Despite the many blog posts, I’ve written about China, I still get asked all sorts of questions from people about to embark on their big adventure to the Middle Kingdom.
So, I’ve put together a quick ‘go to’ list, of essentials, to make sure you’re not caught short when you visit China.
Before you go:
1. Download a VPN
If you want to be able to use Google, your Gmail account, pop over to Face Book for a nosey, check out Twitter, or use any social media accounts for that matter, or perhaps you want to text home using What’s App, or watch a bit of Netflix — heads up, you won’t be able to do any of that in China! At least not without a VPN.
With many websites banned in the country, a VPN, also known as a Virtual Private Network, simply tricks your computer and/or internet into thinking it’s somewhere else i.e. another country. This allows you to log into all the things you can’t leave home without.
In China, it came to be known as my ‘VPS’ –Virtual Protector of Sanity.
So, how do you get a VPN?
I wrote a post a few years ago on the logistics of choosing a VPN, you can read that here but because those that work best tend to change every year and China is often banning certain VPNs, I’ve also done the legwork to come up with a list of those that are most effective in 2019.
NordVPN is recommended by those in the know and has kept its focus on becoming one of the better VPNs in China. It also offers good value for money. Click here for more information.
Express VPN has long been and still is classed as one of the most efficient and easiest to use. In fact, it was the one we used when we lived in China and was by far the most consistent.
VyprVPN began in 2006 in China and has become one of the most popular VPNs. Their security levels are top notch and their speed is excellent.
Private Internet Access
These guys are one of the simplest to use. You’ll also see they are one of the cheapest.
Experts say Private VPN is great when used on Stealth mode!
12VPN also gets top marks and consistently provides good service.
Surfshark works well and can help you bypass tough censorship, including the ability to unblock Netflix in the US!
One of the biggest VPN providers, Astrill is still favoured by many as the premier VPN provider in China.
All of these obviously cost money so if you’re looking for a FREE VPN for a few days and you’re not too fussy about speed and consistency, try the following:
And for the very latest information on the best VPN for your needs (August 2020), check out Consumer Advocate’s post here. Best VPN’s Based on In-depth Reviews.
2. Install a Translation App
While English is spoken by many Chinese, it’s still quite limited in a lot of cities, especially outside the top four. It can be hard to have more than a basic conversation, so it will pay to have a back-up in the form of a good translation app downloaded before you go. These days, there are those that translate your voice directly – what more could you want?
Which one to use?
Baidu is one of the easiest because it’s a China-approved app, so will never be blocked and it’s free. Users say conversations are fast and reasonably accurate.
Google Translate is one of the best but will be blocked unless you have your VPN (see above). It offers both voice and conversation translation.
Reviewers say it’s one of the best with a great user experience but unfortunately does cost. Good for those who aren’t technically inclined (ahem, yours truly).
This one isn’t blocked and is free. Very simple to use. You can hear the translation as well as see it in Chinese characters and pinyin.
If you just want a simple app on your phone to type in English words and find out the Chinese equivalent, I couldn’t get by without Pleco.
Obviously, the key to using a VPN and any translation app is WIFI, whether that’s with your own data or connecting to the hotel or local WiFi. If you are using Chinese WiFi, warning: don’t expect miracles when it comes to speed!
3. Using Money in China
First things first, be sure to tell your bank you’re going overseas, so your cards aren’t blocked.
Secondly, be aware that many places in China still don’t take foreign credit cards. (Girls, just FYI Zara and H & M do!) 😉
Your best bet is to carry some cash. And because many western banks don’t carry the Chinese Yuan (RMB), it’s probably easiest to exchange enough money at the airport to get you by, at least until you reach your hotel, for things like a taxi from the airport and food.
From there on in, you should be able to use your debit card to withdraw from an ATM – make sure they have the Visa or Mastercard logo. Those major banks that should allow you to do this are: Bank of China, China Merchant’s Bank or ICBC. ATMs do have English, but you will need your pin for both debit and credit cards.
Of course, WeChat and Alipay are now taking over cash in China for locals as the most popular forms of payment, but even though there is an option to add a foreign credit card to the apps, I’m told it’s not as reliable or perhaps easy as you think.
**Also, note, if you’re using cash in Chinese shops, do expect it may be funnelled through a machine which detects whether or not they’re fake notes. Unfortunately, this is a reality in China, and I’ve known tourists to be caught out, even when withdrawing from an ATM.
4. Travelling Around China
If you want to book travel flights within China, the best online site is Ctrip, now called Trip.com. It’s generally cheaper than foreign companies and they have English-speaking phone support in case you have any problems.
Beware, there’s a big possibility (like a fifty per cent chance) that any flight you take in China will be delayed, so be prepared! Also, there’ll likely be no English spoken on Chinese domestic carriers and the food tends to be a little dubious.
Trains on the other hand, almost always run on time and are extremely speedy and efficient. China’s bullet trains run at 300km plus an hour and have you there in no time at all! They’re also safe and pretty comfortable too.
For timetables in English, these two sites are recommended and are also good options to purchase your tickets online.
– www.china-diy-travel.com (also gives fares, in RMB)
– www.chinahighlights.com (also gives fares, in US$)
Try to book well in advance as tickets do get sold out, especially if there are any big national holidays looming. You can also book trains on Trip.com
You can try buying your tickets at the stations, especially Beijing, but before you do, I highly recommend checking out this site which is super detailed on everything to do with trains in China!
Note: You will need your passport for all ticket purchases.
To get around most cities in China, a taxi is usually your best option.
Cash is still the easiest method to pay your fare with unless you have WeChat or Alipay. Some taxis will refuse to give you change for 100RMB so make sure you have smaller notes on hand too.
Before you get in, ensure you have the name of your destination written in Chinese or a card from the hotel, to hand the driver.
It is law for Chinese taxis to use a meter so if you’ve flagged down a normal cab, check that it’s on and if they refuse by trying to negotiate a ‘price’ with you, you can simply refuse and exit the cab.
Most taxis are bright colours, red, green or yellow, so you can’t miss them, but there are also what’s known as illegal ‘black cabs.’ These so called cabbies don’t use meters and can end up costing you much more than you bargained for. If you do use one, try and negotiate a price before you get in.
In many city’s don’t be surprised if taxis refuse to pick up foreigners. It’s not personal, they simply don’t want the hassle of someone who can’t speak the language.
Thankfully, what is more popular now is the Chinese Uber equivalent, Didi Chuxing.Download this app and set up your payment method before you leave home.It is available in English and they do take foreign credit cards!
For more information you can check out this link here
5. Using a Phone
When you’re travelling, having network data is key, right? As I mentioned, WiFi isn’t always available so connecting to a Chinese network is crucial.
You can do this with international roaming, which is obviously the easiest way, but it can also be the most expensive.
Alternatively, you can purchase a Chinese SIM card but this does mean your phone needs to be unlocked or you can buy a cheap Chinese phone when you arrive. Travel China Cheaper goes into extensive detail here.
There’s also another option which involves renting a phone and wifi for China online. This will give you a Chinese phone number, which is often needed when connecting to WiFi in public places, help you avoid any security concerns, and basically save you a whole lot of time! Here are the details to do this.
6. Powering up
In mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau, the power supplied to sockets is 220 volts at 50Hz AC.
This is similar to what you’ll find in most of Europe and Australia but different to the 110V 60Hz found in the United States and Canada.
There are a variety of plugs found in China, but the 220V 50Hz electrical current stays the same.
If you find that you have a device rated for 220V or 240V that won’t fit any of these plugs make sure you purchase a simple travel plug converter before you leave.
Now you’ve got all that, time to get packing!
Struggling with what to pack?
Check out my post on the Top Ten Things to Pack When Travelling to China
And just before you go, couple of key things to remember:
- The tap water in China is NOT drinkable (that includes brushing your teeth).Air pollution can be a serious hazard, particularly in the winter months. Make sure you bring a mask to wear if levels are extremely high. I recommend Vog Masks.And of course, avoiding travel insurance is simply not an option.