China is a beautiful place to visit, rich in culture and charm. For the western traveler, it may feel intimidating on your first visit as there are subtle differences to what you may be used to. In this blog, I hope to set out some tips and tricks which will make your trip a success.
Disclaimer: I am not a seasoned traveler in China only having had two fantastic trips to the county. The items detailed below are not a comprehensive overview, but they have made my time in China far more enjoyable.
The first and most important thing to note is that you are most likely going to need a Visa. If you are planning on attending a conference such as KubeCon China, then you will need a business visa. For tourism, a standard tourist visa will suffice. The difference between the two is that a business visa requires a letter of invitation from the company or conference you are attending. There is no one size fits all for this letter the details needed on it will depend from country to country. Details of the invitation letter will be provided by your local embassy or visa agency. Typically this includes items like full name, passport number, and expiry, home address, date of birth and gender. The letter will also need to carry the official stamp from the authorized company and the signature and contact details of a company representative.
It may be tempting to cut corners and just apply for a tourist visa instead of a business visa; personally, I have done this in the past with no problem. However, if you are questioned at the point of entry you may be refused entry, my advice is, do not risk it and obtain the correct permit. Visas also come in two different types, single entry and multi-entry, for the UK, both types allow you a stay not exceeding 90 days. Often when applying for a single entry visa, you will be granted a multi-entry anyway. Both types are valid for two years. One thing to note is that you can only hold one Chinese visa at any time, if you already have a tourist visa and need to upgrade to a business visa then you will need to write a letter explaining why you wish to surrender and cancel your existing visa. Business visas can be used for tourism but not the other way round.
The visa application form is relatively straightforward however you will need to make a visit to your local embassy for an interview, you will also have to leave your passport with the embassy while they process your application. Personally, I have always used an agency such as CIBIT in London who have managed this process for me, they will also ensure that the details on your form are correct before submitting it to the embassy. Using an agency does carry an additional cost, but I think it is well worth it.
Airports around the world are relatively homogenized, and it is no different in China, you will find the usual shops and coffee shops and long queues at immigration and security. From an immigration stance upon arriving you will need to complete a landing card (remember to pack a pen). This card comes in two parts one which is submitted on landing and one which you must present upon departure. Keep your departure card safe as failure to provide this when you leave the country may cause problems when you next return to the country and could result in you being denied re-entry.
Border patrol will check your passport and visa, you will be required to provide an electronic copy of your fingerprints, and your passport will be stamped. Do not panic if you are taken to one side, often this is just a case of double checking with another border patrol member. Concerning language, do not expect the border police to speak English, this is generally not a problem, and I have always found the process efficient and without issue. All airports will have instructions and signage in both Chinese and English so navigating is never too much trouble.
Airports are generally situated 20+ KM from the center of the city very similar to how things are in the west. There are sometimes public transport links to the center however after a 10+ hr flight the best option is often to take a taxi. In general, the infrastructure for public transport is incredibly good, there has been a massive infrastructure investment in China over the last 10 years in this area, and it is incredibly good value.
Taxis are cheap and plentiful, you will find a huge number of taxis at train stations and airports. You will also find a large number of unsolicited drivers offering to take you to your destination. In general no matter which country you visit, I find using an official taxi the safest option. Just follow the sign to the official taxi rank, there will be one in English and you will find it. Most likely you will also find a large queue of people waiting but the lines clear pretty fast.
Taxis are not particularly expensive, a trip between Shanghai Hangdong airport and a hotel in the Bund, which is a trip of about 45 minutes (depending on traffic) will cost approximately 100 yuan (about 10 euro). Do not expect the taxi drivers to speak English so ensure that you have the location of your hotel on your phone in Chinese which you can show the driver. All licensed taxis run a meter, and this usually starts ticking up from about 14 yuan.
Tipping does not seem to be the norm and can cause some confusion when you refuse your change. Once the message does get through the gesture is always welcomed.
Uber is not present in China, there is a local alternative Dede; however, I have not used this, my advice is if you do not have a written destination, then ask the hotel or restaurant to request a taxi for you and ensure they tell the driver where you wish to go to. Most taxi drivers are honest and friendly people, especially when ordered from an official taxi rank or hotel.
Should you hail a taxi from the street, do not be alarmed if you find a stranger in your cab. Ride sharing is a thing in China, and some drivers may opportunistically attempt to double their fare by operating in this way. This will not happen when you request a car from a hotel or take it from a train station.
In general, taxis are in plentiful supply, and will generally only accept cash or mobile payment, I have not seen a taxi where it is possible to pay by credit card, so ensure you have enough currency on you to cover your trip.
As previously mentioned the public transport infrastructure in China is incredibly good, and bus routes are everywhere. Taking a bus is very cheap with a single trip costing about 2 yuan. In the major cities, you will not be able to pay for the bus in cash, mobile payment is everywhere, and this seems to be the only way to pay for a bus. Unless you are adventurous, my advice is to skip the bus and grab a cab.
The trains in China are both efficient and cheap, they are also a great way to get between cities. You can take the bullet train between Shanghai and Beijing in around 4 hours. The train is comfortable, fast and a wonderful way to see the country which you would completely miss if flying. Trains are also a fantastic way to travel shorter distances, a trip by train between Shanghai and Hangzhou, a distance of around 100 mile takes only 1hr and costs approximately 10 euro. The simplest way to purchase tickets for trains is to use Trip.com or even better the Trip.com app. This app or website will show you the full train schedules and will allow you to purchase your tickets using a western credit card.
Once you have purchased your tickets on trip.com, you will need to pick them up from the ticket office in the train station, the location of the ticket office usually is outside the central station before security. Sometimes the ticket office will have an exclusive line for “Foreigners”, however do not expect the person at the booth to speak English. Collecting your tickets is, however, a pretty simple process, Trip has a particular screen which you show to at the ticket office, you will also need your passport. Hand both of these items over at the counter, and you will get back your ticket. The ticket will have the number of the train, and time of departure printed at the top, it will also have your carriage and seat number printed in the top left. To board the train, you will need to enter the central part of the station, and this is generally going to require that you show both your ticket and passport to security. You will also have to put your luggage through the Xray machine similar to the experience at an Airport. While this process is far quicker and nowhere near as thorough as Airport security the lines can be quite long at peak times. Once through security you need to find your platform, the train departure boards in China are shown in both Chinese and in English. Find your train number on the board and head to the gate (airport style) which is associated with that number.
Train boarding generally starts about 10 minutes before departure and ends 5 minutes before departure so leave yourself plenty time to check in. People will also begin to queuing early at the gate, and the gates will support multiple trains sometimes with only 10 minutes difference in departure. You will be able to tell when it is time to board as your train number will show up green at the top of the board. Again you will need to pass the barriers to get to the platform, this is a simple process, put your ticket in the gate, walk down to the platform and when the train arrives, get on board. Trains in China are incredibly punctual, the seats are comfortable, they are fast and an excellent way to see the countryside as you hurtle along at 300KM/h.
Chinese cities will generally have a metro system, the metro in the larger cities is very similar to what you may find in European cities with many different lines allowing you to get pretty much anywhere. Like European cities, the metro is crowded during peak times. Tickets are cheap costing roughly 3 yuan (0.4 euro) for a single journey and tickets can be purchased from either the automated machines or from the ticket counters in the station. In addition to single tickets, you can also buy day and week-long travel cards. Disclaimer here, on my most recent trip I did not take the Metro, I mainly took a Taxi or walked to my destination. I, however, plan to take the metro when I return to Shanghai in November and will update my blog then.
Walking is always a great option when exploring, take advantage of the slower pace, look around (not at your phone), and enjoy. Most cities can, however, be crowded to expect a reasonable amount of human traffic. If you are used to a city like London, then there is nothing really to note, crossing the road is best done at the pedestrian crossings however in China, there is a considerable number of electric mopeds, expect these not to stop when you are crossing the road. They do have to stop and will not deliberately run you over but just be careful before you step into the street.
For navigation I found Google maps really reliable, that said, Google is mostly banned in China, but there are many ways around this, check out the “Connecting to the Internet” section of this post to ensure you can get access to maps.
The currency in China is the Renminbi (RMB, peoples currency), you will find things generally referred to as “Yuan” which is also a basic unit of RMB. This is similar to the UK where the currency is Sterling, but the units are Pounds and Pence. Notes and coins come in sizes from 1 yuan (1/10th of a euro) to 100 yuan (10 euros).
There are cash machines everywhere where you can obtain money using your cash card and pin number, most of these will have an option for transacting in English, and they work exactly the same as you would expect anywhere in the world. One thing to note is that every now and again you may find a cash machine which will not work with foreign cards, the best advice is to use Hotel cash machines or major Chinese banks.
It is a good idea to always carry a small amount of cash with you, most places will readily accept credit cards however there is a movement towards mobile payment, and some stores (even large chains) will not accept credit/debit cards. Taxis are generally happy with cash however again beware that they may be more used to receiving mobile payments and may not have change. Another thing to note is since taxi drivers rarely speak English they may not be able to tell you they do not have change. My advice here is to just round up your fair as a tip. While tipping is not prevalent, it is always appreciated.
Mobile payments are sweeping China by storm, most shops, big and small, taxis, railway stations, ok, everywhere accept them. The two primary sources are WePay and AliPay. WePay is built into the WeChat app (China’s whats app), it is a wallet style where you top up your WePay wallet with currency from a credit or debit card. The rub for Foreigners is that while you may be able to add your card to WePay, do not expect it to allow you to top up. There are two ways you can get around this, the first is to ask a local colleague or friend to send you a Red Letter, which is WeChat’s way of transferring currency between users. The second is you can use a service such as vpayfast.com, using this service you will be able to top up using your credit or debit card, and the service will send you a red letter for the amount through WeChat. They will charge you 8% of the transaction as a fee, but this has been the only reliable way I have found to top up WeChat. I think it is worthwhile to add 200 yuan to your WeChat wallet while in China, you never know when it will be useful, remember some small stores might not even accept cash.
In my personal experience, I find my Monzo account works really well across the globe with favorable transfer rates and the convenience of being able to see what you are spending when you spend it. Another option which I am planning on trying on my next trip is Transferwise, with a Transferwise account you can hold local currency and spend this with the convenience of a master card debit card.
Any major credit card Visa or Mastercard should be accepted except American Express which you may find you can only use in major hotels. Like traveling anywhere having a backup plan is always a good option.
Like the rest of the world, walk down a shopping street in China and expect to find all of the usual brands. Starbucks is everywhere, Zara, and all the other usual suspects, you will also find local brands. To be honest, I have not really done a great deal of shopping so I can’t really comment on prices.
The only thing I will note is to bring your attention back to something I mentioned in the currency section. Do not be surprised if the store will only accept cash or mobile payments. I experienced this when I went to buy a gift for my Nephew, the store was a busy modern chain called Line Friends. The item in question a Teddy Bear, not especially cheap at 350 yuan. I was surprised to find that when trying to pay that they would not accept my credit card and I was directed to mobile pay (which I could not use due to top up problems). The cashier did not speak English (and why should we expect them to, it is not an English speaking country), and eventually figured out that they would accept cash.
I can not confirm this 100%, but from speaking to my Chinese colleagues, it appears this is not unusual, as everything seems to be headed to the mobile pay route. The key takeaway, do not expect to be able to use your credit card everywhere, cash is always a good bet, but you may find this is not accepted in some smaller stores. Mobile payment is king.
Food in China is delicious, I may be biased as it is one of my favorite international cuisines but my recommendation is to embrace this and take every opportunity you can do dine like a local. The menus are probably not what you will see in Chinese restaurants in the West as these have been primarily homogenized, but the dishes are not so different.
Hairy leg crab
Hairy leg crab is a delicacy, found in the late summer, the crabs spend their life in the paddy fields where their presence helps the rice grow. Then unfortunately for the crab and enjoyment of diners, it is time for the dinner table. Disclaimer: while I embraced local food and rarely eat anything else when in China, I have a general rule where I will not eat anything with a face.
In addition to local foods, you will also be able to find the usual suspects, Starbucks is everywhere, Macdonalds on most corners but do your best to avoid these and embrace the local culture. A meal for two people in a modest restaurant will cost you less than 200 yuan which is excellent value. Compare this to a double espresso in Starbucks (roughly 20 yuan) or a double shot skinny latte (35 yuan), and it seems excellent value. My main benchmark for the price of food in a country is often the Big Mac meal, in China, this is roughly 35 yuan or 3.5 euros.
You will find that menus are often only written in Chinese but will have pictures, there will usually be English translations or photographs for food in the larger cities. Again do not expect the restaurant staff to either speak English and you may have trouble trying to pay with your western credit card. Cash is generally the best option and always a good backup.
The menu will differ depending upon the region you are in, and it is going to be rare to find vegetarian food as almost everyone is an omnivore.
Vegetarians beware, while you will find many vegetable dishes on the menu, often these are prepared with either meat or fish stock. Large hotels might be your best bet if you do not eat meat or fish, they will be best to cater to your needs.
For the traveler who is used to Europe do not expect Chinese people to speak English as a second language. Hotels will almost always have staff able to speak English but shops, taxi drivers, restaurants, and even Starbucks will most likely not.
Also, remember that the Chinese alphabet (Pinyin) is not going to be easily readable as each symbol is a sound rather than individual letters forming works. Many larger establishments, train stations, airports, and road signs will be written in both Chinese and English which makes navigation easy enough, but it is not prevalent.
A tip for taxis is always to have your destination written in Chinese which you can show to the driver on your mobile phone. Google translate is also a potential option. The best bet when getting a taxi from a hotel is to ask the concierge to request a cab for you and to ensure that the driver knows the destination.
Learning Chinese for a short trip is probably not going to be an option for you, however, no matter where I travel I find it is respectful to at least be able to say Hello, Goodbye, Please and Thank You in the local language:
- Hello - Ni Jiao
- Goodbye - Zai Jian
- Thank You - XieXie (c c)
- Please - Qing (ching)
There are many excellent options for learning the language Duolingo has a great free course which I highly recommend.
I am unable to comment on what the level of crime is like in China, what I can say is that on my two trips I have never felt unsafe. There is a high presence of Police in most cities and train stations and pickpocketing, or petty crime does not seem to be a problem. That said, apply the rules you would in any city, keep your purse or wallet secure on your person and do not leave your belongings lying around.
There are generally plenty of people about even late in the evening, and my personal recommendation is to take the same level of care you would if you are traveling to London. I felt completely at ease walking around China, and as a 2m tall white guy I certainly stand out in the crowd. Occasionally you will be approached by beggars, but this is really rare even in a city as big as Shanghai. They are never threatening and will leave you alone eventually, but if you do have a little change, it will be very well appreciated.
Like any unfamiliar country it takes time to adapt to your surroundings, but after a couple of days, you will be navigating like a native. Do not worry, be sensible and you will have a fantastic time.
Connecting to the Internet
Ok techies, this is probably the thing most important to you, connecting to the internet either on your phone or computer is going to be essential to a good trip. The great firewall will stop you from accessing things like Google search, Google maps, and Gmail; however, this can typically be circumvented by using a VPN. In the rest of the world I am a big fan of Tunnel Bear; however, I found this somewhat patchy in China. I recommend you try ExpressVPN, this will work on your laptop, iDevice and Android platforms. My recommendation is you to set this up before you leave as some of the download sites can be blocked once in the country.
China has first-class mobile broadband, if you think people in the West are obsessed with their phones, China takes this to a new level. I am on Vodafone in the UK and using my plan in China costs an additional 6 euros per day which is well worthwhile. Interestingly I found that Google services would mostly work from my iPhone while I was roaming on the 4G network. I am not sure if this is because the system knows I am a foreigner. In general however even when on a mobile network I find that running ExpressVPN is your best chance to ensuring a reliable connection to all my Google services.
China is a beautiful country and the Chinese are wonderfully warm and welcoming. The food is fantastic, the infrastructure makes it so easy to travel around, and the scenery breathtaking.
Don’t be put off by comments like China is so polluted, China is so busy you cannot move, in my experience,, this is over exaggerated, I live in London where we have some of the worst air quality in the world, and as for congested, we take things to the next level. China is making amazing inroads to improve the quality of life in the cities. You will not find more electric vehicles anywhere on the planet, the train network is world class, yes there are traffic jams, but there are traffic jams in any large city.
As for the pace of life, is China, frantic, fast moving, exhausting? The pace of life moves at a speed you want it to, you can have a wonderfully relaxing time, just run at your own pace. Embrace the culture, drink tea, not coffee, eat noodles not a burger, enjoy the juxtaposition between rich history and modern metropolis. I hope this article helps and the pleasant memories from your trip last a lifetime.