15 things you should know before traveling to China

More and more tourists from around the world are visiting China to learn about its fascinating history and culture, witness the beautiful landscapes, and engage in the urban lifestyle in the metropolitan areas.

Planning a trip to China is a rewarding experience itself, but it does come with many challenges. There are a lot of things that everyone should know before going, some of which should be done even before getting to the airport.

Based on our experience traveling in China for about two weeks, here are some tips that should help make your visit a bit easier:

1) Apply for Visas in advance

Any US citizen planning to visit China needs to apply for an entry visa issued by the Chinese embassy or consulate-general serving your area. For full details on filling out the application, visit their website.  If you think it is too much hassle, you can always use a travel agency (for a fee). Either way, during the application, you will need to provide important information such as the travel dates, places you will be visiting, and proof of purchased flights.

If you are only traveling to Hong Kong, a Visa may not be required.  I recommend you check the Hong Kong website.

2) Health Concerns

To reduce the risk of infection from malaria or other diseases while traveling to infected areas, you’ll need to take some precautions. I recommend IAMAT—the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travelers, based upon a Consumer Reports recommendation.  They are not expensive and perhaps the biggest benefit might be that they maintain a list of recommended physicians for anywhere you travel.

Disease                                                                          Cause

  • Yellow fever                                                         Spread by mosquitoes

  • Typhoid                                                                Contaminated food and water

  • Hepatitis A                                                           Contaminated food and water

  • Hepatitis B                                                           Contaminated body fluids

  • Encephalitis                                                         Mosquito-borne illness

  • Polio                                                                        Contaminated food and water

  • Rabies                                                                     Infected animals

  • Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR)                  Various vectors

  • Influenza                                                                  Airborne droplets

Malaria prescription – We took one tablet a day, starting two days before entering the risk area, continuing throughout our stay, and seven days after we left the area.

3) Pack your own pharmacy

After speaking to friends who visited China, including my very good Chinese friend whose husband got very ill there during a business trip, I felt the urge to bring my own mini pharmacy: prescriptions, Electrolyte powder to rehydrate with traveller’s diarrhea, antibiotics, antacid, insect repellent, eye drops, a pain control and fever reducer (ibuprofen), allergy medication (Benadryl), hand sanitizer, [tons of] wipes, decongestant, sunscreen, digital thermometer, different sizes of Band-Aids, insect bite treatment, antibacterial ointment, face masks, and tissue paper.

Thankfully we didn’t have to use many of these items, but did go through eye drops, masks, hand sanitizers, wipes and sunscreen quickly.

4) Food

Avoid all kinds of raw food except fruits that can be peeled, such as oranges, bananas, watermelon and cantaloupe. Stay away from fruits like grapes, strawberries, blueberries, etc. which are consumed with the skin.

Pack snacks such as cereal bars, nuts, crackers, and dry fruits for any eventuality. We had situations where the food wasn’t appealing and those snacks became our meal.

5) Get a Virtual Private Network (VPN)

While visiting China, most likely you won’t have access to email or other social media. If you want to stay connected with friends and family back home or anywhere outside of China, buying a VPN can be a great solution. To bypass the firewalls preventing Google access, a VPN will appear as using a computer in the country in which the VPN server is located.

6) Traffic

Traffic in China is confusing. Cars, pedestrians, bikes, and motorcycles share streets in a seemingly unorganized flow, but it works for them!  Cars wouldn’t stop when pedestrians were trying to cross intersections; scooters and motorcycles try to find their way around cars; and horns, horns everywhere.

Note: drivers seemed upset sometimes when we had the right of way crossing the crosswalk.

7) Air pollution

Once you are there, you have to deal with air and water pollution!

China’s air quality varies quite drastically depending on where you are in the country.  Beijing and Xi’an are notorious for having high levels of pollution, while some areas such as Zhangjiajie, frequently experience excellent air quality.

My recommendation would be to realize that pollution is not always seen. When air pollution levels exceed an AQI of 200, wear a mask over your mouth and nose to help filter out pollutants; eye drops are very handy too.

When there, we used www.aqicn.org to keep an eye on the air quality index.

8) Spitting (or hocking)

It is very common to see people in China hocking and spitting loudly and without any regard to who is nearby. It is extremely disturbing, but there is nothing you can do about it besides staying in the opposite direction of the “launch.”

Sometimes you may see signs that tell you “no hocking.”

9) Squat toilets

The majority of toilets in China are squat style, and if you are wondering how it works, think about a camping trip when you take your daughter to pee in the bushes. It wasn’t a big deal for us. However, keep wipes, toilet paper, and tissues with you at all times because paper was a rare product in the public bathrooms.

Hotels and major airports typically have Western toilets.

10) Drink only bottled water

Tap water in China is undrinkable. Drink ONLY bottled water. I read on some websites that it was safe to brush your teeth with tap water, but we did not even take that risk.

11) Personal space

The idea of personal space in China is very different than in the West and we noticed that especially when standing in line to buy tickets.  It is also common for people to bump into strangers without saying “Excuse me” or ”sorry.”

At our first entry, at the customs line in Beijing, a guy behind my husband rammed him several times with his luggage cart before my husband turned around to express some discomfort.

Don’t take it personally, just go with the flow.

12) Cash in China

It is quick and easy to get cash on arrival at any Chinese international airport. There are cash machines in the baggage areas and after exiting customs.

We had no problems paying for most of our expenses at restaurants and for tickets using our credit cards. Most credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee, but I use a Capital One Venture when travelling overseas because they don’t charge foreign transaction fees.  However, I recommend always having smaller cash denominations in hand for taxi or any small charges. Also, try to pay with exact change.

13) Saying no!

Say no for any offer or request you get from locals on the streets. Scammers are everywhere, and the proposal can be to save you money in a tour, to practice English, anything. They can be young or old, male or female, alone or in a group. They are very sneaky and can get you easily if you decide to listen.

14) Being a celebrity

If you are traveling with a light skinned child in China, he or she may be in the spotlight. Very often locals would come to us and ask to take a picture of my daughter, or other times, they wanted a picture with her. They were polite most of the times, but there were situations when they would just cross in front of us and snap a picture of her.

15) Address translated to Chinese

Most of the taxi drivers in China do not speak English, so always have your hotel address as well any other destination written in Chinese. When using booking.com, you have the address of the hotel in English and Chinese. Very helpful.

Often the hotel in which you are staying can help you with the translation.

Final note

Even though we were mindful about specific travel details and witnessed different habits, the preparation wasn’t much different from other international journeys. It is always good to be well-prepared and have common-sense cautions, but it shouldn’t spoil your enjoyment.

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