels under the aforementioned firewall, connecting to a private network in a country with more internet freedom, like the United States or Japan. (VPNs are a legal gray area in China. The unauthorized business or commercial use of VPNs in China is not legal, but tourists checking their email or Facebook are not likely to run into problems.) While it’s a fairly easy way for you — and almost every young Chinese person I interacted with — to connect with the outside world, VPNs do have limitations: They can slow traffic noticeably, and aren’t always reliable.
There are a number of well-reviewed VPNs with names like Golden Frog and NordVPN. I opted for one called ExpressVPN, which costs $12.95 per month and offers a discount if you purchase a yearly subscription. I’d put my overall connection success rate at 85 to 90 percent. I also tried a free service called TunnelBear with slightly less consistent results. TunnelBear is free up to 500 megabytes of data per month — after that, you’ll have to pay. To get an idea of how long that will last you, loading the New York Times home page and clicking on an article consumed 6 megabytes.
One obvious, but essential, tip: Download and set up your VPN before you leave for China. Once you’re there, you’ll be blocked from downloading any VPNs.
If you’re like me, you’ve come to depend on Google Maps considerably during your travels. In China, you would be wise to rid yourself of that notion. Even with a VPN, Google Maps in China is filled with incomplete or sometimes just flat-out incorrect information. For example: There are no fewer than six subway lines currently operating in Chengdu. According to Google Maps, there are just two.
I recommend downloading the app Tencent Maps for your trip. While it can be difficult to navigate for those who don’t read Chinese, it’s worth having for its accuracy. Moreover, it will sometimes recognize English words you input (“airport,” and names of some businesses, for example). It also does a great job plotting out directions. Just drop a pin (like you would in Google Maps) on a location in Tencent Maps, and it will give you accurate public transportation, driving or walking directions.
WeChat dominates the country and is used to keep in touch with friends, pay for meals in restaurants, get news and play games — it even serves as something of a dating app. Download it if you’re going to spend any significant amount of time in China, as you will need it to keep in touch with locals you meet along the way. Just don’t use the messaging feature to say anything you wouldn’t want the Chinese government to read — your privacy protections are nil (WeChat disputes the extent to which it stores information and shares it with the Chinese authorities).
I’ve found Pleco to be a useful translation app. You can drop in English words, or paste in Chinese characters to receive their counterparts. And Dianping, the Chinese version of Yelp, is helpful for finding restaurants.
You’ll notice plenty of well-maintained public restrooms in China, but they’re not always stocked with toilet paper. You would be wise to carry a small stash with you. This applies to napkins in restaurants as well: At smaller, more casual places, diners are expected to have their own supply on hand.