Simply put, China is huge. It’s a country where customs, cuisines, and dialects change from region to region. That said, it might be helpful to have a few pointers before you visit. Rife with misconceptions (no, you can’t see the Great Wall from space with the human eye), China is an extraordinary place and one that foreign travelers should feel safe exploring. Whether you visit the culture-packed Shanghai or check out the historic grandeur of Beijing, the country will leave a lasting impression. But before boarding the plane, check out our list of 12 essential things you need to know to make your trip to China a successful one.
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1. You’ll need a visa.
Although a U.S. passport will get you into many countries around the world, you’ll need to also apply for a visa before visiting China. Visas are not granted at the port of entry, so make sure you’ve arranged it all ahead of time. If not, you risk being stuck before you can even start.
2. It’s generally safe.
With dense crowds, a mass of signs written in Chinese characters, and general sensory overload, China can be a huge culture shock for first-time visitors. However, it’s good to remember that the country is safe for tourists. Violent crime in China is far below levels in the U.S., and violent crime against foreign visitors is even more rare. Beyond looking out for pickpockets, which can be a problem, common sense and general vigilance should be enough to guarantee a safe trip.
3. You’ll need a Virtual Private Network (VPN).
Due to China’s internet censorship, you’ll have to think twice about Googling certain things, unless you download a Virtual Private Network, otherwise known as a VPN. Apps like ExpressVPN connect you to social media and allow you to access other sites that have been blocked or censored. This can come in handy for searching last-minute travel tips, maps, and more.
4. Cash is king.
We’ve all heard the talk of cashless societies in the not-so-distant future, but in China, not so much. It’s still a country where cash rules, and surcharges are regularly added to card payments, even in high-end hotels and restaurants. Paying for items with large quantities of cash is not uncommon, so be prepared to carry local currency at all times to avoid card and ATM issues.
5. Tipping is a no-no.
It’s always good to be transparent about the tipping etiquette in a country, and in China, the rules are simple. You need not leave any gratuity on top of the bill in restaurants or bars. One exception is if you’re visiting a super high-end establishment, where tipping has begun to creep in. The one position within the Chinese tourist trade that benefits from tipping is the tour guide. Due to a very low wage, guides to attractions like the Great Wall or Yellow Mountains rely on tipping to supplement their income.
6. Learn some key phrases and get a translation app.
While popular tourist destinations will cater to English speakers, it’s best to know a phrase or two in case you want to explore a little off the beaten path. Start off by learning some key phrases like “thank you,” “where is” and “how much.” If you plan on traveling with your phone, download a simple translation app to help with the rest.
7. Don’t be shy when ordering in restaurants.
Chinese restaurants, bars, and street food stalls are not going to offer the same type of service you might be used to. It’s not considered rude to call wait staff to your table or hail for their attention. In many cases, if you don’t make your move, you might not get served.
8. Don’t drink the water.
Tap water is not safe to drink in China due to contaminants and old plumbing, so stick to bottled water. Luckily, bottled water is cheap and easily available everywhere.
9. Haggle (almost) everywhere.
Bring your haggling A-game, as you’ll be able to negotiate in many stores, stalls, and taxis throughout China. Haggling for the cost of goods is acceptable in various places here. Plus, since there’s a huge markup on the prices placed on souvenirs, you should never accept the first price — or the second.
10. Bring your own medical supplies.
Bring sunscreen, painkillers, and other simple medical supplies that you can’t do without, as communicating in pharmacies for sensitive and important items can be particularly hard.
11. Bring tissue everywhere.
Be prepared to utilize the hover method, since many Chinese bathrooms feature squatting toilets. In fact, squat toilets will make up the vast majority of toilets you’ll encounter, except for in Shanghai and some buildings in Beijing. The other important thing to remember is to carry plenty of tissue, as paper is often missing from bathrooms.
12. Buy a mask.
Smog and pollution are a big problem in China. Government alerts call for schools shutting and that people stay indoors. When you’re visiting cities, particularly Beijing, be aware of those days when levels of pollution are deemed hazardous. Buy a mask and wear it at all times when outside, and avoid exerting yourself too much.
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