While each country is different, there are some key requirements for travelling to China. You’ll have to get organized before you arrive in China for a number of reasons. You’ll find a great transport system, but a lot of peopvle wanting to use that transport. You’ll find areas of China where little to no English is spoken. Visiting China for the first time can be a little daunting, but there are things you can do to make it go more smoothly. This means you’ll need to prepare a few things before you arrive in the country. Here’s our list of things to do BEFORE going to China and your travel to China checklist.
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1. Get Your China Visa prior to entering China
This is the number one thing. and what to do before you travel to China. There’s no visa on arrival in China. Unless your passport is from Singapore, Brunei or Japan then you’ll need to put a visa for China on your checklist. Whether you’re flying in or arriving overland (check out the number one border crossing guide to get from Lao Cai to Hekou.) you need a visa before you arrive at the border. There is no visa on arrival in China. We had a dual entry (30 day x 2) visa that we obtained from the UK prior to our first trip to China commencing. The China visa application process can be arduous and paperwork intensive – plan plenty of time to put your application in. Assume that your visa process will take at least 30 days and that China visa requirements differ between countries. Note that you will also have to have travel and repatriation insurance to obtain your Chinese visa.
We recommend ivisa for all your visa requirements – you can organize your Chinese visa with them here. Our visas were China tourist visas, if you are travelling to work or on business assume that the process will be longer.
2. Download a VPN before you go to China
Without a VPN you are unlikely to be able to access sites like Gmail (even from your phone apps), Google Maps and Facebook. You won’t be able to use sites like Dropbox to upload your photos. If you want to access a site that is secure (i.e. those that use HTTPS) then you’ll need a VPN – as China is routinely blocking HTTPS sites now.
We recommend ExpressVPN, which we’ve used in some of the world’s most difficult countries to access the internet – check it out here. This link will give you up to 49% off RRP or 3 months for free!
Download a VPN – virtual private network – and install it BEFORE you get to China. We recommend (and have used ExpressVPN for nearly 9 years – SUCCESSFULLY in China, Cuba, Turkmenistan, Turkey and 30 other countries – check out what we think is the BEST VPN for World Travel!
The Chinese government frequently blocks access to sites that it sees are potentially against their communications policy. A VPN both secures your internet traffic and masks your location. A VPN also makes it safer to input your credit card details and passports when you’re on public wifi networks.
Taking a VPN to China would be at the top of my China travel tips and you need to download it before you visit China, you cannot download a VPN easily when you are in China.
3. Book Your Chinese Trains NOW
If you’re taking trains in China you’re REALLY going to want to book as soon as you know your route. The trains in China are FABULOUS, but there are a lot of people trying to use them. They get booked out months in advance ESPECIALLY during Chinese holiday times – book your train in advance. You can now do this online with Trip – do it now.
Seats open up to 60 days in advance. There are a huge number of domestic tourists who use the trains in China and no special foreigner quotas. Unless you book ahead you may find yourself taking buses which take longer, or going different routes.
4. Book your Hotels/Hostels/Homestays in China
Book your hotel, especially if you’re crossing the border or arriving later in the day. Regardless of whether you’re flying in, taking a train or walking across a border, be sure of your first night’s sleep. Again, remember, there are also a LOT of Chinese tourists, just because you might not know many folks who’ve been to China doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of tourists!
If you only have a short time in each location, book your accommodation BEFORE you get to China.
5. Consider Travel Insurance before you go to China
Whether you’re planning a longer trip or a two-week vacation to China, then check guidance from your home country on the requirements for travel insurance. Specifically for us, we needed repatriation and travel insurance for China in order to obtain our visa.
Considering travel insurance for your trip? World Nomads offers coverage for more than 150 adventure activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, trip cancellation, and more. You can get a quote here.
We hiked some of China’s sacred mountains – like Huashan and the Plank Road or headed to the amazing Huanglong National Park – and we had to check the altitude of where we were going to before buying our insurance.
6. Sign up for Foreign Travel Advice before you go to China
A department in your home government will provide advice for foreign travel. In the UK that’s the Foreign and Commonwealth & Development Office, the FCDO. If their policy about a certain country or area changes, then you’ll get notified automatically by email. Check out their advice.
You’ll probably be the first to know if trouble breaks out around you, but the UK FCDO are pretty good at letting you know if there’s anything else to be aware of and somewhere you should NOT be going to.
The USA and Australian alternatives are
Are these updates over the top? Do you think government officials worry too much? Maybe, these updates err on the side of caution, but you should have them for two reasons. (and I’ll use the FCO as an example).
- If the UK FCDO says that you shouldn’t be traveling in that area and you are, then you’re unlikely to get consular support, because British Embassy staff won’t be there either. So if you lose your passport, get robbed or end up in a lot of trouble, then, sunshine, you’re on your own.
- If the UK FCDO says that you shouldn’t be there, then your travel insurance is also likely to be voided. So, you may end up with no recompense for stolen or lost items, no assistance – financial or otherwise – in getting home.
7. Buy a phrasebook and learn a few keywords
It’s easy to make friends in China if you’re a western traveller, then you’ll stand out like a sore thumb.
Take your guidebook on your Kindle or e-reader with you. Or take a real book if you like carrying heavy things.
- Get hold of a Mandarin Chinese Phrase book here
- Save carrying heavy books around and get a Kindle (you can buy Kindles in China but they’re HARD to find and more expensive than at home) > check your options here
- Get hold of Lonely Planets Chinese Phrasebook here
8. Download Maps.me and China Maps
Google resources are blocked in China. Google is blocked if you are using regular wifi or if you are using data services. You will not be able to use Google maps (unless you have a VPN), so you will need to have an offline mapping tool.
Maps.me is a great offline mapping tool. Before you get to China download the app and the relevant maps and you’ll always know where you are and where you’re going – despite how rural you get and despite China’s best efforts to block maps at will. Maps.me is just one of the resources that we use when planning a Trip. Maps are imperative in out of the way places like Zhangjiajie – where it’s easy to get turned around and nothing is obvious.
Check out our fabulous guide to Zhangjiajie and have a smooth visit!
9. Get yourself an SD card to back up your photos
We’re heavy Dropbox users for all our content, photos and – well our life basically. Because it’s WAY lighter than a hard drive. BUT it relies on internet access. And that’s something you’re not going to get a lot of while you’re in China. And you’re going to take LOTS of photos because China is unique.
The challenge that you will find is that Dropbox is blocked in China. In order to use Dropbox in China, you will need to use a VPN. (If you don’t know what a VPN is, you can read our Common Sense Guide to VPNs here. You will need to download and use your VPN BEFORE YOU GO TO CHINA. We recommend ExpressVPN as being one of the best VPNs if you’re travelling to China.
- Get a port extender and plug more in! > check options here
- SanDisk SD card – back up and do it quickly! Check your options here
10. Buy a Filter Water Bottle to safely drink Water in China
The tap water in China is not potable. Period. The locals don’t drink it and neither should you. And we mean you shouldn’t even clean your teeth or wash your toothbrush with it. You could go down the route of buying bottled water wherever you go, but you should seriously consider the cost to your budget and more importantly, the environment. Save yourself a fortune and keep Sir David Attenborough happy and buy a filter water bottle.
> We’ve reviewed all the main brands to make it easy for you. But if you’re ready to buy – here you go try the LifeStraw here
11. Get a FEE Free ATM Card before you go to China
When we are travelling on a budget (that will be always then) we tend to pay in cash for most things. For us it’s convenient and even though we have a fee-free credit card we prefer to keep that as a backup. It’s one of my nightmares – having a card cloned and therefore becoming unusable and having to deal with that while travelling.
We have a fee-free ATM card from a UK bank that we manage through an app.
12. Save Money And Book Adventures – There is No Tipping in China
For those of you used to travelling in cultures where tipping is a requirement, you’ll be pleased that it’s not in China. Sure you’ll want to hand over a few yuan if you get great service and if you’re in a high-end establishment, but generally tipping is not required.
And that’s great for you as a traveller! So delay no longer and check out some of the adventure’s you can book yourself on in China.
13. Consider getting a local SIM card for China
It will make internet access a whole lot easier if nothing else! The easiest way to do this is to get it mailed to your home address or pick it up at an airport. Or even more easily, you can buy it through Amazon and get it shipped to your home! > buy a Chinese SIM Card now!
14. Practice Squatting – Toilets in China
Unless you’re travelling on a high-end budget many of the bathroom and toilet facilities that you will encounter will be squat toilets. What more can we say? You need to practice squatting and keeping your feet out of the way and wearing shoes. After two months of travel in China, I can confirm that your balance that gets better and the whole situation becomes significantly less stressful.
15. Pack Some Paper
Public toilets in China are few and far between they definitely do not contain toilet paper. If you travel on Chinese trains you want to take a supply of toilet paper with you, if you stay in budget accommodation do the same. I’m not saying that you need to buy paper at home, it’s readily available in China, it’s just not always provided.
16. Get Some Hand Sanitiser
If you’re anything like us and can’t resist the local street food then you want to invest in some hand sanitiser. After a long day of touristing, National Parking and generally being out and about combined with squat toilets and running water THAT YOU SHOULD NOT DRINK you’ll want to make sure your hands are clean.
17. Practice Your Smile
In a country of 1.4 billion people if you’re a western tourist you’ll stand out. Even if you go to the more heavily touristed areas you’re likely to be a novelty for domestic tourists. If you have blond hair even more so. So practice being a celebrity and smiling graciously and get used to people wanting to take the photograph with you. In China, you will generally be asked and if you refuse that’s OK but people are on the whole friendly and we never had any problems.
Finally, we’ll wrap up with some FAQs from readers: If you have any questions on what to take to China or queries ask away in the comments!
UNESCO World Heritage Sites in China
If you like visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites, then our guides to these Chinese World Heritage sites will be useful
- How to Visit Huanglong National Park [the Yellowstone of China]
- Discover Xian’s Terracotta Army
- How to Visit Kunming, Shilin and Dali
- How to Visit The Great Wall of China – [Independent Public Transit Route]
- The Forbidden City of Beijing
- The Historic Center of Macau
- Jiuzhaigou National Park
- Huangshan National Park and Sacred Mountain
- Wulingyuan and the Zhangjiajie National Park
- The Sichuan Giant Panda Sanctuaries
- Tiger Leaping Gorge
FAQs on what you need to do before going to China
- Does Dropbox work in China? The short answer to this is yes, Dropbox does work in China. But you will need to use a VPN to access it. (get the best VPN for China here > with 49% off RRP.)
- Does Maps Me work in China? Yes Maps Me works in China. Maps me works best offline – download the maps before you get to China and you can navigate without needing to access the internet.
- Can I drink tap water in China? No you cannot drink the tap water in China. Be an eco traveller and take a filter water bottle with you. Save the planet and your money. Try this filter water bottle.
- What VPNs work in China? The highest rated VPN we know for China is ExpressVPN, but others work too – get ExpressVPN with up to 49% off RRP here.
Travel Tips for Exploring China
- Considering travel insurance for your trip? World Nomads offers coverage for more than 150 adventure activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, trip cancellation and more.
- Download and install a VPN BEFORE you travel to China > discount coupon here
- Book Transport and Airport Transfers in China here
- Book the best China tours and guides on Trip
- Save money in China with a Wise debit card
- Book Trains in China with Trip
- Book accommodation in China with Trip
Final Words on China Travel Checklist
We thoroughly enjoyed our travels in China and still have a valid 2-year visa to take advantage of. As with travel to any country it always goes more smoothly if you plan a few things in advance we hope our traveling to China checklist will help you. What else do you do and put on your traveling to China checklist? Let us know in the comments if we’ve missed anything when it comes to what to know before going to China!.
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