5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Going to China

Surveillance, social credit system, the world's highest bungee jump – China is a complex place to travel to. Before you go, here are five important tips.


Sitting on the Great Wall of China on a misty day Photo © Getty Images/Wang Tou Kun

1. It's Hard to Travel in China if You Don't Know the Language

Many Chinese people speak English, but if you're traveling outside major cities you will need to learn a few handy phrases. Plus, learning a few basic words will help you read menus and signs, which are often not in English, and communicate with local people.

Ask your hotel staff to write down the name of your accommodation in Chinese characters. Keep this note with you so you can hand it over to a taxi driver and avoid miscommunication.

Before you begin trying to learn Chinese, here are three things to know:

Tones can change meaning dramatically: using the wrong tone in speech can turn a nice statement into a seriously awkward conversation.

Learn how to speak pīn yīn (拼音​): pinyin is phonetic writing, it uses English letters to create new sounds, and makes learning Chinese a lot easier.

There are many Chinese sounds that are difficult for English speakers to pronounce: pronunciation is made up of three factors: mouth shape, tongue placement and air flow. Nailing pronunciation is hard, but important to convey proper meaning in your speech.

2. China Has the World's Highest Bungee Jump

China, one of the top 20 most innovative economies in the world, is home of the highest bungee jump* at 850ft (260m). The bungee is on Zhangjiajie Bridge in Hunan Province, which is also the world's tallest glass bridge.

Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon is close to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in Wulingyuang Scenic Area, well known for its 3,000 quartzite sandstone pillars, many of which are more than 660ft (200m) high.

*When traveling, note limits, conditions and exclusions apply for travel insurance policies. Coverage may not be available to everyone. Check your policy carefully for full details.

3. You're Being Watched

Surveillance and social credits; these are the dystopian realities for millions of people living in China.

Surveillance as a method of control started under Chairman Mao (Mao formed the Communist Party in 1921) as a way to strengthen the government's power. What was once a word-of-mouth system is now a system of millions of cameras, internet surveillance, and a social crediting system where people have points added or deducted depending on their actions.

It's not known yet if travelers will be named and shamed for jaywalking in Chinese cities, as Chinese people are. However, a joint investigation by Motherboard, Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Guardian, The New York Times, and Germany’s NDR has found travelers who enter China via the Irkeshtam border from Kyrgyzstan have had their phones taken by guards, who secretly install an app that extracts emails, texts and contacts, as well as information about the handset itself.

Walking in Shanghai, with the city skyline in the background. Photo credit: Getty Images/Marius Hepp

4. Check Your Notes

It's hard to tell the difference between real and fake money if you're unfamiliar with the Yuan. Before you go, learn how to identify counterfeit money to avoid being short-changed.

Be careful when you hand over money to shop owners or taxi drivers. Some dodgy operators will swap the real note for a fake one and then tell you your money is fake, or they will give you change in fake notes.

Penalties for those who swap fake money are harsh, so this scam is becoming rare – but don't be afraid to inspect the notes when they are handed back to you.

5. There Are Ghost Cities

An urbanization plan that began in the early 1980s, intended to relocate millions of Chinese people from rural villages to cities, hoped to enhance economic growth. But there was one key issue: it's not easy to force thousands of people out of their homes and into a new city. This has led to a number of ghost cities, where sprawling metropolises have been built in the middle of nowhere where nobody lives.

Perhaps, over time, these ghost cities will grow in population, but, for now, travelers can visit Chenggong District, Oros City, Nanhui New City, and Yujiapu Financial District.

What do you wish you knew before going to China?

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  • sam said

    Lot of great comments here! I definitely have some opions.

    1. Take your hotels business card as well as a picture of it on your cell phone.
    2. Have a copy of your passport scanned, saved, and printed out somwhere
    3. Asking for the toilet is good. Often people refer to it as "Xi Shou Jian" (washroom). This may be easier to say than "Ce suo." Again taking a picture of the "toilet sign" is also a good way to show people what you're looking for.
    5. You don't need to slurp when eating soup.
    6. Cell phone is critical! Smartphone is even better. Check out the only ones in China at en.trip-per.com. They'll do live translation for you, as well.
    7. Stick with Chinese money
    8. Don't take a black cab unless you know the price. By taking a regular, authorized taxi you'll be able to get the standard, cheap fare.
    9. Don't drink the rice wine, unless you want to get really drunk.


  • Arthur said

    Great comments, but one thing, the soup one is incorrect. In japan, making slurping sounds is respectful. In china, people will actually interpret slurping as a sign that you think you're better than everyone else, and will take it as disrespect
    Take it form me, i was born here, even though im american, and lived here all my life.


  • Eduardo Prata said

    Gostaria de informações de como entrar na China de carro, pretendemos passar por lá em 2015. entrando pela Mongolia e saindo pelo Vietnã.


  • Eduardo Prata said

    Would you like information on how to enter China by car, we intend to go there in 2015. entering and leaving the Mongolia by Vietnam.


  • Ella said

    When you are in China, it is respectful to try every food at the restaurant or home. Take a little bite of everything, otherwise the host may find it offensive or that you don't feel welcome there


  • CantBeleeveUGuys said

    What in the world?
    Change your default browser search engine to baidu or bing(not sure if the latter is banned too)
    and sign up for a VPN software as well or the Internet will be pretty useless for many of you who rely on it


  • Rocky said

    China is strictly a BYOTP country so invest in those individual tissue packs you can get at 7-11 and carry two with you at ALL times - ALWAYS. The other thing you should have with you at all times besides your passport is the business card of the hotel where you are staying to show the cab driver. If I get directions I have that person send them to me in Chinese to my Wechat account - I love Wechat! - again to show to the cabby. BTW Family Mart has Oral B dental floss in 50 meter spools.


  • sumera jamil said

    please tell me about muslim/halal food in beijing. is it available at hostels?
    how are hostel for foreigners in beijimg?


  • Locomote said

    Great tips, thanks for sharing. China can be a very different (but thrilling) place. Doing business there is especially interesting to navigate! Have a read of our article and let us know what you think, 'Preparing Your Team for a Chinese Business Trip'. You can find it on our blog.


  • Tarryn Wright said

    My top tip is to remember that the atm gives you your cash first and then you have to tell it to return your card (only a few banks in China do it the other way around). If you are used to getting your card and then your cash then it is all too easy to leave your card in the machine and the next person in line can help themselves to your account or it gets swallowed up.
    There is counterfeit money so if paying the taxi driver make a show of remembering the last 4 digits in the serial number so that if they tell you it's a fake you can be sure to get your original "fake" note back and not have it swapped out for an actual fake. Also worth checking your notes after they come out of the ATM as they have been known to spit some out.
    100 Yuan is the largest note (about $15USD) so be prepared to lug around quite a few of them
    .Also as someone else said it's a bring your own toilet paper country and often you will need to use the squat toilets although the main cities frequently have a seated option. Barter hard in the markets (tourist and jewellery etc) they start very high so please feel free to start very low, just allow them to save face by coming up in small amounts. Download WeChat as you can translate on it, just remember that it's not as private as you might expect such a service to be.


  • PJ said

    Although I don't speak a word of Mandarin, I never had a problem finding public toilets, in Beijing. I just followed the flies.


  • N said

    I definitely agree with all of those things, but I think there's a few that I would add as well.

    #1) Get a VPN before arriving. If you want to use Google (including Gmail), Fbook, Youtube or most other forms of social media while in China, you definitely need to get a VPN before.

    #2) People tend not to really wait in lines so know that you will never get anywhere if you don't push a little.

    #3) This is probably one of the most important ones.... don't forget about the visa! Basically everyone needs a visa to China and it takes some time/planning so make sure to prepare for it. Some of the big cities (such as Beijing and Shangai) have 72-hour visa-free allowances.... so if you don't have time to get the proper visa, this could be something to consider.

    There's a whole bunch of other things (China really is a country full of surprises!) but my husband and I actually wrote an article about 25 things to know before you visit on our website so I'll just leave the link here instead of repeating all the info: http://outofyourcomfortzone.net/25-things-to-know-before-visiting-china/

    Also, sumera jamil - I can't tell you much about muslim/halal food in Beijing (although I know you can find plenty of it if you go the Xinjiang Province in western China), but I can tell you that the quality of hostels varies considerably in Beijing. You can definitely find some cheap nice hostels, though. I recommend you check out booking.com or hostelworld... just make sure you read the reviews before you book so you know what you are getting in to!

    Oi Eduardo Prata, tudo bem? Para ser honesto, eu não gostaria de dirigir na China; os outros motoristas são um pouco loucos e muitas placas de rua são apenas em Chinês. Mas se você ainda quer dirigir, o que eu ouvi é que você tem que arranjar um guia Chinês e não podem ir sozinhos. Não sei exactamente como vc pode fazer isso. Uma coisa mas - se você quer mas informação/dicas de viajar em China, você pode clicar em nosso site link acima. Temos alguns artigos sobre China. Escrevemos tudo em Inglês e Português porque meu marido é do Brasil (e ele escreve melhor Português do que eu :-) ... vc só precisa clicar na bandeira Brasileira para Português. Boa sorte com sua viagem!


  • Lucy said

    Having spent 7 years in China - 2004 - 11 my
    Top tips would be;
    Take a pocket size English/ Chinese

    Always carry small packs of tissues
    Be careful with fake money usually it is 50 yuan notes.
    Always openly count out your money when you pay and receive money.
    Learn to bargain it is expected - and fun,
    No need to slurp soup.
    Try all dishes and smile but always leave some or host will think you need more.
    Pedestrians have right of way but cars and motorcycles can come from all directions including from behind and on the footpath.
    Learn basic language and signage it is essential. Writing addresses is good but make sure driver can read have had to lend them my glasses. Getting a bus is good to learn routes. Can always get off and change if going in wrong direction.
    Keep handbags on front of your body even when eating.
    Dress for the weather - never get cold.
    Always use bottled or boiled water - including when doing teeth.
    Wash all fruit and veges thoroughly, no raw veges, peel fruit.
    Each city is different so be vigilant re local practice.


  • traveler said

    Don't get Shanghai(d) in Shanghai like I did! I was there a few days before the Chinese New Year. I was approached by a nice young couple who said they would like for me to experience a tea ceremony in honor of the new year. (Actually, the conversation went longer than that and II got business cards from both of them.)

    We did go to a very nice tea ceremony and I found it very interesting. However, I was presented with the bill and it came to the equivalent of abut $200!

    In retrospect, I guess it could have been worse - they could have kidnapped me!


  • Kai said

    Thank you for all the great tips. I landed a job teaching english in Beijing, i really only worry about the pollution and strange eating habits. I would not want to eat something by accident for example. I expect to wear a mask when about on my daily business and take all of your advice to heart. Probably not the advice about the soup ????Thank you


  • Kyle Schutter said

    I just wrote a post on this from the logistics point of view rather than cultural.Expat in Shenzhen (https://medium.com/@kyleschutter/expat-in-shenzhen-47659759ea15)
    Here are a few key items:
    BEFORE traveling: read this at least two weeks before you travel
    * VPN: ExpressVPN is the best I have found that work on Android, iPhone AND laptop. Otherwise nearly every website you care about is blocked in China(e.g. gmail, facebook, netflix, slack, dropbox, etc.)
    * Phone service: I use Google Project fi for my Nexus 6p which was one of the best decisions on made on the trip. Basically Google has their own SIM card which enables you to make calls from 130+ countries as soon as you land and enables you to use the local mobile data as soon as you connect to WiFi (presumably so that you can get the local network settings). fi costs $40 per month including 2GB of data. fi only charges you for the data you use (and refunds the rest). It also seems to have a built in VPN as I don’t need to use a VPN to access banned content in China.
    * Phones: I have an iPhone with a China Unicom SIM and WeChat and Nexus with a Google Project fi SIM, which has me covered… mostly.


  • Johny Bolt said

    Can you give me an idea if Astrill works fine within the Great Wall right now? Any feedback on the internet service?


  • hilary said

    Hi, sorry to ask this question. I am a smoker. I am stopping over in Shanghai next week on my journey from Australia to Wales UK. I am trying to find out what brand of cigarettes and rolling tabacco are available in China. Would prefer Marlborough lights in cigarettes and drum or longbeach in tabacco. Thankyou. Have found your other tips very helpful


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