Here are tips from an American traveler to ease the way for visitors to the world’s most populous nation.
China is one of the world’s most exciting and rewarding places to visit for Westerners, but it 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.
EASIER VISAS: 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 a Chinese consulate. Download the form from the embassy website, type up the application and bring copies of your travel itinerary and the $140 fee to the nearest consulate (Vancouver, B.C., for Seattleites) or use a visa service that, for a fee, will handle the transaction for you.
CARRY CASH: 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.
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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.
PHONE HACKS: 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.
STAYING SAFE: 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. 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.
GETTING ONLINE: 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 where you’re staying, and be ready to show your passport.
Wi-Fi is everywhere in China. 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, such as 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 to connect with the outside world, VPNs can slow traffic noticeably, and aren’t always reliable.
There are a number of well-reviewed VPNs with names such as 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.
Download and set up your VPN before you leave for China. Once you’re there, you’ll be blocked from downloading any VPNs.
NAVIGATION: If you’re like me, you’ve come to depend on Google Maps during your travels. In China, rid yourself of that notion. Even with a VPN, Google Maps in China is filled with incomplete or sometimes just flat-out incorrect information.
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.
OTHER APPS: WeChat dominates the country and is used to keep in touch with friends, pay for meals in restaurants, get news and play games. 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.
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.
FINALLY, TP: You’ll notice plenty of well-maintained public restrooms in China, but they’re not always stocked with toilet paper. Carry a small stash with you.