Julie China, Travel Advice 44 Comments

Traveling through China can be a very rewarding experience but it does come with its share of challenges.  With the right expectations and a little preparation (such as reading our China travel tips), a visit to China can be an amazing experience.

Many people travel here on a tour, eliminating the challenges of arranging itineraries, transportation, hotels, and meals. As we found out, independent travel in China is possible.

We avoid tours whenever possible. Traveling in a large group of people, hopping from landmark to landmark, having everything prearranged, sounds like torture to us. We prefer to be out on our own, finding our own way. Sure, we make blunders and get lost sometimes, but independent travel is the best way to be immersed in the culture. By traveling on our own we get to interact with the local people, rather than traveling within the “safety” of a large travel group with a guide.

And what a culture to be immersed into. The people in China are some of the friendliest we met and the history and sights here are world class. For those who are pondering independent travel to China, here are some china travel tips to help make your visit a little easier. Many of these we figured out for ourselves while traveling.

China Travel Tips

Get Your Visa Before Entering China

This is the most important step in planning a trip to China.  Without a Visa you will not be allowed to enter the country (if you are a US citizen). 

On the application, you will need to provide your travel dates, travel itinerary, and proof of onward travel. The application must be typed with no hand written corrections or it will not be accepted.

For full details on filling out the application, plus the link to obtain the visa application, visit the China Embassy website.

For travelers planning a layover or a short stop in China, you may qualify for a 72 hour visa. Learn more here. 

Purchase a VPN Before Arriving in China

Julie Rivenbark ChinaThe Great Firewall of China blocks all access to Facebook, Google, Twitter, and YouTube. There were periods where I was even blocked from this Earth Trekkers website. It can be incredibly frustrating, especially during long term travel, to lose access to websites used to stay in touch with people back at home.

One way around this is by purchasing a VPN, or a Virtual Private Network. A VPN disguises the computer’s IP address so it looks like you are connected from the US or Australia even if you are in China. We used VyprVPN for the month we were in China, paying a small monthly fee (around $10) for the service. It worked fairly well but it was not perfect. While in Shanghai I was totally unable to access this website although I could still get onto Facebook. Still, it was worth having this service. Without it I would have spent one month in China without any access to the outside world.

Please note, make sure you purchase the VPN before getting to China.  China blocks access to the VPN companies so you will be out of luck trying to purchase one if you are already in China.

Update for 2020:  Some of our awesome readers have written in with VPN’s that worked well for them. These VPN’s include Express VPN and Surf Shark. You can read more about these in the comment section below.

It is an Advantage to Know Basic Mandarin

XingpingKnowing Mandarin is not a necessity but it helps A LOT.  If you plan on only visiting the larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai you will be able to get by with English. The younger generations can speak basic English and many are eager to help out when necessary, from our experience.

If you plan on visiting the smaller cities off the main tourist trail, such as Zhangjiajie and Yangshuo, speaking basic Mandarin is invaluable. We would have had a very difficult time here if we couldn’t speak the basics.

Plus, a simple ni hao (hello) or xie xie (thank you) is much appreciated. To speak in full sentences and attempt a simple conversation made us many friends in China. This is a country where people really appreciated our efforts to speak their language and these moments are some of our favorite memories from China.

There are a lot of language learning apps and computer programs to choose from. Tyler and I used Fluenz to learn basic Mandarin. We started the program one year before our trip to China. I have also used Fluenz to learn Spanish, French, and a little German.

It also helps to have a Chinese translate app on your phone. We used this to communicate many times as well.

Be Prepared for Menus in Chinese Characters

Countless times we sat down at a restaurant and were handed a menu with only Chinese characters. This led to us randomly picking out dishes, hoping for the best. This is a gamble in China, since it is very common for all kinds of animal anatomy to make it onto your plate. Once in the bigger cities, menus in English, or at least with pictures, became much more commonplace.

Chinese menu

Bring Your Own Napkins

I cannot tell you how many times we sat down to a meal and never saw a napkin. A napkin, such a simple thing. There’s nothing like eating a big bowl of noodle soup with chopsticks, to have broth dripping down our chins, and not have a napkin. Make sure you carry your own supply with you.

Bring Your Own Toilet Paper

Toilet sign

To continue with the same theme, bathrooms are rarely stocked with toilet paper. Bring your own.

Also, be prepared to use squat potties. We used more squat potties here than in any other country we visited, with Nepal and India not too far behind. The bathrooms were not the cleanest, either, so it also wouldn’t hurt to carry around some hand sanitizer as well.

Bargain For Everything

With the exception of upscale stores, everything can be bargained for in China, even groceries. At most places you can expect to pay between 10 and 25% percent of the starting price.

If you do not like their price, just walk away, and I guarantee that they will chase you down the street. We even had a lady search us out five minutes after leaving her shop, giving us an awesome price that we couldn’t refuse. It is a game to go shopping and if you like this kind of thing, it is tons of fun.

Your Credit Card May Not Always Work

We travel with both a Visa and Mastercard. In China, there were numerous times that our credit cards were not accepted. China has its own credit cards and is not open to using Visa or Mastercard yet. Be prepared for many trips to the ATM’s to get out Chinese yuan for your purchases.

Use China DIY Travel for Purchasing Train Tickets

If you plan on traveling by train through China this is an invaluable service. This company, run by Australian Chinese couple, can help with booking your train tickets.  They were very responsive through email and made our booking of four train journeys quick and painless.

Guilin train station

China DIY Travel electronically booked our tickets and we picked them up at our first train station in China. At one station we were able to pick up all of our tickets for all four of our journeys in China. DIY Travel sent us pickup instructions in both English and Chinese, which we printed out on our own. At the ticket booth in the railway station, we showed the agent the printed Chinese instructions and were handed our tickets. Having these instructions was a huge bonus.

DIY Travel also provided us with instructions on how to read the train tickets, how to find our train at the station, and information about boarding procedures. This information is invaluable as everything in the train stations is in Chinese. I highly recommend China DIY Travel to other travelers and wouldn’t hesitate to use them again on another trip to China.

Hotels in China

Make sure you clearly specify that you want a non-smoking room. Many, many people smoke in China. Even if you request a non-smoking room it very well may smell like smoke. It also helps to make sure the hotel has English speaking staff.

Here Come the Paparazzi

If you are traveling with children or have light skin and blond hair be prepared to have a lot of cameras in your face. Tyler and Kara were back in the spotlight again. Tim was a subject of many photos as well, with his height and blond hair. Most people were very polite, asking for photos with our family, but there was a smaller subset of people who stood off at a distance capturing our images on their cellphones.

Photos in China

So, What About the Food?

Julie and Kara Chinese foodYes, without a doubt, Chinese food is much different from what we see in the US. There is almost no similarity between the two.

Some things we loved (I was a huge fan of the noodles and the soups) and some we didn’t. At many Chinese style restaurants we ordered small dishes from a menu and shared them all. The food tasted good but it was oilier than I expected it to be. We would finish a dish, leaving behind a puddle of oil on the bottom of the bowl.

I have to say that I liked Chinese food a lot less than I expected to. I feel like I am a fairly adventurous eater and have an open mind but I can see why Chinese food in the US has been “Americanized.”  And no, we never did see a fortune cookie…that also is an American invention.

Best Places to go in China

In my opinion, YangshuoLi River Valley, and Zhangjiajie were the best places we visited.  Mountain scenery, friendly people, the best Chinese food we had in China, this was the China I had always imagined.  We would love to return again someday. If planning a trip to China, don’t skip these places!

Have you been to China? What China travel tips do you recommend? And if you have any questions, feel free to comment below!

More Information for Your Trip to China:

Are you planning a trip to China? Read all of our articles about China in our China Destination Guide.

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China Travel Tips

All rights reserved © Earth Trekkers. Republishing this article and/or any of its contents (text, photography, etc.), in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.

Comments 44

    I find telling someone that they are an inspiration to be arduous and fawning….

    But here I am doing it.. saying how muchI loved your beautiful photos and am incredulous that you have done so many trips ….and have gleaned so much information to plan them in the first place.

    All the best as you venture onwards.
    Aussie Paul

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  2. This is an awesome blog about traveling in China, many of the tips are so practical and my experiences echo with yours in many places!
    I really love this blog, your stories and wonderful photos!
    Keep up this great work!

  3. Also
    – Avoid traveling to China during Chinese Labor Day, Golden Week, New Year and National Day. Its very crowded and plane tickets are more expensive.
    – Beware of drivers as they don’t seem to follow any traffic law
    – Don’t do anything against the law as China has the highest conviction rate.
    – If you are from Europe, you can apply and get your visa through Viselio online application form

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  4. Great tips!

    Very true about the VPN. it is better to get it before arriving China.

    ANNIW: ExpressVPN is not blocked here either, however, the website is blocked. You cannot access it while in China.
    If you have problems, you might need to use friend’s hotspot, get a hotel with VPN or try Shadowsocks.

    Good luck for the family. Wonderful blog 🙂

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    2. I’d also add that getting the English version of Didi (DiDi – Greater China) before getting to China is the best way to go. It’s like Uber, which does not work here. So if you don’t speak chinese, it helps a lot!
      You can even get some discounts by using the 50OFF coupon.

  5. Thank you that you are sharing the experience with us. I visited China this summer too. It was a fantastic experience to see a different world. They have an exciting culture, language and food, but as you said it’s very hard to spend a month without any access to the outside world. I used NordVPN when I was there and it allowed me to access facebook, twitter and instagram, I don’t know how but it worked very well.

  6. Thanks for the great advice. China is a beautiful country with rich history and culture. It is one of the best place for travelling. The China Highlights tour starts in Shanghai and ends in Beijing

  7. Great list! Regarding the VPN situation, ExpressVPN doesn’t seem to be blocked here (I know quite a few people who have got it while in China) and most people say it’s the best for long term use.
    And the point about the paparazzi is so true! I’ve gone to tourist places and found more people wanting to take photos of me than of the actual tourist attractions, which feels really odd and uncomfortable, but then many people in China have never seen a foreigner before so it’s kind of understandable.

  8. I’ve been in China a couple of weeks ago. The trip went great. Fantastic country. Regarding VPN I had to find a provider that is not blocked in China yet. I subscribed to Surf Shark. It was quite risky taking brand new VPN but it worked perfectly. I could browse the main social media channels and etc. If someone is going to China soon, you can use this code: SURF24 . You will get the discount.

  9. When going to another country, it is important to know their basic words specially if the people can’t really understand and speak english fluently. Just like in China, it will really help you to explore the city easier if you can speak a couple of cantonese words.

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      Absolutely. Speaking just a few words of the local language is polite and opens you up to wonderful interactions with people. Thanks!

  10. Great article, thanks for the tips! As the world’s largest country, China has a myriad of world class attractions to offer. However, there are also quite a number of crooks who target tourists in the country. http://travelscams.org/asia/common-tourist-scams-china/

    Do be wary of the English practice/offer to help scam, fake traditional chinese medicine clinics, cheap low quality tours, fake monks, tea house scam, arts gallery/school scam, fake officials at Mao’s tomb at Tiananmen square, fake tickets, fake silk/jade/jewellery/pearl and many more!

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  11. Instead of a VPN you can use a browser called Cocoon. It’s inexpensive, safe and easy to use. You can access everything (from your computer)! I mean everything. Netflix, hulu, facebook, Instagram, the list goes on and on. Even if you’re in china already you can download it. It’s only $5.25 a year. https://getcocoon.com/now

    You note about bring own toilet paper is so true!!!
    Also bring any medicine, including OTC and vitamins you use or may need to use.
    You might consider bring a mask that can filters out PM 2.5/

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      Thank you for all of these tips! I have never heard of Cocoon. It’s nice to know that there are more options for staying in touch on social media when traveling to China. Thanks for sharing, Julie

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      Getting the VPN ahead of time is VERY important, especially if you want to stay connected while traveling through China. Cheers, Julie

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  12. I don’t believe I have a class with him, so I’ll test him right before his Spanish class that he has with my friends (I take French…shhh…) I look forward to it! ~Melody

  13. This is really cool! You guys have a really cool tip page, some I could even use, even though I’m barely 13 and Chinese. This is really fascinating! I ‘d be happy to converse with one of you in Chinese at school. I remember Tyler telling me he was going to learn Mandarin. I’d like to test him. Thanks!

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  14. Hi Julie,

    Thank you very much for writing such a long paragraph about us on your blog! We really appreciate this. Your blog has brought one client (maybe others, but we don’t know if they don’t mention) to me. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    Hope you and your family a good trip on the big world!

    Keep in touch!



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